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.
- Radio and the Web, 2001 (21 March 2001)
- WGBH and public radio’s future (25 November 2009)
- March Madness and radio’s future (6 March 2010)
- The past and future of radio (1 December 2010)
- Why music radio is dying (11 August 2011)
- Truly public radio (6 September 2011)
- How to rescue radio (30 November 2013)
- Pirate radio lives, big time, in New York (13 September 2013)
- A conversation with Doc Searls on the future of radio (3 January 2014 in RAIN News)
- My top 10 radio hosts of all time (6 April 2014)
- AM radio declared dead by BMW and Disney (19 August 2014)
- How radio can defend the dashboard (7 October 2014)
- The untold pirate radio story in New York (18 January 2015)
- Why do old radios sometimes pick up radio stations from other countries instead of only picking up local radio stations? (in Quora, 2 January 2016)
- http://datab.us/Search/Transmitter%20Sottens (Stories of many European stations shutting down, dated 2016)
- MWList (Comprehensive list of mediumwave stations and activities, worldwide)
- Is European FM on the way out? (added in March 2017)