Is There Hope For A Digital AM Band?

Lance's Line RadioInsight Blog

1110 WBT Charlotte AM HD Radio Digital Test 1660 WBCNThis past weekend Greater Media’s 1110 WBT Charlotte, NC conducted a pair of overnight digital-only test broadcasts. The purpose of the test was to see how well the digital signal covered the market without having to contend with its analog counterpart while attempting to eliminate electrical interference.

Thanks to WBT’s directional 50kW nighttime signal that blankets much of the east coat, we were able to listen in on Sunday morning with nothing more than a loop antenna hooked up to our tabletop HD receiver. Being 600 miles away from the transmitter, we weren’t able to keep a lock on the digital signal, but when it did come in it was crystal clear as you can hear in the aircheck below.

Being a long distance listener was nice and all but means absolutely nothing in the big picture. As long as the station’s signal covers the Charlotte market is all that matters. Hopefully this and other tests will allow the industry to come a consensus over whether moving to all digital is a viable option for an industry wondering what to do to the revitalize the AM band.

In the time I spent listening to WBT’s digital test, I also was getting the HD indicator to recognize the digital signal of 1120 KMOX St. Louis, but was unable to lock onto it. Both frequencies received interference from a Cuban station on 1120. 1100 WTAM Cleveland’s signal was unaffected by the digital test on 1110.

Simply shutting off analog and going all-digital is great in theory, but how will implementation actually happen? HD Radio has been in operation for over a decade and just now are automakers starting to offer them in cars. Now you’ll need to see every station agree to upgrade their transmitter and every receiver replaced or have a converter added by an arbitrary date. Good luck on getting the FCC, radio industry, auto industry, chipmakers, and receiver makers all agree on something. Now try explaining to the average 65 year old listener of an AM talk station that he needs to replace his radio to keep being able to listen to Rush Limbaugh. We’ll still be here waiting in ten years or so while you do that…

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  1. Nathan Obral says

    Or, the industry could work at trying to improve the fidelity of the AM band, and pressure makers of radios to make AM receivers that aren’t a piece of junk. Or try to offer programming that people will tune in to.

    But that would take effort and creativity. Thus, let’s continue pursuing a failed technology instead.

  2. MattParker says

    Interesting idea. Too bad they didn’t do it 10 years ago and make it mandatory to switch (as they did with HDTV). And then you’ve got to get – or force – people to buy new receivers.
    Today the problem is what’s left on AM to get people to listen (digital or analog)? Broadcasters are already migrating viable content off AM. Sports talk being about the only viable format. Right-wing talk has passed it’s sell-by date (as has its audience).
    They should have worried about AM back in the 90s but everybody was too busy buying up stations and merging, and then too busy figuring out how to pay off loans and firing people.
    Nobody was worried about the loss of audience, or advertiser base.

    1. Nathan Obral says

      Talk radio’s problem as a whole has been due to complacency in programming the format. Outside of Rush and Stern, who really has innovated the format and broadened its appeal? (Liberal talk was never an innovation, just the same presentation under the opposite political viewpoint, so it was never going to succeed.)

      It never was because of any viewpoint. If a talk station has an all-syndicated lineup with little local connection to it, that doesn’t compel anyone to listen (WABC). Ditto if a station is programmed to be as stodgy and boring as possible (WOR under Buckley) or is showing a lack of direction and approach (WPHT).

      There are many good talk radio shows out there, both political and non-political, than prove that the talk radio format can still work. But few dare to be different in programming it.

      1. MattParker says

        And then there’s the exception proving the rule: NJ 101.5. So successful the rest of the industry won’t touch the format. Complacency? Stupidity? Management’s own political predisposition? A prime example of how the industry kills itself with self-inflicted wounds.

        PS: Those small market mom and pop stations are mostly history now, with new owners running preachers, foreign language or brokered programming – and zero local presence.

  3. johndavis says

    While it’s going to be difficult to get everyone to buy in, if the results show that locally HD can overcome the man-made electrical interference that plagues AM radio, it would be worth the effort.

    But that’s a lot of people you would need to get to buy in, none of whom have any reason to agree with each other.

  4. Nathan Obral says

    What about the small mom-and-pop AM stations in small markets – those who thrive by superserving their local communities with local news and sports – or those stations who are standalone independents in a market controlled by big chains like CC or Cumulus (neither of which invested in, or could afford, the iBiquity IBOC standard)? Are those stations going to be forced to sign off forever if there ever was a mandatory conversion date to “digital AM?”

    That alone makes such a digital AM band unfeasible. So many local broadcasters would be negatively affected at the expense of the big chain broadcasters, the outcry would be vociferous enough to kill off “digital AM.”

  5. kyl416 says

    What they really need to do is test it during an actual event where it would be needed. Pick a station no one goes to for emergency information and see how it performs during a severe storm, hurricane, blizzard or tonado warning with the receiver in a shelter. With analog you get static here and there with lightning and other atmospheric interference, but at least you get to hear everything. Will an all digital station be able to do the same or will the atmospheric interference create multiple dropouts causing you to miss vital safety information.

  6. calvin says

    There are about 4 points to be addressed here.

    1-Most stations do not have the extra money to pay for the new equipment.

    2-They must pay iBiquity royalty fees to us their modulation.

    3- FCC had not let those stations run the same full power digital as they have for analog.

    4- As said above the static that is pron at the AM radio frequency band would cause the radio to go in & out.

    An example is the Low band tv channels ch 2-6. Almost none of the US stations have run digital on those channels. There has been enough problems with the VHF high band tv channels 7-13. When lighting storm are near those channels the reception in & out. The sound goes goes grinnnt. I think digital AM would be the same. I really think narrow band frequency modulation like the police radios have used for years. I belive that would be best at the current AM radio band. Also their is not a royalty fee for using frequency modulation.

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