(By John Garziglia) The FCC has authorized voluntary all-digital AM radio operations for all AM broadcasters. This presents AM stations with an opportunity to greatly enhance their audio quality and thus join the magical world of “FM”, envisioned by the 1978 Steely Dan hit of the same name. The rule change authorizing AM all-digital operations will become effective 30 days after the FCC’s just adopted Report and Order is published in the Federal Register.

    The FCC is requiring a 30-day advance notification for AM all-digital operations. Each AM station operating in all-digital must, in the same way as FM HD operations, provide at least one free over-the-air digital programming stream that is comparable to or better in audio quality than a standard analog broadcast. Any additional available digital capacity can be used for either broadcast or non-broadcast services.

    In the Report and Order, the FCC cites Xperi estimated data of 70 million AM and FM HD receivers shipped to North America with 90% still in use, and an estimated 60.9 million HD receivers installed in automobiles. Virtually all of these HD receivers will satisfactorily receive an all-digital AM signal.

    AM broadcasters will need to make their own decisions as to whether it is a solid business proposition to convert to all-digital AM. An AM station fortunate to have an associated FM translator will be able to continue to largely serve its analog radio audience on the translator, while providing a far superior listening experience to its HD radio audience with the AM all-digital signal. With the FCC’s recent elimination of the program duplication rule, AM stations that arrange to simulcast with another AM station can continue serve both HD and analog audiences.

    There are significant reasons in favor of an AM station conversion to all-digital. Based upon AM all-digital station tests, the HD audio quality for listeners will be static-free out to the periphery of the station’s service area, as opposed to an analog listening experience with audible noise from power lines, spark plugs, in-car electronics, atmospheric electrical charges and adjacent channels. Even listeners in automobiles with poor filtering and choking for today’s complement of the vehicle’s computers, motors and circuits should enjoy a far superior AM listening experience. Some HD radios will display AM station call signs and graphics.

    There are, however, significant reasons why an all-digital operation may be detrimental to an AM station. If an AM station has no paired FM translator or AM station, an AM station going all-digital risks losing a significant percentage of its listening audience. its analog audience will experience only hash on the AM station’s frequency in place of the now heard analog music or talk interspersed with occasional static. HD audience loss will vary from market-to-market. There are different levels of HD radio penetration for different communities and different formats.

    A conversion to all-digital AM may be expensive, costing in the neighborhood of $250K or more for AM transmission systems that need substantial work to successfully pass the all-digital AM signal. There may not be a return on investment to be had, even if the AM station in all-digital does increase its listenership.

    Perhaps the best assessment of all-digital AM operation advantages might be had by actually testing an all-digital transmitter at a subject station. Given that only a simple FCC notification need be filed as a regulatory matter, possibly equipment manufacturers will design a portable moderate-power AM all-digital transmission system that may be loaned to do facility and audience testing. If such a test system were to show both a satisfactory technical operation along with a positive audience reaction, a station owner’s experience of hearing his or her previously static-laden, fading in-and-out, low fidelity, mushy AM analog audio in pure, clean, flawless all-digital, may make a believer out of many AM station owners … and listeners.

    “Give her some funked up music … she treats you nice … Feed her some hungry reggae … she’ll love you twice … The girls don’t seem to care tonight … As long as the mood is right … no static at all … no static at all … [AM!] – no static at all”.

    John Garziglia is a communications attorney at Womble Bond Dickinson and can be reached at (202) 857-4455 or [email protected]


    1. The previous AM issues mentioned attempted to answer a problem that didn’t exist. People want content they can’t get elsewhere. When Rush became famous it wasn’t ’cause he was in HD, or in stereo. He single-handedly staved off the demise of AM radio for decades, but every product can outlive its usefulness if not updated. I suggest that we have the technology to take existing AM content and improve it to become a pleasant experience for the listener while maintaining the current AM signals. 540-1700 should remain (imho) and ultimately be replaced by another RF medium with the capability of going digital. Keep what we have now and add to it, giving the consumer the option! That’s how I see it.

    2. This doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense unless an AM has a simulcast partner or an analog FM translator. Even if an AM has one or both of the above, will the owner spend the potential $250K or so in this economic environment given the low number of HD radios in the

    3. I’m a bit confused, perhaps disheartened. Sixty years in and around radio on the non-technical side, I need some clarification. Does all-digital mean the end to and obsolescence of the traditional AM table radio, car radio and portable radio? If so, then first the industry and manufacturers need to promote and provide the bejesus out of HD AM…like they didn’t do for AM stereo or HD FM, but did do for HDTV. Although the article touts the millions of new AMHD capable radios, it ignores the many more millions of standard AM radios that current AM listeners use today. The action also ignores the vintage radio collecting hobby world-wide which collects, restores and repair the same and relies on a traditional AM signal..this also affects the ancillary industry that supplies parts for repair and restoration of AM radios. Will everyone who now listens to a standard AM radio will need a new one? Will it be affordable and easily available? Will they buy one or just give up? The FCC is supposed to be the guardian of broadcasting, but unless an extraordinary effort is made by the radio industry to promote and provide AMHD, which, as I noted, they really failed to do with AM Stereo and HDFM, they will be the executioner of AM not the guardian.

      • “Does all-digital mean the end to and obsolescence of the traditional AM table radio”

        Yes, the millions of existing AM radios can’t receive digital AM. HD Radios can. So this means all of the existing AM radios would be obsolete. The problem is that consumers don’t buy stand alone radios any more. Over the years manufacturers have been removing AM from their radios. The Bose Wave table radio is FM only. This is why HD Radio was not successful. The radio industry is not in the electronics business. They are dependent on outside manufacturers to make and market radio devices. And most of those companies are in China. It’s a very different world from when FM became popular.


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