AM Swaps Noise and Static for Ones and Zeros.
(By Ben Downs) The FCC is expected to give AM Revitalization another tool for the competitive toolkit. In his Chairman’s Blog on Monday, Chairman Pai revealed the next step in his work toward making the AM band the equal to its digital competitors. The October 27th Open Meeting includes a vote on a Report and Order in response to a proposal Bryan Broadcasting filed around Thanksgiving last year where we asked to FCC to approve authority for a full digital broadcast mode using the HD radio system.
The struggle is real and is faced by AM operators every day. The devices we rely on for information and entertainment create a toxic environment for AM broadcasting. Every smart phone charger is a tiny AM noise generator. Because we try to broadcast in this noisy environment, we find our choices in formats becoming ever more narrow as listeners have come to expect audio without the noise. The niche formats that work on AM keep getting smaller.
Building on the work done over the past two years by Dave Kolesar on Hubbard’s digital WWFD and David Layer’s NAB real world testing program, the FCC feels comfortable that they have another solution to offer AM stations that struggle in the marketplace. And unlike many of the rules, these changes are voluntary.
The AM all-digital system allows any AM station to deliver what today’s audience expects. The sound is wide-band and stereo. Plus, the signal is listenable further in the fringes than the analog system it replaces. It comes complete with the ability to provide a dashboard experience with art, artist, title, as well as enhanced emergency messaging.
While most of us know manufacturers are slow to respond to AM radio problems, the solution is already in place and waiting for us to use. There are over sixty million HD radios that will pick up this new AM all-digital signal. Over half the new cars sold in 2020 include compatible AM HD radios in the dash. And that number grows daily.
Without a doubt the biggest and best thing to happen to small and medium market AM stations was the permitting of cross-band translators. It essentially allowed an AM operator to leave behind the limitations of the AM band for a much friendlier new home on FM.
Over 2800 AM operators took advantage of the FCC’s offer to broadcast 24/7 on FM.
For the lucky ones that could cover their communities with 250 watts, that was enough. A companion station on the FM band could make those AM stations relevant again. Now, operators could compete format-to-format with FM stations.
But not everyone was so lucky.
Major market FM spectrum is tight and there isn’t room for the translators. But the all-digital AM HD signal performs to a greater distance and remains clear and competitive in more awful RF conditions than we could ever expect from analog AM.
The price to pay for this new technology is the old analog signal. The all-digital is just that: digital. And that’s why this new standard is a voluntary conversion.
But in a situation like WWFD, the station had lost its AM audience as listeners migrated to the FM translator. So it made sense to move to a music format with a station that was paired with a translator and an AM with a larger coverage area.
The change worked. Dave Kolesar reports that for the first time in years, the format on WWFD has shown up in the ratings.
Something Dave said at one of his many presentations has stuck with me as I considered my own AM stations. He asked, “Would you rather take a chance competing with 30% receiver penetration, or the 10% of listeners who still favor AM?”. And as we all know, the 10% market share is slowly eroding but the number of receivers isn’t.
I see this as a competitive tool that we didn’t have, that in certain market conditions, can put us on a level playing field with other audio sources. People expect certain things when they listen to audio: artist, title, art, information, and crystal clear audio. This all-digital AM HD will be the tool that can deliver it to the dashboard… via AM.
Ben Downs can be contated by e-mail at [email protected]