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 The FCC should get rid of all the outdated and patronizing profanity regulations.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

More news talk migrates to the FM band

Once a bastion of the AM dial, News and or News/Talk format radio stations seem to be springing up on the FM band more and more often.  The original premise for creating talk radio on the AM band was the lower bandwidth and reduced (or perception of reduced) fidelity when compared to the FM band lent itself to non-music programming.  The reality is that receiver manufacturers never carried through on the NRSC-2 technical improvements, and AM receivers reproduced thin, low-quality audio.  I digress, the story goes, the FM band was great for music and the AM band did well with information and talk.

Of course, there were always a few exceptions to those general rules, but for the most part, that pattern held true until about 2009 or 10.  That is when AM station’s programming began to be simulcast again (everything old is new again) on FM stations and HD-2 subchannels.   It would be interesting to examine why this is so and what it means to the radio business as a whole.

The general trend in the music industry has also been down.  This is important because record labels and the radio business used to go hand in hand.  Record labels had the job of separating the wheat from the chaff.  Those groups or artists that had the talent would be given recording contracts and airplay.  With exposure, they would become more known, sell more recordings, record more songs, etc until they peaked and began to decline.  Radio stations prospered under this arrangement because they took on none of the risks while getting huge vast quantities of program material to playback, and charging advertising fees for spaces within that programming.

So far so good.

Then, two things happened:

  1. The communications act of 1996
  2. The Internet

The communications act of 1996 forever changed the way the radio business was run in this country.  No longer were there several thousand individual stations, the most influential of which resided in markets #1 and #2.  Instead, there were conglomerations of stations run out of Atlanta, Fort Worth, and a dozen or so other medium-sized cities.  No longer were stations competing head to head and trying to be the best and serve their respective audiences; rather, station A was positioned against station B to erode some of its audience so that station C could get better national buys from big ad agencies.  No longer would possible controversial artists like the Indigo Girls get airplay on some groups.  Songs were sanitized against possible FCC indecency sanctions, morning shows became bland and safe, and radio on the whole became a lot less edgy as big corporate attorneys put the clamps on anything that would invite unwanted exposure.

The last great musical genre was the Grunge/Seattle Sound of the early 1990s.  Those bands somehow mixed heavy metal, obscure mumbled lyrics, flannel shirts, and ripped jeans into something that the dissatisfied Gen Xers could understand and appreciate.  By 1996, this had morphed into “Modern Rock,” and carried on for several years after that, to fade out in the early 00’s.  Since that time, there have been no great musical innovations, at least on the creative side, other than the ubiquitous Apple computer and Pro Sound Tools software.

The internet greatly changed the way recording labels did business, mainly by eating into their bottom line.  This had the effect of circling the wagons and throwing up a protective barrier against almost all innovations.  The net result was fewer and fewer talented artists being able to record, which pushed those people into smaller, sometimes home-based recording studios.  While those studios can put out good or sometimes even excellent material, often the recordings lack the professional touches that a highly trained recording engineer can add.  Add to this the mass input of the internet and no longer are bands or artists pre-screened.  Some may point to that as a good development with more variety available for the average person.  Perhaps, but the average person does not have time to go through and find good music to download from the iTunes store.  Thus, a break developed in the method of getting good, talented artists needed exposure.  Youtube has become one of the places to find new music, but it is still a chore to wade through all the selections.

Thus, when FM HD-2 channels came into being, there was little new programming to be put into play.  HD radio was left to broadcast existing material with reduced coverage and quality than that of analog FM.  That trend continues today where now analog FM channels are being used to broadcast the news/talk programming that used to reign on AM.

What will happen next?  If Tim Westergren has any say, the internet (namely Pandora) will take over and terrestrial radio will cease to exist.  Current trends point solidly in that direction, although I think Tim is a little ahead of himself in his prediction.

News/Talk on the FM dial point not to an attempt to shift the wheezing, white, (C)onservative/(R)epublican programming to a younger demographic, who will, if I am any judge of history, remain unimpressed.  No, rather, they are running out of other source material, simulcasting syndicated talk radio is cheap, lean, and a good way to make money without having to pay actual salaries.

Everything we do is destined for one place.

I give you, The Human Ear:

Anatomy of the human ear
Anatomy of the Human Ear, courtesy of Wikipedia

All of the programming elements, all of the engineering equipment and practices, all of the creative process, the music, the talk, the commercials, everything that goes out over the air should reach as many ears as possible.  That is the business of radio.  The quality of the sound and the listening experience is often lost in the process.

Unfortunately, a large segment of the population has been conditioned to accept the relatively low quality of .mp3 and other digital files delivered via computers and smartphones.  There is some hope however; when exposed to good-sounding audio, most people respond favorably, or are in fact, amazed that music can sound that good.

There are few fundamentals as important as sounding good.  Buying the latest Frank Foti creation and hitting preset #10 is all well and good, but what is it that you are really doing?

There was a time when the FCC required a full audio proof every year.  That meant dragging the audio test equipment out and running a full sweep of tones through the entire transmission system, usually late at night.  It was a great pain, however, it was also a good exercise in basic physics.  Understanding pre-emphasis and de-emphasis curves, how an STL system can add distortion and overshoot, how clean (distortion-wise) the output of the console is, how clean the transmitter modulator is, how to correct for base frequency tilt and high-frequency ringing, all of those are basic tenants of broadcast engineering.  Mostly today, those things are taken for granted or ignored.

Audio frequency vs. wavelength chart
Audio frequency vs. wavelength chart

Every ear is different and responds to sound slightly differently.  The frequencies and SPLs given here are averages, some people have hearing that can go far above or below average, however, they are an anomaly.

Understanding audio is a good start.  Audio is also known as sound pressure waves.  A speaker system generates areas or waves of lower and high pressure in the atmosphere.  The size of these waves depends on the frequency of vibration and the energy behind the vibrations.  Like radio, audio travels in a wave outward from its source, decreasing in density as a function of the area covered.  It is a logarithmic decay.

The human ear is optimized for hearing in the mid-range band around 3 KHz, slightly higher for women and lower for men.  This is because the ear canal is a 1/4 wavelength resonant at those frequencies.  Mid range is most associated with the human voice and the perceived loudness of program material.

Bass frequencies contain a lot of energy due to the longer wavelengths.  This energy is often transmitted into structural members without adding too much to the listening experience due to a sharp roll-off starting around 100 Hz.  Too much base energy in radio programming can sap loudness by reducing the midrange and high-frequency energy from the modulated product.

High frequencies offer directivity, as in left right stereo separation.  Too much high frequency sounds shrill and can adversely affect female listeners, as they are more sensitive to high-end audio because of smaller ear canals and tympanic membranes.

Processing programming material is a highly subjective matter.  I am a minimalist, I think that too much processing is self-defeating.  I have listened to a few radio stations that have given me a headache after 10 minutes or so.  Overly processed audio sounds splashy, contrived, and fake with unnatural sounds and separation.  A good idea is to understand each station’s processing goals.  A hip-hop or CHR station obviously is looking for something different than a classical music station.

For the non-engineer, there are three main effects of processing;  equalization, compression (AKA gain reduction), and expansion.  Then there are other things like phase rotation, pre-emphasis or de-emphasis, limiting, clipping, and harmonics.

EQ is a matter of taste, although it can be used to overcome some non-uniformity in STL paths.  Compression is a way to bring up quiet passages and increase sound density or loudness.  Multi-band compression is all the rage, it allows each of the four bands to react differently to program material, which can really make things sound differently than they were recorded. Miss-adjusting a multi-band compressor can make audio really sound bad.  Compression is dictated not only by the amount of gain reduction but also by the ratio, attack, and release times.  Limiting is relative to compression, but acts only on the highest peaks.  A certain amount of limiting is good as it acts to keep programming levels constant.  Clipping is a last resort method for keeping errant peaks from affecting modulation levels.  Expansion is often used on microphones and is a poor substitute for a well built quiet studio.  Expansion often adds swishing effects to microphones.

I may break down the effects of compression and EQ in a separate post.  The effects of odd and even order audio harmonics could easily fill a book.