AM Radio’s about to get a big change

AM radio hasn’t changed much in the last hundred years. It was the first mass communication medium in this country, and it paved the way for FM, television, and pretty much every other form of broadcasting we have today. AM radio has a lot of benefits, too. A single AM station can blanket a very large range due to the low frequencies used. Because of this, AM radio is still part of our nationwide emergency response network. If you can’t get any other kind of broadcast, you can get AM radio with a very simple device that can run practically forever on a pair of batteries.

But all that is about to change.

AM radio is about to get its biggest makeover in a generation. The FCC has released guidance that will allow AM broadcasters to completely stop analog broadcasting, instead broadcasting a digital signal. This signal will be technically similar to the HD radio broadcasts used today. However, instead of living side-by-side with analog radio, it will replace it.

This isn’t the first time AM has tried to evolve. In the 1980s, AM stereo was introduced to try to reinvigorate the technology. That never took off. However, the next evolution of AM did make a difference.

HD-Radio: The digital you have

HD Radio is a term used for “in-band on-channel” digital radio broadcasts. It was first allowed in 2002 and has slowly evolved. With HD Radio, the existing AM signal stays, but digital broadcasts are sent alongside. While it’s possible to put the analog and digital signals on one AM channel, it’s more common to find the HD channel as part of an FM station owned by the same company as the AM station. A very tiny broadcast accompanies the AM analog broadcast to let a radio know where to tune.

This new ruling would let AM broadcasters turn off their analog broadcasts and use the entire broadcast channel for digital. This would allow for better quality broadcasts using the AM band, instead of the FM band which is usually used now.

Using the AM band means that signals will travel further, although digital signals usually don’t travel quite as far as analog ones. They are generally better quality for a greater distance, but they do suffer from the shelf effect like digital TV signals.

Will broadcasters go for it?

That’s the real question I guess. There are going to be some stations, generally known as “Class A” but more commonly known as clear channels, that may not. Part of our nation’s emergency response program is to make sure that there’s at least one AM radio station that can broadcast emergency information to a large area. Class A stations generally broadcast at 50,000 watts and can be heard from a long range. It’s not uncommon for our staff in the Detroit area to hear not only WSCR in Chicago, but even WOR in New York and KYW in Philadelphia. It’s not even impossible for them to hear WBZ in Boston on rare occasion.

Moving over to digital radio would mean that these high-power stations would have less range. It’s true that the range they’re losing would be outside their market area. That means the loss of audience won’t affect their ad rates. Still, for these really old, storied stations, it’s more a matter of pride that they reach such a large area.

Will you go for it?

As I understand the filing, you’ll need a new AM radio in order to get full-band digital AM broadcasts. Considering that most people don’t even have HD Radio anywhere but their cars, it’s not likely that there will be a lot of upgraders. When new radios are available, you’ll find them at Solid Signal, of course.

About the Author

Stuart Sweet
Stuart Sweet is the editor-in-chief of The Solid Signal Blog and a "master plumber" at Signal Group, LLC. He is the author of over 6,000 articles and longform tutorials including many posted here. Reach him by clicking on "Contact the Editor" at the bottom of this page.