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Airwaves: November 20, 2009

Remembering AM Stereo

Long before digital radio broadcasting known as HD Radio came on the scenes to “save” radio, there was stereo. Regular analog stereo. And it was good.

Problem is, it was only for FM. In spite of testing of an AM stereo broadcasting system that actually preceded that of stereo for FM, the AM system was shelved in the 1960s. The thinking was that AM just didn’t need it. AM was dominant. For FM to grow, it needed something special, and stereo was one of the things that would help FM succeed.

In some sense, that was the death-knell for AM. By the time AM stereo came back to the forefront of broadcasting in the early 1980s, it was too little too late. FM was already entrenched, the dominant broadcasting force with few exceptions. It didn’t help that the FCC made the situation worse by selecting, then not selecting a single standard at first, later allowing five incompatible systems to compete. By the time a single standard was finally selected in 1992, many people really didn’t care ... they were all on FM.

Of course I cared. I care a lot for AM radio. I still fully believe that a well-programmed AM station can compete against any FM station, especially when promoted correctly. The legendary San Francisco rocker KFRC (then at 610 AM) proved that by being the Bay Area’s favorite station long after top-40 AMs had left the air in most cities. KFI (640 AM) proves it today by being the dominant talker in town and across the US ... FM talker KLSX (now KAMP, 97.1) was never a serious contender.

I was one of the few to test and buy AM stereo receivers in the 1980s, so I know what it sounded like when the FCC finally allowed such broadcasts. I know how good it could sound ... and I know how bad it could sound as well, such as when stereo was allowed on an otherwise bad-sounding receiver. As the joke went, same static but now in stereo!

But it truly was the receiver that made AM sound good or bad. From a technical standpoint, AM stereo broadcasts can actually have a wider bandwidth -- a higher top end -- than FM stereo. And what was really fun about AM stereo is that you could receive clean stereo reception from hundreds of miles away if conditions were right.

I happened to be on YouTube the other night ( and did a search for “AM Stereo.” Among the results was a recording made of Fort Wayne, Indiana’s WOWO as received 460 miles away in eastern Pennsylvania on a neat little AM stereo receiver from Radio Shack, the TM-152.

Now the TM-152 was not a great receiver, merely OK. On this recording, though, it performs admirably. You can’t tell you’re hearing a station from that distance; it sounds clear and strong, as if it were local. And the stereo effect is wonderful. There are other similar recordings that showcase what once was and could have been the future of AM radio.

Alas, it didn’t work work out. Receivers were hard to find, and most AM stations dropped music before the stereo standard was set, negating much of the benefit. More recently, broadcasters ditched analog AM stereo for either incompatible digital HD broadcasts and/or narrowband (awful-sounding) analog. Some countries are pushing all stations to FM. To my knowledge, the only remaining AM stereo station in Southern California is KFOX (1650 AM), broadcasting from Torrance. There are no widely-available AM stereo receivers, though a few can be found through the internet. Used models on eBay sell for a small fortune to collectors.

But as the recordings on YouTube and elsewhere attest, AM stsreo can sound quite nice. Makes you wonder what could have been had the FCC done its job in 1982.


Copyright © 2009 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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