William M. Briggs

Statistician to the Stars!

Future Of AM Radio

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There is this prominent blinking wart sticking out of wall, right by the door. It is hideous. The wires that jut in and out of it are a menace.

And it sprays electromagnetic noise like a firehose shoots water.

Get an AM radio within 10 feet of Verizon’s Fios carbuncle and the noise that comes out of the speakers sounds like the “music” played in hip clothing stores.

It isn’t only the cable box, but the damn phone broadcasts electronic noise, too, as do the television even when it’s off, the computers, the microwave, and every other “device” which runs on electricity. Finding a spot where the AM radio can both pick up a signal and not be overwhelmed by noise is becoming next to impossible.

In other news, AM radio is dying. Why?

For one, all that EM racket which is overpowering radio signals. For another, have you tried to buy a radio recently? I mean a radio. Not a “device” which does a dozen things, but a radio. A machine that plays only AM/FM (or possibly shortwave) broadcasts, and doesn’t have slot into which you can plug your cell phone, or that doesn’t have a CD player (do they even make these anymore?), or etc.

Radio Shack is gone, but even they stopped selling many models years before they closed. Major stores sometimes sell clock radios, but these often only play FM. The toys on bedside tables in hotels often have no radio capability, or they have only iffy FM.

Cell phones, some of which play FM, can’t do AM, of course, because of the antenna demands of AM (they need to be big or long or both). And who wants to carry a phone and a radio? (Though I’ve seen plenty of folks with two phones.)

Cars are the last best place to listen to AM, because the engineers responsible for the radios know how to reduce noise.

Programming must account for the other major reason AM is dying. Much programming is geared to people listening in cars, which means listeners who aren’t paying full attention and don’t listen for long. That leads to programming which isn’t especially interesting or which is repetitive.

1010 WINS: “Gives us 22 minutes and we’ll give you the world!” At all-news stations, three times an hour the same stories are rebroadcast, all day long, along with helpful information about which roads to avoid. Helpful to drivers. For those sitting home, it’s not necessary. How many all-news stations are necessary in any one area? Not many, you’d think, but you’d be wrong judging by the number that actually exist.

Sports broadcasts are fresh and evergreen, but sports talk is numbing. It’s far, far worse than even NPR (whose banal tones leak out over FM). You haven’t learned the meaning of the term numbingly repetitive until you’ve listened to “analysts” and “callers” discuss sports.

Political talk is an interesting case. Shows are usually three hours. Three. Is there really three hours worth of new politics to discuss each day? I’ll answer that for you: no. No there is not. Yet three hours of Rush is followed by three hours of Hannity who is followed by three hours of Savage who is followed by three hours of Levin who is followed by et cetera, et cetera.

The lack of new content is partially why half (more?) of every hour is commercials. And those commercials are necessary to prop up the behemoths who bought up all the stations at premium and who are now all near bankruptcy.

It isn’t all politics. Nights and weekends have “Discuss your Financial Prostate Health” shows. And most of these, like the political shows, sound the same. Where is the “diversity”?

It can’t be that syndicating itself is at fault. Think about Sunday nights at seven, which is when most of the nation tuned in Jack Benny, the most popular show of all time.

Benny’s show, like the bulk of programs in radio’s heyday, was thirty minutes. There was also variety back then. Quiz shows, drama, whodunnits, music, comedy, and on and on.

Why can’t AM now have shorter, more varied, more entertaining shows? Shows that are broadcast and later available on-line? Even NPR has a quiz show! Why not AM?

This works. And it’s being done, for example in England. The Archers is a serial that has been airing for decades, and it’s still going strong. As are many other programs.

Radio should have independent producers selling to syndicates, like on television. None of this will happen the way the money is now structured, naturally.

Much more to say on this. Stay, as they say, tuned.

25 Comments

  1. Tried to find a radio with a remote control. Not possible, it seems. There are some “replicas” of AM/FM, without remote control, but they tend to be expensive. I generally listen over my internet, if the darn thing isn’t down. Nothing like trading something reliable for intermittent. (Where else do we see that? 🙂 )

    At one time, EM was going to kill us all. Now, the greenies want thousands of power lines tying together their unreliable power sources. Seems things are only bad for us if the greens can’t use them to make themselves millions.

    Levin is only 2 hours here. I’m not sure why—I wondered why he deviated from the magic 3 hours. Dave Ramsey has a 3 hour show on how not to become a bankrupt burden on society. The “self-improvement” psychology shows seem to have died out.

    It’s a sad commentary that watching black-and-white TV shows from the fifties (that you’ve seen three times now) is preferable to listening to talk radio.

  2. I think the radio in my car has an AM receiver – but I’ve never used it because FM sounds better.

    What killed AM is not it’s lack of bandwidth but an FCC decision (Carter era?) to deprecate the 50,000 watt Clear Channel licensees by no longer issuing these and fighting their transfer as stations changed ownership. A 50,000 watt station had a regional market; at 5,000 watts it has a very local market – so traffic reports take over from national news, commercials bring in less revenue (and therefore automated shows take over from expensive DJ’s), nationally syndicated talk shows take over from regional content, and ownership migrates to people who can string together dozens of licenses and then fill the air with the same paplum on each one.

  3. Not quite as nostalgic as your photo, but miniature, AM/FM and shortwave… about the size of a “device” and inexpensive. You can have it tomorrow if you really need it… I agree AM is a dying medium.

    http://www.amazon.com/Eton-Compact-Shortwave-Radio-NGWMINIB/dp/B00LEFYF4M

  4. Part of the reason that AM does not have the content you are looking for is that it’s much harder to control/confine the broadcast area with AM because the signals bounce around more off the ionosphere… when you’re selling/buying air time based on listenership, FM allows much more precise targeting… so both the content producer and the content distributor (the radio station) can transact a much more precise business relationship. It’s not uncommon for AM signals to end up 100 miles outside their target listening area on a cold clear evening. If we were doing the Briggs show by AM and I was trying to sell advertising to cover the cost of buying the syndicated content, it would be much more difficult to tell my advertisers who their ads would be playing to on AM… FM better… internet… the best (so far). So the death of AM is more about business than technology… IMO.

  5. I listen to my local AM radio through IHeartRadio on my mobile phone. Lots of people can listen while they work through streaming apps. In fact, I can listen to AM stations from other parts of the nation that used to be well outside antenna range. The sound is crystal clear and no large antenna required. Well, except the cellular tower.

  6. I definitely would not put Savage into the category with the others. He is different and varies his topics regularly.

  7. Briggs, you definitely were born 50 years too late. You would have been much much happier 50 years ago.

  8. AM radio is living on borrowed time. Finding a “new” way to interact with people the age of the average reader of this blog would be a short term proposition at best. The generations behind us don’t know AM, don’t want to know AM, and don’t need to know AM. They are children of the internet with their noses in their phones almost 24/7. My kids spend more time on the small screens of their phones than they do the big screen of television. Even their music is consumed from the cloud via their phones.

    AM is a pretty crappy technology (I am a daily listener). It’s unreliable and the sound quality sucks. There are too many superior alternative methods to deliver content. In fact many, AM radio shows are simulcast (with video) on cable or the internet. Talk about watching paint dry…radio on TV. As Kevin points out, the business case for AM radio is pretty weak.

  9. When I was in college at New Mexico State, at night I listened to the classical music on the”music till dawn” program broadcast by KRLD in Dallas. Couldn’t receive KRLD in the daytime but those AM signals would travel hundreds of miles at night. AM doesn’t broadcast any classical music anymore so I rarely listen.

  10. my friend (91) listens only to BBC radio three and has never had a TV. A fortnight ago
    The radio clock ‘broke’ the horror.
    It’s no good, I shall have to get a new one. So we look on John Lewis webpage and there’s a digital radio. A blue one or a black one, does all sorts of things.
    “As long as it plays radio three I don’t care”. She has an OU degree, takes courses at Cambridge during summer and uses a laptop and tablet; Can’[t work the radio clock.
    I recommended a bush radio because they are supposed to be a good make.
    Anyway the old one’s ‘started working again’.Problem solved.

    After that interlude I resolved to give radio three another go. I listen currently only to classic FM but they’ve become a bit same’y.

    When they were new and they had ‘Sunday nights ‘from Smollenski’s Balloon in London” and it was unfashionable to like classical music it was rebellious. Now they fill the Albert Hall.

    Radio two used to be good with Sir Terry Wogan and his TOGs and their antics in the morning.
    (he had the world record for the longest amateur golf putt, incidentally.)

    Here’s classic Fm’s hall of fame.
    Classical music lives..

    http://halloffame.classicfm.com/2016/chart/p/list-all

    I couldn’t find Boccherini’s piece in the list but they do play it.

  11. Now they fill the Albert Hall.

    Joy, presumably when the Albert Hall isn’t filled with the 4,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire. ;-p Sorry, couldn’t resist.

  12. That went over my head. I’m thinking football.
    Blackburn knows NOTHING about classical music! I’m going to have to ask a Lancastrian. I’m determined not to google it.

  13. Ewood Park, apparently for football.
    It must be a church hall from your youth with a leaky roof.
    THIS is the one! remember.

    http://www.royalalberthall.com

  14. The local AM station here has flipped formats a number of time. Currently its format is Conservative/Libertarian Talk (their description). Kinda of a live blog. They don’t seem to have a very big listener base. If you’ve missed the beginning of any given show, it’s hard to figure out what is being discussed. Maybe there’s a lesson here for those wanting live broadcasting. The only time I’ve listened to them is when using the transmitter as an ADF beacon due to its proximity to the local airport.

    I have an ancient Sony AM/FM receiver that’s located right next to all of my recorders and the cable box. Never noticed any interference. That’s supposed to be the idea behind the FCC Class B rating. Maybe your radio is extremely sensitive or maybe so insensitive it can only here what’s available in the room.

    I don’t even listen to FM anymore. It’s going the way of AM. The best unformatted station, formerly running as WHFS with a clear strong signal, moved to the Eastern shore with lower power (different call sign, too) and the frequency is between two very strong stations. Hard to get most of the time. Too bad. The family that runs it was often the first to introduce former unknowns (such as Bonnie Raitt) to the area.

    I’ve been confining my listening to satellite radio and less than 10 channels at that.

  15. Joy, it’s the Beatles’ Day in the Life:

    I read the news today, oh boy,
    4,000 holes in Blackburn Lancashire
    and though the holes were rather small,
    they had to count them all…
    Now they know how many holes it takes to fill the Albert Hall

    Apparently the council at the Royal Albert Hall wasn’t amused. It sent a letter to the Beatles requesting the reference be removed from the lyrics. John Lennon wrote back a cheeky reply refusing and the council banned the performance of the song from The Hall by any artist. Some time later the council admitted that they “got the wrong end of the stick” on the issue.

    http://www.royalalberthall.com/about-the-hall/news/2015/april/royal-albert-hall-was-furious-over-beatles-lyric-newly-discovered-documents-reveal/

  16. ” Couldn’t receive KRLD in the daytime but those AM signals would travel hundreds of miles at night.”

    Yeah, way back when they were still allowed to transmit at 50K watts. A 5K watt signal isn’t going to travel nearly as far, even under ideal weather conditions.

  17. AM radio is dead, bury it and let it rest in peace.

    FM radio’s days are numbered.

    Between satellite radio, Internet music and video streaming, music and video streaming on mobile devices, all of which can reach national audiences, broadcast radio’s days are numbered.

  18. Dav:

    NDB?? I bought my airplane in 2001 and even then had the NDB eceiver removed to make room for the GNS430. I obviously don’t practice NDB approaches anymore. My mechanic wanted to remove the DME receiver but I didn’t go for that, there are still a few VOR-DME approaches around. But, like ADF, VOR will soon disappear as will, I’m sure, the ILS approach. Instrument flying is nothing like it was in 1985 when I got my intrument rating, it’s easier and safer what with XM NEXRAD weather both on the GNS430 and the iPad along with any number of moving maps, etc. But it’s also much more high tech dependent which is worrisome.

    As to radio, I have an am-fm-shortwave receiver that I purchased from Radio Shack years ago. I use it only for the 45 minutes between when I wake up and when I leave for work, tuned to KNX, a Los Angeles based all news station.

    I don’t need traffic, the nav system in my car gets it from SiriusXM, on which I listen to “Radio Classics” on channel 148. This channel, hosted by Greg Bell, plays shows of all genres from the “golden age of radio,” say, from 1932 (the oldest he plays) to 1961. Favorites are Dragnet, Gunsmoke, Jack Benny, Fibber McGee and Molly, Tales of the Texas Rangers. If he’s not playing something I like currently, my phone has an app that buffers the last four hours or more and plays it through the bluetooth capability of the car. If even that doesn’t have anything I want, I’ll stream Pandora (mostly a choral music station I created). Last refuge: Audio Books. The car has am/fm but it’s never used. Streets aren’t lit by gas anymore either.

  19. Noise: The FCC has its Rules & Regulations over how much RF energy a device can generate. Pretty much all devices, especially anything with a computing device internal, produces lots of RF noise. The FCC can type accept a consumer device, but does very little in the way of enforcement. The FCC has been aggressively decreasing their enforcement budget.

    Noise is additive. If you have ten devices in your house generating noise on the AM radio band, it all adds up wipe out reception. Plus, the latest generation of light bulbs, especially LED’s, produce unacceptable levels of noise at certain radio frequencies, like the Public Safety Bands, and the commercial FM radio bands. Forget AM. It is being killed by our ecological predators mandating noisy devices like CFM’s and LED’s.

    The radio broadcast industry has tried to recoup AM listeners with technological advances like stereo AM radio. For some reason stereo AM never caught on, maybe because FM radio are ubiquitous, now, and most music sounds better on FM.

    I have a Bose radio that has a great AM/FM receiver. I also just bought my uncle a Grundig shortwave radio with regular AM and FM bands. He uses it to listen to regular AM and shortwave. The price was $99 on Amazon. There are lots of radios cheaper, but they are also much smaller in size.

    Good luck with your radios.

  20. Steve,

    Ah I remember the first line now. (I’m no aficionado but Briggs think’s I’m a fan.) as it happens, when I was eight, I sang three of the better ones in the Albert Hall but that wasn’t one of them…obladi obladah.

    Anyway, Matts, radio isn’t dying, they often have full works concerts live on radio which people attend at all sorts of venues. That’s jus the classical. The mainstream radio programs are ropey and they’ll give up but while it’s worth tuning in people will and you can’t keep the enthusiast down.

    Cricket is best listened to on radio for commentary, It’s relaxing listening. It’s not the same without Brian Johnston though.

  21. Over here in Germany, where AM is even more a bastard step-child of the public radio system (don’t get me started…), I used to listen to AFN on the AM band, as it gave me a nice taste of America over here. Limbaugh offset with Savage, followed by NPR, an eclectic mixture, and I could catch the occasional baseball game.

    Nowadays, however, the AM bands are increasingly under pressure for other usages, and as the American presence in Germany was wound down, the AFN AM antennas outside of Frankfurt were demolished and AM broadcasting ceased for my area. There’s still AFN PowerNet available elsewhere, no longer from Wiesbaden…

    On the other hand, internet radio replaces everything else. Cheap to start up, cheap to run, and the availability nowadays is ubiquitous…

  22. acricketchirps

    April 16, 2016 at 9:33 pm

    I’m also best seen on radio.

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