Is Digital The Answer To AM Radio Interference?

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We have dueling answers on that question as you’ll read in this story. Just like we’ve been getting on the FCC’s plan to allow smaller AMs, on the same frequency as Clear Channel AMs, to operate at night. You could argue that if you lived in Florida and you still love to listen to WGY in Albany, just pull up iHeartRadio on your phone. Does anybody really care anymore about driving across the country at night listening to the same “staticy-sounding” AM station as you cross several states?

As the days go by and we get more and more reaction and feedback to our stories about the AM band, everyone seems to agree on only one thing: It’s the interference that’s killing the band. Interference from other stations, power lines, toasters, coffee pots, garage door openers, lamps, and other assorted electronic devices. And there are probably way too many stations. Texas operator Christopher Boone tells Radio Ink digital is not the answer to AM’s problem. “I agree crappy radio reception is the problem with AM stations. The FCC needs to adopt ANAX standards and mandate them in any radio that can receive FM stereo. This would also revitalize AM by bringing back C-QUAM AM stereo.”

Boone says AMAX standards would include noise blanking, which would eliminate a lot of the noise issues that car radios have and improve fidelity. “Also the band with restrictions on AM stations currently in use needs to be looked at. The FCC is the two-face debacle by allowing IBOC/digital to cause more adjacent channel interference than analog radio with 15 kilohertz wideband ever did! Yet they limit AM to 10kHz audio. That’s a double standard and needs to go. Also, the FCC and Congress holding the budget strings, need to enforce the Part 15 levels and crack down on noise generators like bad utility lines, etc. That would help revitalize AM. Digital is not what the AM band needs. That would obsolete millions of radios immediately. Unlike DTV, there is no room for analog and full digital operation.”

On the flip side of the digital argument, an opinion from former CBS Philadelphia Operations Manager Andy Bloom, who tells Radio Ink his research showed him that 80% of the 25-54 demo never listens to AM radio and radio needs to become platform agnostic. “For legendary AM brands, migrating to dedicated apps seems like the logical way to preserve the brand, even if the band is in a bad place. This migration should have started several years ago. Now the FCC has made it more crucial. More interference is only going to exasperate the problem in major markets, although perhaps for some of the small-town stations it will prove helpful.”

Jerry Scott is the chief engineer for Cumulus in Peoria, a cluster that includes four FM’s and one AM. Scott says he’ll do anything he can to help the AM radio band. “I recently purchased a small incandescent lamp which I placed next to a clock radio. I noticed an annoying continual “thump” when listening to all but the strongest AM stations. It didn’t matter whether the lamp was on or off. Turns out, it was the wall-wart power supply. The owner’s manual even addressed the issue. The solution was to move the lamp to some other part of the room. There needs to be more attention to increased, unregulated noise on the AM band. Adding even MORE interference to the band is the worst thing that can happen. Many rural areas have no local AM service at night. With increased interference, the AM band will be totally trashed so there will be no incentive to listen to AM radio, especially at night.”

And from a small market that has to shut off at night due to a Class A station about 800 miles away. “If my station stays on at night, in no way will that affect that station 800 miles away. Isn’t the point of radio to serve the LOCAL community. My station can cover the same 50 miles during the day as at night without interfering with that other station. Maybe 80 years ago the local community was hundreds of miles away. But not now. Let the local station serve its area.”

This debate over the future of the AM band will rage on. Send your opinions and comments to [email protected] or leave your thoughts below in our comment section.

Our recent AM Revitilzation coverage:
Bonneville’s Gardner Speaks Out About FCC Plan
A Major Flaw in AM Revitilization

11 COMMENTS

  1. Wow. Yes, noise is a big problem on the AM band. Moving to an FM translator or “the web” won’t ‘save’ AM, and don’t be misled that the platform doesn’t matter. The ‘installed base’ of billions of AM radios around the world and tens of (hundreds of?) thousands of AM stations are too important to relegate to the junk pile because manufacturers don’t want to spend an extra 1.2 cents per device to make it RF quiet.
    The PROBLEM however is larger than noise. The REAL problem is corporate radio. If there were something worth listening to (on AM or FM for that matter!) people would be upset about all the noise. As it is, they’ve given up because the programming is uniformly horrible. Drop kick the corporate owners who can’t provide a local service if they tried (which of course they don’t!) and re-allocate those licenses to real local people who will instead. Do THAT in conjunction with noise reduction, and you’ve got a real way to “save AM”. Of course, money talks, and those big corporate owners like I Heart Media etc, aren’t going to support such things so I’m not holding my breath, but really; is this so hard to understand? WHY don’t those ‘in the business’ get it? Sheesh.

    • I agree. Radio is cookie-cutter, bottom-line, corporate BS. When art and money get together, art is screwed. All these big-shot industry dudes talk in code that just boils down to “money first, everything else second.” And don’t give me the, “Well it’s a business” because radio was doing just fine before corporations gobbled it up along with the recording industry. If Wolfman Jack was still around these idiots would have him getting the coffee and asking him to do something about his voice. Radio sucks now and throw in the sea of ads and I wouldn’t go back to it if you threatened to lock me in a room with Trump and Clinton. I find the music I like and to hell with everything else.

  2. Forgive me because I may need a history and a technology lesson so I’m willing to listen.

    I recall back in the early 90s, the radio industry had two choices HD-Radio or Satellite. The industry and therefore the FCC, choose HD-Radio for various reasons that I will not visit since I do not recall.

    Now, I was in the camp of Satellite radio stations since it would have leveled the playing field and improved signal quality though coverage would have restricted footprint, as opposed than the legacy AMs broad signal range. It would have required lots of technology investment and infrastructure. It would have been a boon to listeners, operators and the economy if the industry had been open to it,instead of being myopic and protecting their turf, which is happening again.

    Now, I’m not a operator or owner but considering in being one so I’m watching this discussion from an industry perspective. It is not an easy issue to resolve but some of it is of its making by the radio industry itself by not forward thinking. I personally think the industry or the FCC can not solve the AM issue given the technical challenges by following its current path. It requires a broader and more forward thinking approach.

    So if we are sticking to broadcast model, as opposed to the streaming model, it may be be the time for the FCC to finally say enough is enough of this mess. “You have five years to move all AMs to a satellite platform.” Then eventually move all the FMs to Satellite in 12 years time. Have Congress provide financial, tax and infrastructure incentives.

    The radio industry needs a reboot pure and simple in incentives, technology and thinking. Not yet another band (excuse the pun) aid protecting turf.

  3. Obviously “crappy radio reception” on AM is a problem but there’s something even more critical that Pandora, Apple, Amazon and Google will use to diminish broadcast radio’s audience and absorb it’s ad dollars. Song-skips, the infinite dial and personalization – resoundingly embraced by listeners – are technically impossible on AM or FM. Broadcasters ignore that hard truth at their own peril. They can listen to Google’s Eric Schmidt or be left behind “If you don’t have a mobile strategy, you don’t have a future”

  4. If digital AM is going to be like digital FM, forget about it. Sure, there may be static on the AM band, but you can usually hear the station even if there’s static. With digital, there will be no static, and you won’t be able to hear the station either. Rather than static, the station will just cut out. So, which is worse? A staticy signal, or one that cuts in and out? I’d prefer the static…

  5. To my mind this is more blather put out in an attempt to involve radio people in reading another breathless magazine or daily e-blast. I think AM faces all of these issues at the same time, and that any station or “content delivery system” (to use the industry cliche) faces the same issue, given the plethora of “content” and sources available today.

    Listeners need a real reason to listen to an AM in order that a station rise above the cacaphony of available audio. Almost no one puts AM on for background noise, as they do FM, Sirius XM, Pandora, CDs, MP3s, streaming audio, etc. AM radio, with all its challenges of awful fidelity, noise, interference, and unreliability beyond the strong signal area, needs “content” with an extra powerful hook that cannot be easily duplicated via an easy to use medium that is cleaner.

    The hook can be format of local news that actually matters to people (as opposed to the boring minutiae about the machinations of the various departments of a local government), or a unique music, ethnic or religious format that’s superior and/or easier to obtain by punching up the AM station than elsewhere.

    A translator is not a “savior” or “solution for AM.” A translator merely provides a better way for a listeners to obtain the same content being broadcast on an AM station via a cleaner medium that’s more familiar and easy to use.

    I can’t see the FCC ever successfully requiring – and obtaining compliance from – every electric utility responsible for every arcing insulator, every Chinese maker of wall warts and light dimmers, and every computer or other device that uses a microprocessor, to eliminate all interference to an adjacent AM radio. Or, for that matter, requiring receiver manufacturers to deliver AM radio frequency response beyond 300 -3,000 Hz +/- 10 dB, distortion below 20%, or a S/N ratio better that 6 dB from a 5 mV/m AM signal (that is, if the radio is oriented to maximize reception.) Or to find a way to put an AM radio, let alone an AM antenna, in a smartphone.

    AM stereo won’t help either. Who wants dual noisy sources of awful fidelity and distortion at once? AM digital might help, but the industry will resist the profiteering of any greedy patent-holder that the FCC stupidly allows to set a new precedent by cutting themselves in on what should be an open-source system free to all, like multiplex stereo or R-G-B color TV.

    So what’s left? DRM? Does anyone – listeners, broadcaster, or receiver manufacturers – care enough in today’s world to push a massive transition of AM receivers to DRM? (Or C-QUAM, or IBOC?) For the most part, there’s too much “content” out there as it is. Whatever we do, it’s got to be easy for everyone or it won’t fly. Slow migration to channels 5 and 6, I suppose. Then redeploy the AM band for long-range LORAN.

  6. Hey Ed…?

    When Katrina hit New Orleans, know what cell phones, FM stations and TV all had in common?
    They were all down. DOWN. Not working.
    Know what was working? WWL-AM. The New Orleans Police even used WWL to communicate emergency information. So, stick your “scratchy AM signals” comments where the sun don’t shine.

  7. “And from a small market that has to shut off at night due to a Class A station about 800 miles away. “If my station stays on at night, in no way will that affect that station 800 miles away. Isn’t the point of radio to serve the LOCAL community. My station can cover the same 50 miles during the day as at night without interfering with that other station. Maybe 80 years ago the local community was hundreds of miles away. But not now. Let the local station serve its area.”

    So true! My listeners have long complained about their local AM station going off the air in the evening in order to make room for a station 700 miles away in Minnesota.

  8. Glad you keep saving that 1950s picture of the enamored child with his magical portable radio when you discuss AM radio, Ed. It’s about the 10th time you’ve used it. We all know what Ed Ryan thinks of AM radio when he quotes a “former” Operations Manager from Philly about AM saying 80% of a group never listen to AM.

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