AM: Ancient Modulation?

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This is the first of an ongoing series devoted to discussion of the AM broadcast band – now considered by many to be on ‘life support’. The
reasons behind this conclusion are varied & complex. While I won’t dispute the truth in that belief, I refuse to accept it as an inevitable victim of progress & evolution of technology. Is AM totally obsolete? If so, is it soon time to abandon these frequencies & have broadcasters migrate elsewhere? If not, are there realistic ‘fixes’ to save the AM band & maintain it’s relevance & usefulness? All simple, direct questions with no easy answers. I certainly don’t profess to have any “magic cures” for AM radio, but am intrigued & passionate enough about AM broadcasting to explore the dilemmas & some possible solutions to save the band from certain death.

The simplistic answers often paraded out by consultants, some broadcasters & even FCC commissioners point to ‘changing listener habits over time’ & ‘evolution of technologies’ as the reasons given behind this slow abandonment of AM radio as the prime means of listening to be informed or entertained. No denial there by this reporter. However, there is much more to the problem of declining AM listening than just these two factors. Nonetheless, they are the starting point of AM’s slow decline which began 40-45 years back. The slow acceptance & adoption of higher fidelity FM meant more & more listeners were turning to the new band for serious music listening instead of AM. At first, classical, jazz & “beautiful music” stations on FM drew the original music loving listeners away from AM. Then, as rock & adult contemporary music became more & more prevalent on FM, more shift from AM to FM listening took place. This change eventually resulted in FM becoming the predominant choice for over-the-air radio listeners preferring music-based radio formats. Accordingly, AM broadcasters were discovering success in talk, news, sports & information based programming as listeners, advertisers & ratings declined to their once music dominant formats. All seemed well for the AM band as it settled into it’s new role as a source for talk & info based programming. Technology would deliver the next blow to AM’s success & can be stated with one word – the Internet! Suffice to say, there’s been no turning back since the human race discovered the online world thanks to cheap, now easy-to- use computers & competitive ISP plans. Rapid advancement in computer & Internet technologies would soon include the advent of the digital audio file, video, online webstream broadcasting & the ability to share all of these simultaneously. This new digital world would next move out of the house & office onto personal devices and cell phones thanks to widely available wi-fi Internet access. With this rapid advancement has come a gradual shift in listening habits. That brings us to today’s over-the-air broadcasting landscape – diminishing in favor of online access to music, news & entertainment. Many listeners now under the age of 35 have NEVER listened to any over-the-air radio, let alone the noisy, scratchy, low fidelity AM band. These are simple arguments that take much of the blame for the recent decline & failure of many AM broadcasters to attain ratings & maintain advertising revenue success. But…there ARE other factors that are contributing to this decline & will be discussed in more detail in future installments in this series.

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Mike Cherry

Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening

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