Continued from part II:
Can the AM broadcast service be revitalized and returned to relevancy? If so, how? The previous post demonstrated that AM radio service problems are multigenerational and multifaceted. There is no one solution that will make everything better. Pushing an all-digital solution will not solve electrical noise issues or overcrowding issues on the AM band. It will not address the paucity of the local, unique programming that is the bread and butter of successful AM operators. Because the issues that face AM operators cover many different areas of broadcasting, any proposed solution must address every aspect. Any proposal that simply addresses the poor fidelity, for example, will simply be another band-aid (no pun intended), placed on top of numerous others which have been previously ineffective.
The FCC is looking for deregulatory solutions to the AM problem. Deregulation and the FCC’s lasissez-faire attitude is exactly why the AM broadcast band is in the condition it is today. Relaxed technical standards have allowed the creeping crud to take over like Kudzu. Further deregulation will only exacerbate the problems.
In broad categories, AM radio’s problems are:
- Noise and interference
- Low fidelity
- Lack of ratings
- Low profitability
Electrical Noise on AM broadcast band
In order for any solution to be effective, this problem must be addressed first. Noise and interference are at the heart of the technical issues confronting the typical AM radio listener. These problems come from multiple sources, but the worst of which are electrical devices such as CFLs and other fluorescent lights, LED lamps, street lights, utility company wires, computers, computer monitors, TVs, power line communication, appliances, and other intentional emitters. The FCC has, within it current powers, the ability to address at least some of these noise generators. Devices like CFLs, LED lamps, computers, and others are regulated under Part 15 and 18 of the FCC rules. While there is little that can be done with fluorescent lights (they work using an internal electrical arc), other emission standards can be tightened and better, more specific warning labels can be implemented on the packaging.
Station-to-station interference on the AM broadcast band
Another aspect of this problem is mutual interference on the AM broadcast band. In short, too many stations are licensed to a small slice of the electromagnetic spectrum. The increasingly poor condition of many directional antenna systems ensures that there is a cacophony of interference at night. While this is a politically sticky situation, some tough love is needed to solve these problems. There are many underperforming AM stations on the air that are junkyards of last-ditch formats that have little or no hope of success. These stations are often technical disasters that pollute the spectrum with interfering signals. Compounding this issue is the transmission of IBOC at night. The current iteration of IBOC (HD radio) intentionally transmits on adjacent channels creating more problems than it solves.
Confronting any of these issues is almost certain to be a non-starter and that is a shame because real, meaningful steps can be taken here.
One scenario would be a one-time test, applied during the next license renewal cycle, that allows station owners to assess their operations. Those that do not pass the test would be able to surrender their license for a tax credit. This type of culling is not unprecedented, as the FRC did something very similar during the early days of broadcasting when the AM band became a free for all. The test should have three areas of consideration; technical operations, programming, and business profitability. Something like this would be a reasonable example of a re-licensing test:
|Minimum score to pass technical operations: 5 points|
|Minimum score to pass programming test: 5 points|
|Minimum score to pass business test: 3.5 points|
|Minimum overall score for all three tests combined: 16 points|
This is a fairly low bar to get over. I generally do not advocated more government regulations and regulatory burden. However, this is one case where relaxed regulations lead to the problems currently being encountered. Perhaps a one time re-regulation would be warranted in the public interest.
Audio quality and other technical improvements
There are several areas where new technology can be used to improve AM stations technical quality. There is a common misconception that AM broadcasting has low fidelity due to inferior bandwidth. Truth be told, AM broadcasting can pass 15-20 KHz audio. It is restricted to less than 10 KHz because of the aforementioned band congestion problems. Since the NAB and the FCC has made exceptions to the NRSC-1 requirement in order to transmit HD radio, perhaps other wide bandwidth uses can be considered. One possibility would be to allow transmission of 15 KHz audio during daytime hours, switching back to NRSC-1 standard after dark. This may not work on local (class C) channels but for regional and what remains of cleared channels, it may offer some improvement. Also, turning off IBOC hybrid analog/digital transmissions after dark should be examined regardless of whether an all digital solution is sought. Hybrid IBOC is a part of the night time noise problem and not a viable solution, particularly troublesome are class A skywave signals.
Also, much benefit could be derived from requiring that all AM stations sync their carriers to GPS. If all of the stations on the same channel are on exactly the same frequency, it will eliminate carrier squeals, growls and whines. This is something that can be done very easily and inexpensively, especially with newer transmitters.
Double sideband AM is wasteful, as both lower and upper sidebands contain the same information. Suppressing the lower sideband and transmitting just the carrier and upper sideband would free up quite a bid of bandwidth and reduce adjacent channel interference. Most simple diode detectors demodulate the upper sideband anyway.
A concerted effort must be made to restore all of the technically deficient antenna systems. Not only fixing out of tolerance DAs but also addressing bandwidth issues, general maintenance, ground systems, clearing away brush and undergrowth can all have noticeable positive effects on signal performance.
At the same time, better receivers are making their way into the market place. Receivers that have auto variable IF bandwidth based on signal strength could greatly improve audio quality. The auto bandwidth function could be overridden by user selected bandwidth, if desired. I know that wider IF bandwidths are in the current chipset because of IBOC and DRM, I do not know to what extent they can be adjusted, but it is something that receiver manufactures should consider.
None of these solutions are Earth shattering, nor would they require great sums of money to implement.
AM to FM Translators
The current thought process is that using FM translators for AM stations is a fantastically great development. For a class D AM station with little or no night time power, an FM translator is a good way to maintain service to the community. For class C or some class B AM stations where night time interference greatly degrades the station’s service area, an FM translator is a good way to maintain service to the community. Does a 50 KW blow torch really need a 250 watt (or less) FM translator to aide with reception in its city of license? No. Yet, this is how the AM to FM translator service will be rolled out, those that already have sound technical operations will be given FM authorizations. This does nothing to actually fix AM broadcasting technical issues, it is a well meaning measure that will be incorrectly applied by the broadcasters that need it least.
All of the technology and gadgets will not solve the problem of poor programming. This is an area where the FCC should not tread, however, broadcasting associations can assist their members with local programming issues. Broadcasters need to understand that good local programming that is unique will attract listeners, worthless junk will not.
Continued in part IV