The slow sidelining of over-the-air radio


I’ve always loved AM radio. But it’s not a requited love. AM radios these days are harder to get, and tend to suck. The band is thick with electronic noise from things that compute (a sum of devices that rounds to everything). AM stations are falling like old trees all over the band, and all over the world, and most of those that remain spout one-sided talk or speak in foreign languages. Even sports programming, once a mainstay on AM, is migrating to FM.

To put it kindly, AM radio is the opposite of new. It’s the steam locomotive of broadcasting.

Case in point: you won’t find an AM radio in a Tesla Model X. You also won’t find it in other electric cars, such as the BMW i3. One reason is that AM reception is trashed by electric noise, and these are electric cars. Another is that the best AM reception requires a whip antenna outside the car: the longer the better. But these days car makers hide antennas in windows and little nubs on the roof. Another is that car makers have been cheaping out on the chips used in their AM radios for years, and the ones in home and portable radios are even worse.

Demand for AM has been waning for decades anyway. AM doesn’t sound as good as FM or digital streams on laptops and mobile things. (Well, it can sound good with HD Radio, but that’s been a non-starter on both the transmitting and receiving sides for many years.) About the only formats left on AM that get ratings in all U.S. markets are sports and news. But, like I just said, sports is moving to FM too—even though signal coverage on FM in some markets, relatively speaking, sucks. (Compare WFAN/660am and 101.9fm, which simulcast.)

On the whole, AM stations barely show in the ratings. In Raleigh-Durham, WPTF/680 ruled the “the book” for decades, and is now the top of the bottom-feeders, with just a 1.0% share. KGO/810, which was #1 for a lifetime in the Bay Area, is now #19 with a 2.0% share. Much of KGO’s talent has been fired, and there’s a Facebook page for disgruntled fans, which is like arguing against the moon.

In Europe, AM is being clear-cut like a diseased forest. Norway ended AM broadcasting a while back, and will soon kill FM too. Germany killed all AM broadcasting at end of last year, just a few days ago. The American AFN (Armed Forces Network), which I used to love listening to over its 150,000-watt signal on 873Khz from Frankfurt, is also completely gone on AM in Germany. All transmitters are down. The legendary Marnach transmitter of Radio Luxembourg, “planet Earth’s biggest commercial radio station,” also shut down when 2016 arrived, and its towers will soon be down too.

Europe’s other AM band, LW or longwave, is also being abandoned. The advantage of longwave is coverage. Signals on longwave spread over enormous territories, and transmitters can run two million watts strong. But listening has gone steadily down, and longwave is even more vulnerable to electrical noise than AM/MW. Running megawatt transmitters is also expensive. For all those reasons, Germany’s monster signal at 153KHz is gone, and France’s at 162KHz (one of 2 million watt ones) is due to go down later this year. And this report says all that’s keeping BBC’s landmark Radio 4 signal going on 198KHz is a collection of giant vacuum tubes that are no longer made. Brazil is moving from AM to FM as well. For an almost daily report on the demise of AM broadcasting around the world, read MediumWave News.

FM isn’t safe either. The UK is slowly phasing out both AM and FM, while phasing in Digital Audio Broadasting. Norway is the DAB pioneer and will soon follow suit, and kill off FM. No other countries have announced the same plans, but the demographics of radio listening are shifting from FM to online anyway, just as they shifted from AM to FM in past decades. Not surprisingly, streaming stats are going up and up. So is podcasting. (Here are Pew’s stats from a year ago.)

Sure, there’s still plenty of over-the-air listening. But ask any college kid if he or she listens to over-the-air radio. Most (in my experience anyway) say no, or very little. They might listen in a car, but their primary device for listening — and watching video, which is radio with pictures — is their phone or tablet. So the Internet today is doing to FM what FM has been doing to AM for decades. Only faster.

Oh, and then there’s the real estate issue. AM/MW and LW transmission requires a lot of land. As stations lose value, the land under many transmitters is worth more. (We saw this last year with WMAL/630 in Washington, which I covered here.) FM and TV transmission requires height, which is why their transmitters crowd the tops of buildings and mountains. The FCC is also now auctioning off TV frequencies, since nearly everybody is now watching TV on cable, satellite or computing devices. At some point it simply becomes cheaper and easier for radio stations, groups and networks to operate servers than to pay electricity and rent for transmitters.

This doesn’t mean radio goes away. It just goes online, where it will stay. It’ll suck that you can’t get stations where there isn’t cellular or wi-fi coverage, but that matters less than this: there are many fewer limits to broadcasting and listening online, obsolescing the “station” metaphor, along with its need for channels and frequencies. Those are just URLs now.

On the Internet band, anybody can stream or podcast to the whole world. The only content limitations are those set by (or for) rights-holders to music and video content. If you’ve ever wondered why there’s very little music on podcasts (they’re almost all talk), it’s because “clearing rights” for popular — or any — recorded music for podcasting ranges from awful to impossible. Streaming is easier, but no bargain. To get a sense of how complex streaming is, copyright-wise, dig David Oxenford’s Broadcast Law Blog. If all you want to do is talk, however, feel free, because you are. (A rough rule: talk is cheap, music is expensive.)

The key thing is that radio will remain what it has been from the start: the most intimate broadcast medium ever created. And it might become even more intimate than ever, once it’s clear and easy to everyone that anyone can do it. So rock on.

Bonus links:


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4 Responses to The slow sidelining of over-the-air radio

  1. You made me poke around, and LW transmitters with output power in the 2MW range are still commercially available. Apparently solid state final amplifiers, rather than tubes.

    Which of course doesn’t mean that the stations aren’t going off the air. Wonder who Thomson is selling those transmitters to, though? China has some monster MW stations, but I bet they make their own transmitters.

    • Doc Searls says:

      Thanks, Mike. Good find.

      Looking in my 2010 World Radio TV Handbook (the last one I bought), I see about twenty 1 to 2-million-watters scattered from Europe and North Africa to East Asia, Indonesia and the Phillipines. I wish there were a list of up and down MW stations in Wikipedia, as there are for LW here. That list has lots of high power stations among the defunct. (And there are many more off the air than on.)

      Could be China doesn’t make their own high-power MW transmitters because the volume of demand is low. No idea, though.

      It is also interesting to look at the World Atlas of Soil Conductivity. LW and MW transmission across distances depends utterly on ground conductivity, and the variation is high. On 570am, WNAX covers large portions of big prairie states by day with just a 5kw signal, because the ground conductivity there is in the 15-30mhos range. For the same reason KLIF in Dallas, on the same channel, covers most of Texas and Oklahoma. Meanwhile, look at what WMCA in New York does on the same channel with the same power, just covering New York’s inner suburbs while being utterly defeated by the minimal ground conductivity of Long Island (just 0.5mhos). Also note how well the signal travels over sea water, which has a conductivity of 5000 mhos. That’s why so many AM stations, including WMCA’s are sited in salt water tidelands, such as those in New Jersey, which bristle with AM towers.

      Ground conductivity is good (10mhos) in North Africa and Saudi Arabia, outstanding (30mhos and more) in much of Russia and most of the former Soviet states, awful in the Baltics (like Long Island and worse), excellent in the Netherlands, fair to good in most of the UK, mixed in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, mixed to poor in Greece, awful in Korea, good to okay in India, mixed in Japan, excellent in Thailand, mixed in southern Africa, mixed in Central America, awful in Canada except for the south central prairie adjacent to the Dakotas, good in coastal South America and poor in the interior, fair to excellent in Australia, poor in most of New Zealand, and mixed in China. (Just from a quick look.)

      I sense some degree of correlation between good ground conductivity and reliance on large MW transmitters. So we get the big ones in Russia and the former Soviet states, Hungary, the Philippines and Indonesia — and either littler reliance on MW (Finland and Sweden) or a complete abandonment of it (Norway).

      I still don’t know what contributes to ground conductivity, by the way. Or not exactly. Interesting topic, though.

      In a lot of regions (e.g. North Africa), MW is still a useful way to reach rural populations with little or no cell coverage. But then, there’s also satellite radio, which now serves much of the world — though admittedly in cases like ours in the U.S., from just one company.

      Bonus link.

  2. Jack Brighton says:

    Excellent post, Doc. I have two things to offer as comments:

    – I started the largest chunk of my professional life (so far anyway) as a producer at a public radio station. When the web came along as a new thing, I thought I saw that it would become the medium of choice for a growing number of people and applications. Broadcasting would be relegated to a supporting role, or as a tributary to the online river of content. (Your metaphors may vary.) It took a few years but this is happening, for much of the world.

    – But broadcast radio remains incredibly important for some of the most endangered people and cultures. For example in Central America, where indigenous people like the Lencas and Mayans struggle to maintain their communities and even their languages in the face of pressures (oh let’s just say it, blatant oppression) by governments, drug cartels, and corporations who want their land and labor. Radio is about the only medium they can deploy themselves to communicate in the remote places where they still have communities. Just about all the broadcasting infrastructure in these places came from discarded and recycled transmitters and other studio equipment cast off by us Norte Americanos. So as we increasingly get out of the broadcasting business, eventually so will they.

  3. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, Jack.

    To your first point, word comes from Nielsen that music streaming over the Net was up 93% in 2015 over 2014. This will only continue as phones and other personal devices become nearly everybody’s radios.

    And you’re right that radio is hugely important to “remote places where they still have communities,” and the dependence of those places on discarded gear. Old transmitters from the U.S. and Canada often find their way elsewhere. Those are ideal for covering regions. But the handiest way to cover a community is with a low-power FM transmitter, and those are available over the Net for a song. With FM you only need a whip antenna or a short length of wire to radiate the signal, rather than the whole tower that AM requires. And if you put the antenna atop a building, a hill, or even a tree, it can cover a few square miles with only a few watts.

    For more about how easy that is to do, see my two pieces on pirate radio that I’ve added to the list of bonus links at the bottom of the post above. (I get about 20 pirates on a weekend evening from my low-floor apartment in northern Manhattan. All are in Spanish or Caribbean dialects and appear to come from this end of the island and The Bronx.)

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