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Radio AM to FM: October 8, 2004

Clear Channel's AM Destruction Plan

Clear Channel Communications has done much in the last two years or so to try to change their much-deserved reputation as being the evil empire of radio. In many cases, they have succeeded.

Not fully, of course. As the largest radio station group owner -- by far -- in the United States and the world, Clear Channel is often accused of broadcasting homogenized formats that do well not because they are good, but because they have no competition other than themselves.

That argument can certainly be made in Los Angeles, with flagship station KIIS-FM being afraid to compete as it did in the 1980s because it might take listeners away from co-owned KBIG, KOST and KYSR, resulting in a zero-sum total gain.

On the other hand, an opposing argument can easily be made as well: without the power and marketing of such a large owner, stations like KLAC might be history.

Ah, KLAC. A beacon of light in an otherwise dismal AM band. Playing music -- standards -- with audio that is, or was, clean and clear. On a good AM radio, KLAC sounds, or sounded, wonderful.

Enter Jeff Littlejohn. As Senior VP of Engineering for Clear Channel, Littlejohn has essentially destroyed the audio on all of Clear Channel's AM stations, reversing whatever goodwill the company has gained over the past two years.

Littlejohn has ordered that all Clear Channel AM stations are to reduce high frequencies to a maximum of 5 kHz for talk stations, 6 kHz for music-intensive stations. The FCC currently allows for a rolloff beginning at 10 kHz; just 13 years ago the limit was 20 kHz.

The result? On a halfway decent radio, including hundreds of thousands of factory-installed car radios, the GE Superadio portable, numerous high-end tuners and receivers and even some cheap portables, KLAC now sounds harsh, with a sharp ringing sound that makes the station all but unlistenable.

Sure, on some radios it makes no difference. The radios themselves cut off AM at 3 to 4 kHz. But the broadcast industry tried for years to get manufacturers to improve AM receiver design, and in many cases, they did. There are many radios currently available that sound good -- though unfortunately not great -- on AM. This move makes all radios sound like the worst ever made.

Littlejohn claims it has nothing to do with the spread of Ibiquity's HD Radio digital system, which requires such harsh analog cutoffs to make the digital system work. Instead he claims it will help to reduce interference on the band. He's being insincere at best: Littlejohn happens to be on the Board of Directors for Ibiquity, and Clear Channel happens to be a huge investor in Ibiquity. My theory: Unless someone can make analog AM sound bad, HD Radio (aka In-Band, On-Channel or IBOC), which itself sounds rather shrill in all samples I have heard, HD Radio would never have a chance.

As Robert Gonsett wrote in the GCC Communicator: "Clearly the move is controversial because it alienates listeners with full fidelity receivers (the NRSC-2 standard allows 10 kHz audio bandwidth). Furthermore, the move appears to be disingenuous because CC is actively implementing IBOC which will create substantial first adjacent channel interference on millions of existing analog receivers. If CC were seriously interested in reducing that interference, it would not implement IBOC."

There has not been such a boneheaded move in the radio industry for years, if ever. Littlejohn and Clear Channel deserve any bad press they get from this move. However, as we were going to press, I received a message from Roy Laughlin, who is in charge of all eight Los Angeles-area Clear Channel stations, as well as KLAC programmer Brad Chambers. Both said they will look into the audio issue. Further, I received a reply from Littlejohn himself which didn't make a commitment, but at least he asked what radios I was listening with. Perhaps the situation can be reversed, decent fidelity can return to the truly Fabulous 570 KLAC and Clear Channel stations throughout the country.

At least until HD Radio is installed..


Copyright © 2004 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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