AM radio declared dead by BMW and Disney

amradioThe BMW i3 may be the first new car to come without AM radio since cars starting coming with radios, way back in the 1930s. Meanwhile, Disney is unloading a big pile of AM stations carrying Radio Disney, a program service for kids focused mostly on “teen idols.”

In Disney’s Devastating Signal About Radio, Eric Rhoads of Radio Ink spoke Big Truth about the heft of the harbinger Disney’s move delivers to the media marketplace. In a follow-up post he defended his case, adding (as he did in the first post) that “radio is not dead.”

In Redefining “Radio” for the Digital Age,” Deborah Newman‘s proposed panel for the next SXSW, she begins with this question: Is radio a technology or a marketing term? Good one. I think “marketing term” is the answer — because the original technology, AM radio itself, is dead tech walking.

Here in the UK, for example, I am listening right now to Radio 4 on 198KHz, in the longwave (LW) band — one still used in Europe, because waves on frequencies down that low (below the AM band, called MW for Medium Wave) travel great distances across the land. I can also get LW stations from Germany (on 153) and France (on 162). All are doomed, because the required tubes (called valves here) are no longer made. When the last ones fail, Radio 4 is going off the air on LW. Most AM stations, which operate at lower powers (50,000 watts vs. 500,000 watts for Radio 4 LW), are solid state and don’t use tubes, so they lack the same risk of obsolescence on the transmitting side. But AM receivers tend to suck these days (manufacturers cheap out in the extreme), and transmitting towers tend to be sited on land that is worth more as real estate than the stations themselves. Environmentalists would also like to see towers sited in swamps and tidelands revert to nature. (The best sites for AM towers are on salt water or tideland, because the ground conductivity is highest there. This is why the Meadowlands of New Jersey are home to most of New York’s AM stations.)

The bottom line, as it always has been (at least for commercial radio) is ratings. Here are the latest from Radio-Info (sourcing Nielsen). In some markets, some AM stations do well. You’ll find an AM news, talk or sports station or two near the top of the list for Chicago, San Francisco, Baltimore, Cincinatti, St. Louis, Sacramento, Milwaukee, Salt Lake City, Memphis and Hartford. Elsewhere AM stations are way down the list. Most don’t make the listings at all. In Orlando, the bottom six are three AM stations and three “HD” stations (secondary streams carried by radio stations and audible only on radios that can decode them). Of the 29 listed stations for Washington, DC, only 3 AM stations make the cut. The top one of those, WTEM/980, is a sports station with a 1.5 rating. The next two are WSPZ/570 with an 0.4 and WFED with an 0.1.

History… WTEM was once WRC, NBC’s big station for the Capitol City. WSPZ was WGMS, an AM classical station. Its new tranmitter is way out of town for some reason and barely covers the metro at night with just 1000 watts. WFED was WTOP, a 50,000 watt powerhouse news station that dominated the market. The signal is still there, but the listeners aren’t. Back when those listeners started leaving, WTOP itself moved to WGMS’ old FM channel, where it went on to dominate the ratings again.

So the key for radio stations and networks is to re-base their mentalities and their work in the marketplace, where most receivers are now phones and tablets tuning in to digital streams on the Net, rather than to waves over the old broadcast bands. In the new digital world, native players such as Pandora have a huge advantage in not having their boat anchored to a transmitter.

More in this direction:

Bonus link: See how AM stations are doing in ratings for various cities.


8 responses to “AM radio declared dead by BMW and Disney”

  1. I think the Radio Disney deal made sense for them, remember they dumped their big ABC radio network a while back. And the kind of programming that was on Radio Disney probably is better as on-demand content on the back-seat devices.

    But it’s interesting to note that they didn’t sell their ESPN AM stations. Sports is still live-event driven, and latency is the enemy of live events.

    Maybe we’ll see a move back to more lower-power AM stations (5-10kw) and more local community groups buying up the licenses.

    Sadly the quality of AM radio doesn’t have to be so bad. It’s the receiver manufacturers. Delco started it when they decided it was better to roll off frequencies over 4k ti get rid if alternator whine. I would think a decent DSP-driven AM receiver could have a really awesome noise blanker in it to get rid of that noise without having to cut off all the high end.

    But how likely is that?

  2. Thanks, Rusty. Agreed on all counts.

    A story that explains How Things Work with device manufacturers…

    Two decades back my wife bought a 1992 Infiniti Q45a, which was an outstanding car in its day. One reason she got it (rather than, say, a BMW — a brand to which she had some loyalty) was that it had an AM stereo radio that I liked. In fact it was freaking outstanding. It used two “diversity” antennas — one retracting one in the back fender and another embedded in the back window — to receive both AM and FM, and the fidelity on AM rivaled the FM. It was also very sensitive. We lived in the Bay Area, and got stations by day from Sacramento to Bakersfield, and at night from the entire West.

    But when that car crapped out, she replaced it with a used 1995 Q45 that Nissan, Infiniti’s parent company, had “de-contented” along with other models. Gone were some of the little touches that made the car classy, but most notably there was a blank space on the otherwise identical radio where the AM stereo/wide button had been. And the AM radio sounded like shit. After I did some digging, I found that Nissan had cut out the chip because — get this — it added 5¢ to the cost of the car. That’s Five. Fucking. Cents.

    So yeah, the chance of anybody doing anything on the receiving end to improve AM reception is sub-nil. BMW is just following the same thinking Nissan had, and getting rid of AM entirely. They’ll blame lack of demand and other stuff, but the simple fact is that the chips they can put in the damn things either suck or add a cost to the car. (The latter is also the problem with “HD Radio,” fwiw.

  3. Any chance someone (Google?) could buy that spectrum and use it for something else? Is it able to be used for anything else (regulatorily) ?

  4. PJ, there are several problems with LW, MW and SW (longwave, mediumwave and shortwave). One is that the data-handling capacity is very low. (Less can be modulated onto fewer cycles, or Hertz.) Another is that it tends to go too far. This was useful when those were the only bands, and coverage or reach of single transmitters mattered utterly. But with a “cellular” approach to coverage (many transmitters, each covering small areas), the old brute force approach of those lower bands became obsolete. Another is noise. All those computing things, in addition to weather-related problems (e.g. thunderstorms, causing “static”), are filling the air with noise that is audible and problematic at low frequencies but less so at very high ones. Finally, there is the real estate issue. Broadcast on LW, MW and SW requires a lot of space for the towers that do the radiating, or hold the radiating elements aloft. With waves so short they fit in your hand (e.g. with mobile phones and wi-fi), the bands for those frequencies are in far higher demand.

    Never mind, I suppose, the fact that seeing radio in terms of spectrum is itself an ancient and obsolete notion. It’s still way too embedded in law and tech to move past.

  5. Random thoughts:

    Thinking about the obsolescence of the giant tubes used in long-wave and other similar transmitting tube applications makes me a bit sad. My grandfather was a tube engineer for Eimac for many years, and a private collector/restorer/dealer of very-early radio technology for as long as I can remember up until his death in 2008. I have a very fond set of memories about vacuum tubes.

    I have enjoyed occasionally, under the right conditions, being able to pick up AM radio in Salt Lake City from stations in Southern California via skywave propogation, even stations that are not clear-channel. I listened to most of an SDSU basketball game this way last year.

  6. Radio Disney on AM made absolutely zero sense. On the flip side the Detroit Market has 950am which came in real handy while I was driving through our “storm of the century”. WJR has one of the strongest transmitters on the planet. I’m not sure if FM has the same signal reach that AM stations have, but back to the original point I wonder if anyone under the age of 50 would notice if WJR went away, or went FM-exclusive.

    I’ve long held that the death of conventional radio is predicated on ubiquitous wifi in the car. The only reason to keep a radio in the car is the emergency response news that has long been the bastion of “radio”, and with more stations centralizing and consolidating their news departments I fear even that function is in jeopardy.

  7. Sean,

    My one sure-catch clear channel station when I was New York a teenager in the ’60s was KSL/1160 from Salt Lake City. In those days that channel was fully clear. There was nothing else there, even from Mexico and Cuba (which reveled in violating international agreements about clear channels). KSL bounced twice off the ionoshpere and once off the ground in the middle, on its way to my Zenith Royal 400 transistor radio.

    I also wonder, given that the Radio 4 longwave story cited is now three years old, if the BBC hasn’t figured a work-around in the meantime. If not new tubes, then perhaps a solid state solution. If anybody knows, I’d be curious.

  8. Craig,

    I agree that Radio Disney never made a lick of sense on AM. Well, maybe back in the earliest days. But not in recent years. So Eric Rhoads and others are right that the fail of Radio Disney on AM is not AM’s fault. It’s just the wrong stuff in the wrong place. I am sure that most of the stations will be picked up by ethic and religious broadcasters, which seems to be the fate of AM stations these days. Hey: it fills an apparent need.

    As for WJR/760, its coverage exceeds FMs, both day and night. As for who would miss it, not sure.

    On the technical front, it is no larger than any other non-directional now-former clear channel station. It’s 50,000 watts, which is the legal maximum, and there are many hundreds of those in the U.S. The size of its coverage owes to several factors.

    One is its non-directionality (it uses one tower), so it has no nulls or “holes” in any direction.

    Another is the length of its tower: 194.7 degrees, or a bit over a half-wave, which concentrates energy in the horizontal plane, along the ground, without disadvantaging the signal toward the sky at night, which gives it lots of coverage hundreds of miles out, reflecting off the ionosphere. (Most stations radiate with less than 180 degrees, and have weaker groundwaves.)

    Another is its transmitter site, on Sibley Road in Riverview, on the south side of Detroit. This gives it a good angle across Lake Erie and into Ohio and Ontario. Also, being an older station, it also has a good ground system (copper wires buried in all directions from the tower), giving the signal a good start off the tower itself.

    Finally, the ground conductivity in that part of Michigan, and adjacent Ohio, Ontario and Indiana, isn’t bad: 8MHos/m. Ground conductivity in eastern Michigan, from Saginaw to Lake Huron, is unusually good as well: 30Mhos/m. All those factors yield coverage that looks like this. Contrast that with what WDFN/1130 in Detroit gets with two 115 degree (just over a quarter wave) towers by day and nine at night. (Coverage maps here). WWJ/950 is another one. They pump out 50,000 watts, but they use five towers by day and six at night, for two highly directional patterns. This means that, while they put out a signal much higher than 50kw in some directions, they have weak signal strengths in other directions. You can see the results on coverage maps you can reach here.

    Of course, all better stations are also online and can be picked up anywhere in the world over a good Net connection.

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