We first licensed AM radio stations in the 1920s, we were always mindful of a top tier of stations, the I-A clear frequencies with either one station holding a national monopoly on that frequency, or having a clear dominance against other stations that were very distant and usually daytime only. While this concept is gone, its legacy remains in high powered stations like KFI, Los Angeles and WGN, Chicago.
The idea behind the nationally cleared channels was that the small rural communities would have a wide range of program choices, particularly at night which was prime time for radio during its first golden age. But we’ve moved so far away from that, that maybe our next policy should be to license a huge number of extremely small stations to encourage localism down to the city block level.
It would be a shame to shut down a service that has such a huge installed base of receivers, but it doesn’t look like the future for AM is very bright under the old model. Amplitude modulation (or AM) radio is the simplest most direct way to send a radio signal; its so simple that everything from car alternators to microwave ovens create unwanted static that is almost impossible to discern from the desired signal.
Stations were originally licensed to serve cities that now include hundreds of square miles of suburbs, so the noise problem got greater as the areas they need to serve got larger. This week, broadcast consultant Richard Arsenault floated a trial balloon: he wants to let AM stations increase their powers 4 to 10-fold. That’s just nuts. When you have too many people shouting in a room, the answer isn’t for them to all shout louder.
As a part of our digital conversion of television, we’re now considering paying TV stations to consolidate bandwidth, and do more with less. TV broadcasters generally don’t like it, but its not really their spectrum to start with. I think we should do the same thing with AM radio. Its already unlistenable in many areas; we’ve reached what the late FCC-commissioner James Quello called “one huge buzz.”
Let’s offer to pay AM stations to go dark. Lots of them are in a financial hole they can never emerge from, anyway. Then we license a whole host of small stations: 30-100 watts, with at least 50 miles between them; low-power stations that are the equivalent of the parking-help stations at airports.
The standard broadcast band isn’t worth much when it comes to transmitting data; its bandwidth is terrible, which is why audio broadcast on it sounds like a 25kbps mp3. Arsenault is right, we need a do-over, but not one that just makes the problem worse.