Random Radio Thoughts

Cris Alexander, CPBE, AMD, DRB

Crawford Broadcasting Company


The Future of AM

There has been a lot of traffic lately on the future of the AM band. Some of this was triggered by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai’s AM improvement push, but there has been a good bit of impetus from within the industry as well.

One example of the internal debate has to do with the call for an “analog sunset” for AM stations, much like occurred with television a few years ago in the DTV transition. Testing at a couple of stations in the 100% digital mode produced generally positive results, which proponents (including several of my friends and respected colleagues) have used in support of their arguments for an analog sunset.

Personally, I disagree, and for a number of reasons. Primarily, I am concerned that digital receiver penetration remains fairly low and while the number is growing, the slope of the transition curve is shallow; it will be a long time before we hit 75% or even 50%.

Some would argue that were an analog sunset looming out there at some definite date, receiver manufacturers and automakers would be compelled to include digital decoders in even their standard equipment offerings, but I really don’t think so. With market forces driving virtually everything these days, the more likely course of action in my view is to simply drop AM from radios and entertainment systems altogether – after all, the “digital dashboard” offers so many other choices for listeners that it’s likely AM wouldn’t even be missed by a large segment of consumers.

Other debate topics include moving AM stations to low-band VHF TV channels. This would, in my opinion, have less chance of success than an analog sunset since there are zero receivers out there now and no templates from which to build.

While I am a firm believer in digital AM (have you listened to a digital AM station, one that is doing it right?), I don’t see digital as the savior of AM. Instead, it’s going to take high-demand content to save the legacy broadcast band. Ratings bear this out on a continual basis: people listen to what they want to hear regardless of which band it is on and regardless of whether it is digital or analog.

KOA here in Colorado remains one of the highest-rated stations in the market with little or no signs of erosion. People listen because KOA offers the programming they want. I could say the same about KFI and several other stations in Los Angeles, KYW in Philly, WOR in New York, WBAP in Dallas/Ft. Worth, KKOB in Albuquerque… the list goes on. And behind those front-runners are several others in each market that do well financially because their niche programming fills an audience need. Our own KLTT in Denver, KCBC in San Francisco and KBRT in Los Angeles are three such examples. We didn’t just spend several million dollars building out the new KBRT facility in Southern California because we had some cash lying around. We did it because it is a financially successful station with in-demand programming and a loyal audience.

So what is the future of AM? I think that’s up to us, the broadcasters, to a large degree. If we offer in-demand content in a qualitative way, the listeners will be there. The content is for station ownership and management to figure out. The quality – that’s our part of the equation.

The FCC can and should help (and I think it will with Commissioner Pai providing the push) by providing some rule changes. The “ratchet clause” has got to go. Ditto for the community of license coverage requirement (it needs to be a lower required percentage to permit site changes). And we need to take a good, hard look at the normally protected contour as well as skywave service area protection – the current rules with regard to those two parameters are completely out of step with the current environment.

I would encourage you to be on the lookout for a Notice of Inquiry or rulemakings in these areas. File comments and reply comments. You can have a voice in the proceedings and perhaps influence what happens.

AM radio can have a bright future. It is up to us to make it so.

If you have news to share with the Rocky Mountain radio engineering community, drop me an email at crisa@crawfordbroadcasting.com.