AM Radio May Finally Get a Rebirth as FCC Allows for it to Go All Digital 

A recent Federal Communications Commission (FCC) ruling is giving Amplitude Modulation (AM) radio the rebirth that thousands of stations in the U.S. have been long anticipating.

AM radios have been manufactured since the 1920’s, making it the first and oldest form of radio. This form of media basically works exactly the same now as it did one hundred years ago.

Call AM radio what you will, a retro dinosaur, but it is still extremely useful around the world. In developed countries, loyal fans continue to rely on AM radio for news, talk shows, sports games, and weather. In third world countries many people rely on it for vital communication and emergency information.

Despite AM radio still reeling in millions of listeners globally, it has been in decline as a mass media for many years. Many would even argue that it has been near death.

A June 2017 Nielsen report found that while AM radio stations reach nearly 58.8 million people during a given week, just one-in-five (21 percent) radio users listened to any programming on AM stations during that same ratings period. By comparison, Nielsen had reported at the time that 86 percent of radio listeners — 235.1 million listeners a week — tuned into an FM station.

Electric vehicles from Tesla and BMW will not even offer AM radio. Both the popular BMW i3 and Tesla Model X have abandoned terrestrial AM radio because electromagnetic noise from the electric motor interferes with the broadcast reception, causing static. There is just too much interference.

The truth is that the world has become a very noisy environment for AM radio to thrive. As the use of transmitters, receivers and communication devices increases, so do the disruptions in signal reception. Even your smart phone chargers acts as a tiny AM noise generator. 

With this said, it should come as no surprise that AM radio today has a lack of listeners due to having a poorer sound quality compared with FM. Only 10 to 20% of all radio listeners listen to it, and that depends upon the locale. It may be less than 10% in some places!

If stations cannot get listeners, they cannot get the advertising that keeps them alive. 

The FCC has had failed efforts and lost opportunities in the past to help save AM radio, but their latest move may finally be the ticket to resurrecting an integral part of broadcasting.

It was in an open meeting this past October that the FCC had voted unanimously to allow U.S. AM radio station owners to convert their stations to all-digital HD Radio transmissions. This means AM radio stations now have permission to end analog listening on the given frequency.

“These stations must provide at least one free over-the-air digital programming stream that is comparable to or better in audio quality than a standard analog broadcast,” the FCC wrote in a summary. “They also must continue to participate in the Emergency Alert System. The order envisions that AM broadcasters will decide whether to convert to all-digital operation based on the conditions in their respective markets.”

The FCC’s move is in response to Ben Downs, the VP/GM of Bryan Broadcasting out of Texas who had petitioned the organization in March of 2019 to allow AM stations to go digital.

“The option to convert to all-digital isn’t a magic wand for an AM station, but it is a tool we can use to compete,” Downs told Radio World recently. “Those of us with AM stations have been limited to spoken word and niche formats because AM is just not suitable for mass appeal music formats. This changes that fact, and gives us many more options.”

According to Downs, there are 70 million radios in the marketplace that will receive AM digital now.

“I’m certainly happy about this. For AM stations that couldn’t find spectrum for a cross-band translator, this is a great option. It will probably benefit large markets with a crowded radio dial that still have the need to compete using an AM signal,” he added. 

The National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) is happy with the FCC’s decision and has stated, “Radio broadcasters are grateful to Chairman Pai for championing AM radio during his tenure at the FCC and thank him for successfully implementing policies to help revitalize AM stations.”

While the FCC’s move is certainly praiseworthy, going digital may have some drawbacks.  

Speaking at the Radio Show in Dallas last year, David Layer, VP of Advanced Engineering at the National Association of Broadcasters, said the coverage area for all-digital AM is “a lot better” than hybrid analog-digital AM broadcasts. However, Layer believes there is also a tradeoff.

“The important thing to keep in mind is that only people with digital radios will receive the all-digital signal,” Layer explained. “A broadcaster wouldn’t make a decision to switch lightly. They’re going to disenfranchise their listeners that don’t have digital radios.” 

Nevertheless, the NAB has been one of the participants in a series of field tests of all-digital AM and, based on the results, it believes that an all-digital AM service will allow broadcasters to provide “substantially improved sound quality” that could help stations to “retain and attract listeners.”