AM: Ancient Modulation?

This is the first of an ongoing series devoted to discussion of the AM broadcast band – now considered by many to be on ‘life support’. The
reasons behind this conclusion are varied & complex. While I won’t dispute the truth in that belief, I refuse to accept it as an inevitable victim of progress & evolution of technology. Is AM totally obsolete? If so, is it soon time to abandon these frequencies & have broadcasters migrate elsewhere? If not, are there realistic ‘fixes’ to save the AM band & maintain it’s relevance & usefulness? All simple, direct questions with no easy answers. I certainly don’t profess to have any “magic cures” for AM radio, but am intrigued & passionate enough about AM broadcasting to explore the dilemmas & some possible solutions to save the band from certain death.

The simplistic answers often paraded out by consultants, some broadcasters & even FCC commissioners point to ‘changing listener habits over time’ & ‘evolution of technologies’ as the reasons given behind this slow abandonment of AM radio as the prime means of listening to be informed or entertained. No denial there by this reporter. However, there is much more to the problem of declining AM listening than just these two factors. Nonetheless, they are the starting point of AM’s slow decline which began 40-45 years back. The slow acceptance & adoption of higher fidelity FM meant more & more listeners were turning to the new band for serious music listening instead of AM. At first, classical, jazz & “beautiful music” stations on FM drew the original music loving listeners away from AM. Then, as rock & adult contemporary music became more & more prevalent on FM, more shift from AM to FM listening took place. This change eventually resulted in FM becoming the predominant choice for over-the-air radio listeners preferring music-based radio formats. Accordingly, AM broadcasters were discovering success in talk, news, sports & information based programming as listeners, advertisers & ratings declined to their once music dominant formats. All seemed well for the AM band as it settled into it’s new role as a source for talk & info based programming. Technology would deliver the next blow to AM’s success & can be stated with one word – the Internet! Suffice to say, there’s been no turning back since the human race discovered the online world thanks to cheap, now easy-to- use computers & competitive ISP plans. Rapid advancement in computer & Internet technologies would soon include the advent of the digital audio file, video, online webstream broadcasting & the ability to share all of these simultaneously. This new digital world would next move out of the house & office onto personal devices and cell phones thanks to widely available wi-fi Internet access. With this rapid advancement has come a gradual shift in listening habits. That brings us to today’s over-the-air broadcasting landscape – diminishing in favor of online access to music, news & entertainment. Many listeners now under the age of 35 have NEVER listened to any over-the-air radio, let alone the noisy, scratchy, low fidelity AM band. These are simple arguments that take much of the blame for the recent decline & failure of many AM broadcasters to attain ratings & maintain advertising revenue success. But…there ARE other factors that are contributing to this decline & will be discussed in more detail in future installments in this series.

Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening

1 thought on “AM: Ancient Modulation?

  1. From the Internet Archive ( we reclaim some of our Lost Comments:

    Jason Remington says:
    September 8, 2018 8:50 pm at
    I listen to:
    1. podcasts of Tim Conway-KFI, Los Angeles; Adam Corolla, Dennis Miller, Michael Savage, and AJ Benza
    2. The Tom & Curley Show on KIRO FM
    3. KNKX FM Blues at night on weekends
    I have enjoyed some of the talk shows on KHHO 850 and KLAY 1180, but am not a regular listener.
    AM radio is just the last choice, when all else fails to entertain.
    But, I have a couple thousand tunes on my mp3 player and I would probably hit that before I would move to the AM dial. (sad face)

    Mike Cherry says:
    September 9, 2018 11:54 am at
    I’m impressed. What a concise, tidy list! Oh boy…I sample EVERYTHING but have my regular list of stations & audio that I LISTEN to. I will put some thought into assembling this to add to the topic. I have actually been mulling over a “What Are YOU listening to?” post every 6 months or so to find out what PSM readers are tuned in to – an informal regular survey of our readers tastes.

    The key point in your comments & list is the word “choice” Individually, we can all completely program what audio we consume now using a variety of media to accomplish this. How can ANY over-the-air broadcasting in 2018 compete with this, let alone ‘underdog’ AM radio? You’ve touched on a subject that is part of my next blog in this ongoing saga of AM radio. I’ll drop the hint – it’s all about the programming, or lack of it. I do note however, that a portion of your listening does involve AM radio, albeit not necessarily via a radio.

    Steven Smith says:
    September 9, 2018 2:43 pm at
    Mike, for what it’s worth, I still listen to AM in my vehicle. It does not get the dropouts in sound when I turn corners like so many FM SIGNALS. I miss CISL, my go to station. KBAI AM OR FM is just putting so little effort into providing programming that I have not heard it in months….same rotation day after day, canned liners by a jock who is not age suitable to a 50 plus demo. And 50 plus is the only age that would be interested. At night I put online oldies on my tablet, some interesting stations out there.

    Mike Cherry says:
    September 9, 2018 4:31 pm at
    Steven you’re lucky you have a vehicle radio with a decent AM in it. Such is often not the case. In fact, most of the car makers either no longer provide a radio with AM or do a poor job of shielding it from the on-board microprocessors, resulting in bad noise issues & added interference. Our 2009 SUV has this problem, so does a family members 2018 Toyota. FM cuts out on vehicle radios for different reasons – usually a poor antenna unable to cope with ‘multi-path’ in addition to the over-crowding of the FM dial in recent years. Both vehicle reception problems can be annoying, particularly for rural listeners who have to deal with both.

    I think there are plenty out there who miss the old C-ISL after their first year as yet another sports station in the region. This has resulted in even lower ratings & less listeners than as an oldies outlet. I don’t get it with K-BAI either. The potential is there for a great station & Bellingham has plenty of listeners in the older 55+ demo. In some markets, Saga has been running a 60’s/70’s oldies package. However, it’s the same tepid effort as with all of their music stations, but would be preferable to the mish-mash of mostly 80’s classic hits that’s on there now.

    Vehicle radios and programming will all get some op-ed time on upcoming blogs on the state of AM radio today. Indeed, there’s plenty out there on the ‘Net in every musical flavor imaginable.

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