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Analog Angle Blog

AM Radio: The Beat Goes On (for a Little Bit Longer)

The other day I passed a big sign “For travel condition updates, tune to 1630 AM.” That put me in the “wayback machine,” as we say.

Let's be honest: How many people these days think of turning to their radio — especially AM — to find out what's going on, day-to-day or in a crisis? We now routinely get our information from the web, Twitter, and many other sources. In fact, I’d bet that many folks don't even have an AM radio conveniently located at home, at least one that actually still works. Do you know more than a few people who consciously “listen” to the radio, except perhaps as audio wallpaper?

Even autos, which almost always now come with an AM/FM radio as a standard feature, now often go way beyond it, with satellite radio (SiriusXM), 3G/4G, MP3 and other players, and much more.

The fading away of radio's signal and presence (literally and figuratively) gives me both a historical-nostalgia twinge and also worries me on a practical level.

First, many of the advances now embedded in wireless and other technologies were driven directly and indirectly by vacuum-tube, transistor, and IC-based broadcast radio:

  • The superregenerative receiver, the superheterodyne receiver, and FM technology (thank Major E.H. Armstrong for those three!)
  • Various types of signal and power filtering
  • Single sideband (SSB)
  • Low-noise front ends
  • Power amplifiers
  • Receive and transmit antennas
  • Synthesized tuning
  • Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) analysis and signal-processing advances
  • Software defined radio (SDR)
  • Adaptive signal-processing algorithms
  • High-volume, low-cost production of assembled products

The list goes on; I am sure you can add many more items to it.

Further, basic radio has also been the entry point for hobbyists and experimenters, since anyone can build a zero-power crystal-diode AM radio receiver and experience the basic thrill of making something that performed a kind of “magic” out of almost nothing — and many have done so.

My other concern about the loss of basic radio is its usefulness as a communications link in times of crisis. Recent major storms and hurricanes in the US, for example, knocked out AC power and many other functional links of the communications infrastructure. All the high-tech interconnectivity we count on suddenly didn't work or was inaccessible. The only way to get the word out in many places was via radio.

Why is that? It’s simple: As long as the studio, transmitter, and antenna functions are OK, the link will work. There are no complicated switching nodes along the way, with routers, gateways, and protocols needed for the whole chain to work. There's simplicity to the setup that can't be denied.

Equally important, the technical cost of supporting more users is zero (yes, individuals have to get their own receivers, but that's not the same thing). Whether you have one listener or a million, they are all served by the same setup, and you do not run into problems of channel overload, inadequate servers, router latency, inadequate bandwidth, and all the other issues that non-broadcast technologies are prone to suffering.

In other words, it's a no-cost, no-effort, no-brainer way to serve an audience that can shrink and grow with differing situations, yet the source doesn't have to do anything. Yes, it may want to increase its power to reach farther, but it does not have to increase it to reach more people in a given area. Thus, unlike our advanced, web and IP-based world, conventional broadcast has some unique and interesting attributes we should keep in mind.

Does broadcast radio have a future? I don’t know; no one does. Listenership has been shrinking over the past few years. It's certainly no longer the medium of choice for many people — especially younger ones — to get news, views, music, and more. I know that the radio industry has tried to paint a positive picture, with statements such as “x percent of the public listens to radio in a given week.” (I can’t immediately find the value of “x” that they claimed; it's around 80 percent, I think.) The only problem is their definition of “listens to” is pretty weak: Anyone who hears a radio for 15+ minutes, whether deliberately trying to do so, or merely as background at a store, counts in their surveys.

Before we dismiss “broadcast radio” as a dinosaur, to be used only by those trapped or forced to listen to it, let’s at least acknowledge how much it has done for us in terms of technology, inspiration, and even knitting together communities and societies.

Where do you stand on the past, present, and future of conventional broadcast radio? What has its technology taught you?

20 comments on “AM Radio: The Beat Goes On (for a Little Bit Longer)

  1. Bill_Jaffa
    February 27, 2013

    I didn't mention it, but there's also shortwave radio–which is AM but at frequencies which can propagate world-wide, and has many similar attrributes and technology impact. It taught me a lot about tuning, antennas, noise, and more. But is SW radio still a factor? I doubt it, except in limited situations such as countries without web access or with government-restricted communcations.

  2. Brad Albing
    February 27, 2013

    Bill – when I was a kid, I listened to SW a lot. Now, I agree – it's part of a bygone era. Except in the case of natural disasters (similar to situations you discussed in your blog) or perhaps attack by space aliens (in which case, call in the brass-pounding ditty boppers), its usage is dwindling.

  3. eafpres
    February 27, 2013

    Glad you mentioned the remote chance of attack by space aliens.  Remember in the movie Independence Day they got the word out using Morse Code over some forgotten frequency?  When that day comes will anybody still know how to do that?

  4. Brad Albing
    February 27, 2013

    Ah – someone got my movie reference….

  5. janine.love
    February 27, 2013

    Thanks for this Bill! All the more reason to teach middle school and high school students how to build a radio. And, encourage more young ham radio operators. It's on my to do list. Although, I'd qualify as a new ham rather than a young one!!

  6. SunitaT
    February 28, 2013

     How many people these days think of turning to their radio — especially AM — to find out what's going on, day-to-day or in a crisis?

    @Bill, thanks for the post. I Agree with you, not many people these days tune into AM radio. Either they are using FM radios or they are getting the latest udpates from Internet through twitter/Facebook etc. But people in rural areas still rely on AM to get latest udpates or to get some entertainment. I am sure in future FM/internet will totally replace AM.

  7. SunitaT
    February 28, 2013

     Remember in the movie Independence Day they got the word out using Morse Code over some forgotten frequency? When that day comes will anybody still know how to do that?

    @eafpres, I totally remember each and every scene from that classic movie. I think we should preserve such technologies and have experts in all such technolgies so that when time comes we can use those technolgies. 

  8. SunitaT
    February 28, 2013

     It taught me a lot about tuning, antennas, noise, and more.

    @Bill, that is the best part about AM. Its easy to build AM radios and listen to AM stations. I remember we used to take out the speaker from the landline-phones and connect some diode to the back of it and connect it to some antenna to listen to the local radio station. It would be unfortunate if AM becomes totally extinct. 

  9. jbike
    March 2, 2013

    I also could not agree more. A good friend at work encouraged me to pick up ham radio a few years ago. The technology is fascinating and unlike other disciplines the information concerning how it all works is readily available.   I was and still am amazed at variety of modulation techniques and digital modes available to the amateur operator.  The ham bands are spread out enough, and the power is high enough, that you can talk or listen to virtually anyplace in the world if you have a decent antenna, and know what band and communication mode to use. My point is that everyone of us could benefit from a hobby, such as amateur radio, that is capable of bringing the fun and creativity back into our profession.   The amateur radio experience has reminded me of the importance that the “fun factor” plays in motivating creative innovation. 

  10. Flagstaff Rich
    March 6, 2013

    My parents gave me a transistor radio circa 1961 and it really broadened my horizons.  One big discovery was WLAC in Nashville, TN, where I first heard real rock-n-roll.  They did not play the Pat Boone covers!

    In an effort to hear WLAC better I put a wire up in a tree and coupled it to the loopstick with a few turns of wire to ground.  I quickly discovered shortwave signals peppered through the AM band where they mixed with harmonics of my HFO.  That inspired me to build a Heathkit GR-91 and I was off and running.

    Shortwave listening is still easy to do, but the fun broadcasters are mostly gone; these days it is nearly all religious stations.  I miss my old friends like RSA and HCJB – nothing left but yellowing SWL cards.

    I do speak Morse and know many others who do, but I worry abut the next generation.

    -Rich

  11. cello10_#1
    March 6, 2013

    The excessive corporate concentration of media ownership includes AM radio stations.  This has lead to the declining quality of programming.  AM radio can become relevant only if there are stations that serve the public interest by providing real news, information, and quality entertainment.  This is why young people have increasingly gravitated toward the internet.  Community funding of local radio stations – to help serve community interests – is the only way radio will ever survive and stay relevant to the needs of people.  Here in Los Angeles, we have KUSC, a community funded classical music station with no advertising (just fund raising drives).  We also have KPFK – part of the Pacifica Radio Network – that strives to provide alternative news coverage and information on politics, the economy, the environment, alternative medicine and so forth.  While KUSC and KPFK are both FM stations, AM could serve this function just as well.  We need fewer radio stations but more independence and quality in programming for the ones that remain, and we need to phase out the obsolete, 20th century model of commercial broadcasting based on corporate advertising.

  12. Treth
    March 6, 2013

    Line one of the other commenters, I became a licensed ham radio operator after my colleagues at work encouraged me to do so.  The American Radio Relay League is the leading advocate for amateur radio in this country, and they vigorously defend the segments of frequency spectrum the FCC has allotted for amateurs, citing emergency communications as a reason to be there.  The ARRL regularly sponsors events on the ham bands to simulate emergency situations, and even the contests (to vie for who can make the most radio contacts with other hams) have an element of emergency preparedness.  And indeed, the hams rise to the occasion during natural disasters, providing communications when all other means have failed. 

  13. trigoli
    March 7, 2013

    Excerpt from my recently published memoir: “Experiencing Silicon Valley” (Stone Canoe , Syracuse University, Issue # 7, January 2013):

    “My romance with electronics took root when I was growing up in Jamestown, New York, in the 1950s. My fascination with radio led me to build my first crystal set using my mattress bed-spring as an antenna.  It seemed like magic to manipulate a “cat's whisker” atop a small grayish-white rocky clump of germanium and voilà (!), out of the ether streamed my favorite music and drama programs. Many nights I would fall asleep wearing earphones.”

    I still take delight in warming up an old vacuum tube radio, recalling how I migrated from building crystal sets to rescuing vacuum tube radios in disrepair that neighbors put on the curb. It was great sport to salvage those radios before the trash collector arrived so that I could get them working again. I eventually became a big fan of mail-order Heathkits, building high-fidelity audio systems.

    “Little did I know that my early interest in electronics would ultimately lead me to Silicon Valley, where I would spend most of my adult life working with high-tech companies and some of the legendary personalities who established them.”

    If you would like to receive a PDF of my complete memoir at no charge, just send your request to rigoli@mindpik.com.

     

  14. clematis
    March 7, 2013

      I beg to differ that few people actually listen to radio. NPR is alive and well. Millions of commuters listen to their favorite station daily, to and from work. They listen for news , traffic, weather, commentary. I'm one of them.

  15. Bill_Jaffa
    March 7, 2013

    But aren't most NPR stations on the FM band? It's the AM stations that are fading away first, what what I see and read.

  16. DP23
    March 7, 2013

    I listen to a sports talk show on AM radio every weekday morning for about 30 minutes to catch up with my favorite baseball broadcasters and to hear other sports news. I also listen to my team's games on this same station when I can't watch on TV or in person. This station also carries the sports of a major university that I follow in my area and another local AM station carries the games of my alma mater.

    So, I still use AM radio for sports broadcasts and some news, but not much else.

  17. TheMeasurementBlues
    March 8, 2013

    DP23, Here in Boston we have two AM and two FM full-time sports stations. WEEI-AM was king, then CBS put all sports on its FM outlet WBZ-FM (Bruins and Patriots). WEEI carries the Red Sox and Celtics and even though the station is 50kW, the signal is directed north and east, almost out over the ocean. At night, you can;t hear the AM signal 20 miles west of Boston, a populated area. WBZ-FM was cutting into ratings, then WEEI acquired the 93.7FM singal, based in Lawrence, MA. 50kW FM and it's got a long local range. WEEI moved it local sports talk to FM and put ESPN radio on AM. Being as here in Boston, nobody cares about sports teams outside the area (except the hated Yankees).

    WBZ-AM is 50kW clear channel. They get all the over 60 audience, plus my wife. You can tell by the ads, they are all asking people to call some 800 number.

    I have no sue for commerical radio anymore. I listen to noncommerical sometimes, or Internet radio.

  18. TheMeasurementBlues
    March 8, 2013

    Rich,

    May father had a Zenith Tras Oceanic raido, circa 1952 or so. I used it when I was a kid to pull in out of town AM atations. I could listen to ball games from Bston to St. Louis. I once pulled in a basketball game from Salt lake City.

  19. audiocal
    May 22, 2013

    AM talk radio is still alive and well, the big AM stations have a long reach. IMHP, NPR is a tax-payer supported left-wing propaganda outlet. Why do we have to pay for its existence? At least AM talk radio pays its own way.

  20. TheMeasurementBlues
    May 22, 2013

    audiocal, I think all political opinions (regardless of which side) should remain off sites like this one. Let's keep to technical talk.

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