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Airwaves: May 17, 2013

On Improving AM...

There is talk again of improving the AM band, with the FCC asking for comments on various proposals that range from across-the-board power increases to essentially shutting the band down entirely. but do we really need to kill the patient in order to save it?

I am an AM radio fan. Not really of current stations -- I am not a huge talk radio fan -- but AM radio of the that showcased what good programming could be.

I grew up listening to stations like KHJ, Ten Q, KEZY, KIIS, The Mighty 690, John RookÕs top-40 version of KFI, and I used to spend some of my nights trying to pick up distant AM stations such as KBOI from Boise, Idaho or my personal distance record of WCCO/Minneapolis.

Due to this interest, IÕve always tried to cover proposals for improving the AM band in my column. AM stereo, pre-emphasis curves that supposedly made bad normal radios sound better, sending FM signals on the AM carrier and digital AM are but some of the examples.

The latest proposals stem from FCC Commissioner Ajit PaiÕs call last September for the FCC to conduct a thorough review of all rules related to AM broadcasting. He says the last time this was doe was 21 years ago; since that time the number of FM stations has increased, the number of AM stations has decreased, and the percentage of younger listeners (12-34 years old) on the AM band is less than 10 percent.

And the problems are indeed very real. Due to modern technologies in and out of a typical American household, AM reception is being decimated. That plasma television, that cable box, that LED traffic light ... all interfere with already interference-prone AM signals.

One of the more dramatic proposals for improving AM is to shut it off and relocate the stations to an expanded FM band, located somewhere in the area currently used by television channels 5 and 6. A related proposal calls for weaker stations to be relocated in that expanded FM band, leaving the (fewer) remaining AM stations to not only increase power but to increase fidelity by allowing more space between stations, reducing at least once source of interference -- other stations -- and allowing increased bandwidth for better sound.

All interesting proposals. But they miss the point. People didnÕt leave AM for FMÕs better sound. They left because there was nothing worth listening to on AM. If programmers would give listeners a reason to tune in, people might actually tune in. Only then will reception improvements mean anything to listeners. The fact that people pay for the overly-compressed sound of satellite radio proves that sound quality isnÕt as important as content.

I do think the proposals are worth studying, however. Yet I donÕt think AM itself is inherently bad. Indeed, IÕve heard clean AM signals and wideband AM stereo signals that sounded superb. If I had my way, IÕd use funds from other frequency auctions to buy out money-losing AM facilities, shut them down, reallocate the remaining stations, increase their power, and demand either wideband AM and analog AM stereo or a digital subcarrier such as HD Radio as long as it doesnÕt interfere with neighboring stations.

On the receiver side, IÕd demand wideband capability, stereo capability, and noise-blanking circuits that can cancel much man-made interference. Those circuits, in fact, were proven to work even in their early forms via radios from Blaupunkt, Carver, and Onkyo. Curcuit designs available today are even better.

AM is still the easiest broadcast technology to receive, as anyone who ever made a crystal radio can attest. It can sound good, and was robust-enough to provide the video for television until that mediumÕs switch to digital. I think it can still survive and thrive, given the right support. But there needs to be programming first. If that doesnÕt happen, all bets are off.


Copyright © 2012 Richard Wagoner and Los Angeles Newspaper Group.

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