Why is AM Radio still a thing?

I really like that segment on Last Week Tonight with John Oliver when he asks, “How is this still a thing?” I’ve been using that phrase for years and it’s true, you look at something and it’s hard to try to figure out why someone is really bothering.

AM Radio would certainly seem to be something like that. AM radio was the original form of broadcasting and when you listen to it, it’s pretty obvious. I mean, the sound quality is really atrocious. When I listen to AM radio, which is rare, I hear the same commercials over and over from people who have been advertising for years. It’s certainly not the hot place to be.

I found this study in which the all-important millennial group was asked for their feelings on AM radio. 65% of millennials reported they either were apathetic or actively disliked AM radio, and 53% of them said that AM radio was either boring or had nothing of interest. My guess is that AM radio has some challenges ahead.

But you would actually have thought AM radio would be dead by now. Believe it or not, AM radio once had scripted programming much like broadcast TV, and after that all moved to TV they changed to playing music. AM was considered much more dominant than FM well into the 1960s and even in the 1970s, many music stations kept an AM and FM version. Talk radio saved AM in the 1980s, and it’s been puttering along at low speed ever since.

AM radio survives because it’s fairly cheap, it has momentum, and because believe it or not it has a technological and regulatory advantage. Yes, all broadcasting is expensive, because you’re essentially keeping a 100,000 watt light bulb burning 24 hours a day. But the equipment is the same stuff that’s been used for almost 100 years and doesn’t require upgrades, just maintenance. AM radio has been around so long that people (especially older people) know it and listen to it.

Most importantly though, AM radio travels further than FM in many cases and class A stations (once known as “clear channel” stations) can be heard several states away. These stations were once designated as essential information tools in case of enemy attack, and so no other stations can broadcast on the same frequency as a class A station for hundreds and hundreds of miles. This is to prevent interference that could make it harder for people to get the information they need. One such station, Detroit’s WJR 760AM, can be heard throughout the entire midwest, and people have reported hearing the first ever radio station, Pittsburgh’s KDKA 1020, as far away as Kansas.

Now, if there were truly a national emergency, let’s be honest — your AM radio would probably not be the first place you turned. But the rules for AM radio stations are still on the books and there’s a lot of history there.

So, what will become of AM? My guess is it probably will thin out even more in the next few years, to where there are maybe 2 or 3 stations in each market. But it won’t go away. There’s no reason to push AM broadcasting out of the spectrum, as its sub-1MHz frequencies aren’t good for high-speed data or other services people want. It’s just out there for people to use… and that’s probably not going to stop.