The death of AM?

In the U.K., they are beginning to debate the death of AM radio.

  • We are. But the circumstances are different here in the UK than the US: radio is significantly more multi-platform here.

    I work for Virgin Radio – a nationwide AM music broadcaster – and we’re also available on FM in London, DAB Digital Radio across the UK, and via television networks like Sky, Freeview and cable. In total, 28% of our TSL (time spent listening) is to us on a new platform. We’re leading the way (I’d say that, of course) but we’re not unusual in our multi-platform approach to radio.

    Clearly, I’d better not disagree with my boss, quoted in the article – that would be slightly foolish – but I’d certainly agree that there will be a time for us to switch our AM signal off: the sales of DAB Digital Radio (kind of like HD Radio but with steroids) are increasing exponentially right now. We have 40-odd AM transmitters across the UK; I’d like to see us begin to switch selected transmitters off very shortly.

    By the way: you’re welcome to come and visit the Virgin Radio website. It’s rather good.

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  • bittorrent

    I see the article includes the usual big lie that digital broadcasts here are higher quality than FM. In fact, in many cases the bitrate on digital radio in the UK is so low that it is inferior quality to FM.

  • spectrum is such a valuable commodity. Other players lurking behind the scenes?

  • Old Grouch

    By “multi-platform,” Mr. Cridland means “broadcasting identical programs simultaneously on AM, FM, and/or digital.” This sort of thing doesn’t exist in the US: Any given operator’s AM and FM programs are almost always separate. (The separation was once a legal requirement.) Thus for UK operators the (duplicate-programmed) AM channel represents a cost to be shed, while for US operators (independently-programmed) AM presents an opportunity to appeal to a different audience segment. The separation has also slowed listener migration away from AM: In many US markets you’ll find AMs still occupying positions at or near the top of the ratings charts. The cost structure is different, also, since US operators don’t pay “huge amounts of money” in spectrum taxes.

    Also (excepting of some of the state-run public radio nets and entities like Moody Bible), there really isn’t anything like “national radio” in the US. The commercial operators may join ad-hoc networks for particular programs (Bob and Tom, Rush Limbaugh, various sporting events), but there’s still a lot of variation from market to market. Even “National” Public Radio’s programs get time-shifted at the local level. (This isn’t all that new, either. Golden Age radio was regionalized: Anybody else remember NBC Red and Blue, and “repeating for the west coast”?)

    AM will probably go away someday (although that part of the specturm isn’t suited for much other than broadcast– propagation characteristics and noise, y’know), but I don’t see that happening until everyone can get the equivalent of a reliable high-speed internet connection in their car (or in their pocket!).

    I wonder how eager Mr. Hazlitt would be to just “switch it off” if he was facing the possibility that, instead of leaving silence, some other operator might be awarded the frequency. It would be interesting to study Canada’s experience, where some of the CBC’s former AM frequencies are now occupied by commercial broadcasters.

    And, as for doing away with AM, why, the UK (region) hasn’t even managed to do away with long wave yet! :-)

  • mark

    The main problem with AM these days is interference from innumerate computers, car ECUs, so on and so forth… it’s been a long time since I’ve been able to get a decent signal in my house, but a lot of my listening time used to be taken up by it (stations such as Virgin, Talk UK, Atlantic, World Service etc) as the typical programming didn’t require high quality and there was less crosstalk… and I’ve only just turned 25. FM is far more resilient to that… maybe if the bands were given over to some kind of lower-bandwidth FM mono? Alternatively there’s been talk of using the bands, particularly across rural Africa and other sparse, low income regions, for voice-quality digital transmissions. Similar or better audio quality (32k mp3 already gives good quality compared to MW, and they’re talking about using AAC-plus instead), greater resistance to interference, with the existing benefit of much improved broadcast area for the same output power. Besides the UK transmissions, a game on a dull night was to try and find some irish, european (english or otherwise) or even american broadcasts…

    (I can’t personally talk for the reliability of digital, as I simply can’t stand the typical so-called “quality” of it, which is surely a judgement being made by 50-something executives with ears ruined by a lifetime of heavy metal concerts… 128kbit stream, using the ancient mp2 format, usually with a similarly ancient and rubbish encoder by the sound of it. Ugh. Though my mother hasn’t reported any tuning difficulties with her DAB…)

    Personally not a fan of the blind onrush of digital transmission taking over from analogue, you may tell – for radio or TV… it takes a certain amount of control from the user’s hands for a start, plus the promises made about it are just not ringing that true. The choice of many great programmes is only partly fulfilled, and we already had that with analogue cable and satellite in my area; the extra bandwidth granted by digital seems to have gone on a multitude of repeat and “+1” channels, TV auctions, infomercials and phone-in games, often appearing in crystal quality whilst the “prime” channels are inexplicably received in half resolution, quarter rate quality with occasional dropouts. Useless. Not to mention the so-called digital “teletext”. I’m supposed to gave up my reliable tuning, block-free (effectively PCM) full-resolution signal and REAL, useful teletext for this crap? By the way, if everyone’s going to have the choice of a hundred or more channels in the future … where’s the money going to come from to fund programme creation or even the grunt presenters’ salaries, compared to when we had no more than 5 TV and 10 radio stations, and they still weren’t all that rich? Did anyone actually think this through?

  • Radiohead

    for North America:
    national radio – XM and Sirius
    Mass audience is 20th century phenom; small AM stations serve niches well, if they can scrape up the funding for operations. The AM band is not being sought by any other industries. HD-AM is supposed to limit the unattractiveness of AM reception. AM *can* sound equal or superior to FM at least fidelity-wise and in the audio freqs below 10K; but there’s no demand for high quality AM receivers (the AM section in that pricey new home theater receiver is probably junk) so broadcasters just try to cram as much signal as they can into the watts they’re licensed. For talk heard in a noisy environment like the car, that’s probably the way to go.
    Wi-xxx or IP like EVDO won’t ever becoming reliable or ubiquitous or cheap enough for listening in the car. Analog radio broadcasting may go away, and we’ll have to live with 32k AAC quality digital reception forever, but broadcasting to people who are away from high speed IP connections will be profitable for a long time. We may just learn to accept the need to pay for choices beyond the mass market.

  • Old Grouch says: By “multi-platform,” Mr. Cridland means “broadcasting identical programs simultaneously on AM, FM, and/or digital.” This sort of thing doesn’t exist in the US: Any given operator’s AM and FM programs are almost always separate. (The separation was once a legal requirement.)

    In fact, a similar situation happens here in the UK. Virgin Radio’s FM covers London, while our AM is nationwide: both carry different commercials, news, and information. In the UK, the regulator does not normally allow AM/FM simulcasting, and the only stations simulcasting between FM and AM are BBC Radio 4 – the former Home Service – and a commercial radio station in the far north of Scotland. Both do so because FM coverage is not ubiquitous. All former AM/FM simulcasters now provide separate programming, and have done since the late 1980s.

    Indeed, simulcasting is a legal requirement in the US: HD Radio broadcasts must contain the audio from the analogue station as an exact simulcast, mandated by the FCC.

    The cost structure is different, also, since US operators don’t pay “huge amounts of money” in spectrum taxes.

    Nor do UK broadcasters. The three analogue national commercial radio stations pay ‘huge amounts’ for our licences; but local stations do not.

    I wonder how eager Mr. Hazlitt would be to just “switch it off” if he was facing the possibility that, instead of leaving silence, some other operator might be awarded the frequency.

    We do not believe that it is economically viable for any new entrant to exclusively use national AM broadcasting. Indeed, AM licences recently advertised for Greater London attracted virtually no bids; and AM-only stations are already closing or networking. All show alarming decline of audience. AM alone is no longer a viable medium for a music station; and even AM speech is seeing significant movement to digital platforms.

    (Oh, and “Mr Hazlitt” is most definitely a woman, last time I looked – not that it makes your points any less valid!)

  • Old Grouch

    Thanks for the reply, James. It’s been a few years since I was in the UK, obviously things have changed a bit.

    I’m still confused re: UK spectrum taxes. What determines which operators pay them and which don’t? (I.e., is it for-profit business organization, sale of commercial advertising, coverage, or some other criterion?) The point I had intended to make is that because US broadcasters, for-profit or not, presently pay no spectrum tax, it’s not a factor in the cost of operation.

    Re: HD, an important distinction (which explains the US simulcast requirement) is that the US HD standard is “on channel,” that is, instead of being used to create new digital-only stations on new frequencies, it is applied to (and is ultimately supposed to replace) the existing analog carrier. AIUI, this was to avoid the problem of relicensing the country’s 13,000-some stations (while protecting incumbent license holders!). This initially makes HD an enhancement for those with receivers that can utilize it (like stereophonic sound), while keeping the signal compatible with older equipment. (American-market HD receivers are thus designed to substitute the analog signal if HD-1 is not present or unreliable.) Supposedly this will obtain for some “transition period,” then, “as the market reaches maturity” (i.e., who knows when?), the analog portion of the signal will be eliminated. Separation of the analog and the digital channels makes no sense under this scenario. Also note that the simulcast requirement applies only to AM and the HD-1 channel for FM. The FM broadcasters can presently offer up to two additional independent HD program streams. (AM doesn’t have the necessary bandwidth, so current AM broadcasters have to be satisfied with a quiet, digital signal.)

    All of this has made the US situation– ummm– “interesting.” The (commercial) developer of the HD standard has been holding out for royalties on all new receivers, which has made them expensive and hard to find, severely delaying uptake– especially in the important automotive market. With few receivers in the hands of the public, there has been limited incentive for broadcasters to (1) begin broadcasting in digital and (2) invest in programming for the independent HD-only streams. This has been accompanied by shoot-yourself-in-the-foot promotion efforts that have left the audience confused and indifferent. Right now, it’s a race between HD technology and other forms of program delivery. (Honda and Ford have announced the availablilty of factory-installed XM or Sirius satellite radio receivers beginning with the 2007 model year. This while no car manufacturer presently offers a factory HD set.) Some cynics are even saying that there’s a better-than-even chance that HD will ultimately fail due to lack of interest, or because of better alternatives. (Those interested can find lots of discussion in Mark Ramsey’s archives here.)

    Finally, my apologies to Ms. Hazlitt. (I blame scanning articles before morning coffee has kicked in.)