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Radio AM to FM: September 11, 1998

AM stereo revival?

For years it seemed that I was about the only one who believed in a new system of AM broadcasting called "stereo." I wrote about, talked about it. Yet, due to a decision by the FCC to let the marketplace decide which of four competing standards would become the official stereo broadcast standard, AM stereo never had a chance.

Unlike FM and television, in which the FCC chose a standard of stereo broadcasting, AM was forced to let market forces work it out. So, while FM and television stereo broadcasts were readily accepted due to the quick availability of stereo broadcasts and stereo receivers, AM stereo languished. Station owners were afraid to buy the "wrong" equipment, and radio designers didn't want to design and market receivers until more stations were broadcasting in stereo. Even if the "wrong" standard was chosen, as many feel was the case with FM Multiplex, having a standard meant that the technology would spread. AM didn't -- until much later -- have that benefit.

That stalemate has meant -- so far, at least -- that AM stereo is doomed. Sure, most AM stations in Los Angeles either broadcast in stereo or at the minimum send out a stereo "beacon" that switches on the higher-fidelity mode of some recent AM tuners. But if you want to hear an AM station in (almost) high-fidelity stereo, you need a good AM stereo tuner. And other than a few factory-installed models in a few GM, Ford or Chrysler automobiles, finding a good AM tuner is about as easy as finding an AM music station.

In fact, lack of music on AM (and the subsequent rise in popularity of talk) is another reason stereo has faltered. Talk radio does indeed sound better in stereo on a good high-fidelity tuner. But the benefit is not as noticeable as with music, and as you'll notice, there really aren't that many AM music stations left.

That fact has not stopped Charles (Chuck) Simpson from trying his best to promote AM stereo through the internet. While even I had given up on the technology ever becoming mainstream, Simpson has set up a web site <> to promote AM stereo broadcasting and convince receiver manufacturers to produce AM stereo radios. Kevin Tekel has done the same thing with his own web site <>. Both sites offer a list of available receivers as well as listings of AM stations throughout the country that broadcast in stereo.

Will attempts such as these work? Probably not. I tend to believe that it is just too little too late. On the other hand, anything that helps stations such as KLAC (570 AM), KGIL (1260 AM), and KRLA (1110 AM) get heard in high-fidelity deserves some support. In other words, while I don't think AM stereo will catch on at this late time (it's been available since the early 1980s and digital broadcasts may be just around the corner), I still hope it does.


Reader Doug Brown caught a fairly major mistake in last week's column regarding Richard Beebe and the Credibility Gap's move from KRLA (1110 AM) to KPPC. I said that the Gap ended up on KPPC (AM) when in fact it went to KPPC-FM, which later became KROQ-FM (106.7).

Brown, who has worked at many stations in Los Angeles usually behind the scenes, is one of the most knowledgeable people in Southern California regarding radio in Southern California. With his vast experience, great memory and huge collection of station tapes and memorabilia, he should write a book. Consider this my encouragement ...


Copyright © 1998 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press