On the subject of All Digital Medium Wave

I want to explore all digital modulation methods for Standard Broadcast (AM, Medium Wave, or Medium Frequency). The most pressing technical problem for AM reception is electrical impulse noise. Can digital modulation solve this problem? Perhaps, but I am a natural-born skeptic.

To start out; I will say up front that the hybrid HD Radio (MA1) employed on AM was (or still is) a travesty. It never worked very well and it created massive interference +/- 20 KHz of the assigned frequency, especially when employed at night. Secondly; the all-digital version of HD Radio (HDMA3) remains a proprietary system with non-standard codecs. The current owner, Experi, has a license fee structure based on station type (AM, FM, LPFM, or Non-commercial) which ranges from $5,000 to $10,000 one-time fee for a five-year period. In all fairness; DRM pays a technology license fee to Fraunhofer for MPEG codecs used by receiver manufacturers and broadcast equipment. This is estimated to be between $0.13 to $1.13 US per receiver.

Those things being said, I thought a deep dive into the technical side of HDMA3 and DRM (Digital Radio Mondial) would be interesting. I did an article comparing MA3 and DRM a while ago: All Digital Medium Wave Transmission

What challenges are there to transmitting digital radio on MW? First, there is the very limited bandwidth of the channel itself. In North and South America, AM channels are spaced every 10 KHz (9 kHz in other places). On Medium Wave, the analog channel is +/- the carrier spacing, e.g. 20 KHz (or 18 KHz) with half of that channel potentially interfering with the adjacent channels. On a 20 kHz channel, this limits data transmission rates to 72 kbps or less with DRM and 40 kbps or less with HDMA3.

Secondly, skywave propagation is a potential difficulty for all digital broadcasts. Ionospheric changes can create multipath and fading, especially as the sun rises and sets causing the D layer to form or dissipate. Changes in the E and F layers can make or completely break skywave reception. Ground wave reception is reliable out to the limits of the noise floor, and varies based on transmitter frequency, power, and ground conductivity, and electrical noise in the area.

Everything that can potentially mitigate noise and skywave reception problems is a trade-off between robustness and data throughput.

Screenshot of an HF DRM exciter from RF Mondial showing a 10 KHz wide channel on HF.

Screen Shot of an HF DRM transmission showing mask, courtesy of DRM Consortium

This is a screenshot of an SDR showing an HF DRM transmission received from a distance:

Radio Romania International, 13,650 kHz 90 KW, 7,530 KM path

The receiver is not quite on bearing for this broadcast, however, it seems to be doing well. This is Radio Romania International’s Spanish broadcast targeting South America. The Pan Adaptor shows the signal is 10.2 kHz wide, but that doesn’t mean much from a $30.00 RTL SRD. The waterfall display below shows it is spectrally dense compared to the analog signals to the left and right. Note that with DRM there is no analog carrier being sent. Instead, a series of pilot tones are attached to various OFDM subcarriers for the receiver to lock onto.

A short Primer on COFDM

The modulation method for both systems is Coded Orthogonal Frequency Division Multiplexing (COFDM), which is the same system used by mobile phones, cable systems, WiFi (802.11), ATSC 3.0 TV, etc. COFDM consists of a group of subcarriers multiplexed onto one channel. The number of subcarriers and the subcarrier spacing relates directly to the data throughput and the robustness of the signal. OFDM is a very robust method that works well in the upper VHF, UHF, and SHF bands. It can work well in lower frequencies, however, there can be issues with multipath and Doppler effect. The coded part consists of forward error correction, which may include interleaving and subtracts from the data throughput.

The ability of an OFDM signal to reject electrical impulse noise, and deal with potential fading or multipath interference is based on a few things. The cyclic prefix sets the Guard Interval for the OFDM frame. The length of the Guard Interval should be the same as the multipath delay which helps mitigate inter-symbol interference and inter-subcarrier interference. Since the Medium Wave channels are fairly narrow, the number of OFDM carriers and spacing between carriers have a great effect on robustness. The fewer carriers the more robust the signal. This comes at the expense of data throughput; the fewer carriers the less data can be sent.

Raised Cosine impulses, similar to Orthogonal frequency-division multiplexing. (2023, May 10). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orthogonal_frequency-division_multiplexing

A short Primer on QAM

Each individual OFDM subcarrier is modulated with a Quadrature amplitude modulation (QAM) signal. The advantage of this is that each individual carrier sends data at a relatively slow rate and the aggregate data rate is the sum of all the subcarriers. QAM uses two carriers 90 degrees out of phase. The amplitude of each carrier determines the resultant vector of the modulated wave to create a data bit. For example; the sum of the carriers equals +45 degrees at 25% amplitude a 1101 data bit is sent.

16-QAM Constellation diagram. (2022, December 17). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Constellation_diagram

Both HDMA3 and DRM can use 16-QAM or 64-QAM. The larger the QAM constellation the more data can be sent. Smaller QAM constellations are more robust. HDMA3 can also transmit QPSK, which is Quadrature Phase Shift Keying. The resultant waveform from QPSK is identical to 4-QAM.

Bringing it all together

Radio Romania International, 11,975 KHz 90 KW 7,530 KM path, English service to Western Europe and North America,

A DRM-modulated HF and MF transmitter uses both sidebands to transmit unique information. There is no carrier present but rather a few pilot frequencies for the receiver to lock onto.

WFAS White Plains, NY All digital HDMA-3 signal

I like the waterfall display available with many SDR software programs. It gives a good indication of modulation density. With WFAS HDMA-3, the area +/- 5 KHz of the carrier signal has more power than the areas that are +/- 5 to 10 KHz from the carrier.

An HDMA3-modulated MW carrier sends the same data on upper and lower sidebands, effectively halving the data rate of DRM. There is a full carrier present, which represents approximately 25% of the transmitted power and does not contain any data. Currently, there are four HDMA-3 stations transmitting in the US.

Both systems can make pre-corrections to the modulated signal in the exciter to compensate for amplifier non-linearities. This can greatly improve the MER and SNR.

The other perceived technical issue with AM radio is sound quality. This has to do mostly with poor-quality receivers, although there are some AM stations that are transmitting reduced-quality audio as well. There is a false notion that anything “digital” sounds better than analog. I would posit; it depends on several factors. Low-bit-rate audio codecs can sound abysmal. That being said, the newer high-efficiency audio codecs can sound quite good, but there are limits. With HD Radio, there is only one codec available; HDC+SBR. With DRM there are several; xHE-AAC, HE-AAC. xHE-AAC is designed to work with voice and can use bit rates as low as 12 kbps. It is possible for a robustly transmitted low-bit-rate codec to sound good with voice. It can sound okay with music, but not as good as analog FM.


Can an all-digital modulation format work well on the Standard Broadcast Band? The answer is; it’s complicated. One of the big positives of AM is that it is a very simple and well-tested system. Adding many layers of encoding and decoding is a violation of the KISS principle. That being said, using a digital modulation method that has been refined for mobile use over the years is a step in the right direction. There still is an issue with digital receivers; both HD and DRM. From what I have read, both formats are currently being included in several radio chip sets, yet I do not find those options in most car radios. There is a lack of public awareness, at least in the United States about digital radio in general. When someone says digital, most people think of streaming. When I am driving a rental car, I seldom find HD Radio, I do find Sirius/XM and all types of internet connectivity via smartphone apps.

WSM Nashville, Tennessee

We recently went on vacation in Tennessee, which is a great state. Most of the time was spent hiking around various state parks, investigating interesting places, or eating at various restaurants. I highly recommend the state parks, there are many and they are all good. All of that being said, I could not resist the temptation to swing by WSM on the way back to the airport. I am happy I did.

Historical Marker, WSM Brentwood, Tennesee

The site is right off of I-65 and easy to get to. There is a public dog park that is behind it, which is a convenient place to park.

WSM Blaw-Knox tower, transmitter building

The Blaw-Knox tower is impressive. The site is well-maintained overall.

WSM tower base, transmitter building and Aux tower

The main tower is fed with open wire transmission line. The aux tower is off the right. It was nice to stop and walk around the site taking pictures. The Brentwood Police Department even stopped by and welcomed us to the neighborhood.

WSM open wire transmission line, looks like 450 ohms

It is always interesting to stop by some of these more famous stations. It would be nice if more sites were recognized as historical places, given the role that radio played in 20th-century US society. Both of my parents grew up during the Great Depression. According to their stories; life was tough, it was a struggle to feed the family and pay rent, but they did have a radio in the living room which was switched on every night after dinner.

Cellular work on a skirted tower

Cell carriers generally do not like working on AM towers. It is out of their comfort zone and adds a layer of complexity to the project. However, sometimes they don’t have a choice, mainly when there is an existing site and they need to make changes. We have also had mixed results with tower contractors employed by various cell carriers. In one incident, a contractor showed up and re-tensioned the guy wires breaking all of the porcelain insulators. Another time, a contractor showed up to install footings 10 feet away from the tower and ripped up all the ground wires. One tower climber found one of the skirt wires was in his way, so he cut it off with a hack saw.

Those experiences demonstrate that it is far less expensive to have somebody on site while tower contractors are doing installation work on any skirted AM tower. And so it was today.

AT&T 5G sector assembled waiting for lift

This tower has two AM stations diplexed as well as two FM translators combined into one Nicomm antenna. We did before measurements on the AM stations using an OIB-3. Once the installation is done, we will do the after-measurements and then assist the licensee with any FCC 302 filings if the base impedance has changed significantly.

WENU, WMML W250CC and W245DA tower
Lifting the North Sector

With each lift, I went out to the base of the tower and made sure that the skirt wires were clear of the mounting brackets and not touching anything else. The tower crew was Russian speakers. When they asked if the transmitter was still on, which was kind of comical (he motioned to the skirt wire, made like he was grabbing it, then jerked around like he was being electrocuted). I had to wrack my brain to try and remember: Передатчик выключен. The literal translation is “Not working.” The difference between “working” and “not working” is one consonant at the beginning of the second word which is pronounced soft for off and hard for on.

This site was the subject of a previous post: A tale of five signals.

Saving AM radio

I am watching, with great interest, the hand-wringing over the removal of AM radio from various vehicles. Not that I desire that to happen, but on the current trajectory, it is almost certain that AM and then FM radio will become optional if not removed completely from dashboard entertainment systems.

The ubiquitous AM radio

What can be done… what can be done…

Interestingly, several have pointed to a few successful AM stations that are still making a go of it. WABC in New York is one such station. What is the difference between WABC and other stations? Local content, perhaps? Yes, WABC is a 50 KW clear channel (Class A) station. While that does help somewhat mitigate the electrical noise problem, in and of itself, being a 50 KW station does not automatically mean success. There are other 50 KW stations in the New York Market, they are not doing that well.

I would posit; what troubles AM radio and all of radio in general, is low-effort, low-quality programming, and a general lack of community engagement. The vast majority of AM stations are running some type of syndicated programming. That is not a huge issue provided there is local content mixed in, a local morning show for example. If everything is syndicated then what is compelling listeners to tune in? If I can get better information or more entertainment by listening to a podcast on Spotify or Substack, why would I listen to the radio at all? This is a growing problem for FM as well. All of the generic “Greatest mix of the 70s, 80s, and 90s” formats are dull and boring.

One reason for all the dullness is that shy corporate lawyers to are risk-averse and do not want to be sued for profanity. Remember the Janet Jackson Superbowl incident where CBS was fined $550,000 for briefly, very very briefly showing a nipple on TV? If you were blinking at the time, you would have missed it. I missed it. I am a first amendment guy, I have two words regarding the FCC obscenity rules; fuck that. The FCC should get rid of all the outdated and patronizing profanity regulations. They stifle free thought and they are not protecting anyone from anything. I have two children and they would come home from kindergarten swearing like drunken sailors. This is why podcasts are popular; hosts are allowed to roam freely express themselves, and explore controversial topics. You may not like what you hear, in fact, you may even be offended. However, there are no constitutional protections against being offended. All radios are equipped with tuning buttons and off buttons.

AM also suffers from a perception problem. When a station does show moderate success, it is still very difficult to sell advertising because the potential advertisers believe that no one listens to AM radio anymore. This is more a self-inflicted wound than anything else. For years, AM spots were bonused with an FM buy. If radio owner’s themselves don’t value their product, how can you expect advertisers to value it? Besides, I know lots of people listen to AM radio for one reason or another.

There are some technical aspects to this conversation as well. First and foremost, the AM noise problem is the biggest technical challenge for AM listeners. The use of FM translators to retransmit AM signals is more of a gimmick than some type of solution. Especially when the maximum power for a translator is 250 watts (many are licensed at much lower power levels). While the AM signals they are associated with are 1,000 watts, 5,000 watts, 10,000 watts, or even 50,000 watts. A translator can be significant in the case of an AM daytimer (class D station) after-sign-off. Otherwise, they do not offer too much else for the typical AM stations. Most other “technical improvement” initiatives from the AM revitalization era were more aligned with cost savings for owners rather than actual technical improvement.

One of the great advantages of AM radio is it can cover large distances with moderate amounts of power. Transmitters and receivers are relatively simple devices that can function without an internet connection. As I learned from my contacts in Ukraine, broadcast radio is often the communication line of last resort when the grid is down. FEMA has spent a good deal of money hardening AM radio facilities across the US to ensure that they will remain operational during a crisis.

FEMA PEP station map, 2015

Regarding the alleged sound quality issues; I notice the AM radio in my Subaru sounds pretty good even when listening to music. What is interesting to me, when I first land on an AM station, it sounds pretty narrow-banded audio-wise. After a few seconds, it opens up and I get much better-sounding audio. I am not sure if this is just some random radio software function or if the IF adjusts itself for wider audio when the signal strength is good. In either case, the AM radio in my car sounds much better than the previous cars I have owned.

It would be very interesting, at least for me, to see a head-to-head test of HD Radio MA-3 vs DRM30 vs Analog AM vs a 250-watt FM translator. More research and testing of all digital audio transmission on Medium Wave frequencies should be done.

In short, saving AM is going to be an uphill battle in both directions. It comes down to three basic things:

  • Programming
  • Perception
  • Imaginative innovation