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Radio AM to FM: August 11, 2000

Can AM Radio Be Saved?

AM radio. Once the dominant broadcast medium in the world, AM radio's popularity has shrunk to its lowest level in history. Many people, in fact, barely know that the band exists; fewer still have ever heard stations broadcasting on AM that sound good.

I'm not talking programming here, although the lack of popularity for AM station on the part of the public certainly has much to do with lousy programming decisions by station owners and management. No, I'm talking about the technical aspects of AM broadcasting which do, in fact, allow relatively high-fidelity broadcasting. Close to FM in fact (and potentially better than FM prior to an agreement with a radio trade group and the FCC that limited the frequency response of AM stations to 10 KHz from its earlier authorized 20 KHz ... compared with FM's 15 KHz).

Simply put, it's not the broadcasters that sound bad, its the receivers that make the broadcasters sound bad. Most radios have a bandwidth that limits the upper end of the sound spectrum to 3 KHz ... far from the potential and just barely better than a telephone.

Broadcast Technician Scott Todd wants to change things, and has submitted a petition to the FCC to get the lawmakers to help AM before its too late. His petition, signed by 27 broadcasters, electronics professionals and interested listeners includes the following proposed AM improvements:

• Radios that provide FM stereo reception must provide AM stereo reception.

• Audio frequency response of the AM section of any radio must reasonably match the response of the broadcast standard set by the FCC.

• Labeling of radios must be clear, i.e. "AM/FM stereo" would not be acceptable if the radio did not feature AM stereo.

Todd says that the ideas in his petition are not unprecedented. In a Guest Commentary featured in a recent edition of Radio World, he points out that the FCC mandated similar improvements to facilitate UHF reception in television sets back in the 1960s, and that minimum technical standards for television and FM receivers have been in place for years.

Whether or not it is too little too late or too much too soon remains to be seen. Todd says in Radio World that digital AM is too far off and has not been proven; other observers feel that digital AM is just a few years away. I tend to side with Todd: digital radio as proposed in the United States (with digital signals sent along with analog on the same frequency) hasn't even been proven as a valid broadcast technology yet; waiting for receivers that feature digital AM reception may mean waiting decades.

Of course none of this matters if AM stations run nothing but lame talk shows or all-sports programming. High-fidelity or not, no one will be listening.

Cecil Returns

Chuck Cecil returns to the radio airwaves with his Swingin' Years program beginning at 1 pm September 2nd on KCSN (88.5 FM) in Northridge.

Cecil is also looking for stations to air his program that can be heard outside of the San Fernando Valley.

Copyright © 2000 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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