Diverging Perspectives on the Future of AM

Nobody really quite knows what the National Association of Broadcasters’ AM Task Force is up to, but speculation surrounding their work has sparked some interesting discussion about the state and future of the oldest of the broadcast radio bands.
The Task Force seems to be considering two primary ideas for “revitalizing” AM broadcasting. One is to phase it out completely and migrate all AM stations to new spots on the FM dial. The other involves a wholesale conversion of AM broadcasting from analog to digital, using AM-HD as the mechanism.
Neither of these proposals are optimal. Both would necessitate listeners buying new receivers to take advantage of any changes, and they would be expensive and disruptive to all AM broadcasters – many of whom are on shaky financial footing already.
The NAB, as the handmaiden of the largest broadcast conglomerates (and with the close cooperation of National Public Radio) seems to be leaning toward the digitalization route. Either will be a tough sell.
AM Task Force Chairman Ben Downs, the vice president of Texas-based Bryan Broadcasting, recently articulated his views on potential changes to the AM dial. But even he played coy: “I can’t speak for the NAB, but the sense I get is that people would like to do more study on some pieces, like the HD-only, in the hope that the further study would make the solutions more clear. Maybe by doing some more research…suddenly an option will pop out and be clear to everyone that this is what should be done. ”
However, there are those who are not looking at new or modified technology to revitalize AM broadcasting. Saul Levine, the owner of Mt. Wilson Broadcasters – the only independent commercial broadcasting company left in Los Angeles – thinks the solution is relatively simple.
“First, get over this belief that everything must be digital, and that analog is a bad word,” he says. “There are immediately available technical improvements that can bolster the analog AM signal. AM operators should dump the ancient RF and audio equipment…and replace with state-of-the-art new transmitters, antenna phasing systems, new ground systems, new audio equipment, new processing equipment and anything else…producing a negative impact on the signal.”
Engineer extraordinaire Paul Thurst agrees. “How many of us have seen AM transmitter site dumps? Deferred maintenance, malfunctioning directional arrays, trees growing up on the ground system, flooded buildings and ATU’s, rusty towers, transmitters not at full power, ground system deteriorated or missing all together, just to list a few problems. Many AM transmitter sites are technical disasters.”
Thurst also suggests AM broadcasters shy away from HD (“This dubious technology has proved itself a non-starter and should be discontinued”) and should advocate for improvements in AM receiver technology.
Perhaps most importantly, both Levine and Thurst believe AM stations would perform better if broadcasters actually put some care into what they program. Levine’s AM station plays classical music, which is nearly unheard of today. (It’s also broadcast as an HD-2 channel on one of Levine’s FM outlets.) Thurst is more explicit: “Expecting that mediocre satellite syndicated news talk will garner great ratings and huge revenues is silly. For years and years, station owners have put minimal effort into AM radio and expected big returns. It is not working. AM stations that go against that trend; those with unique formats (Gasp! Music, on AM?), local content, and community oriented programming can and do succeed.”
The sad thing is, such content-driven solutions are unlikely to be seriously considered, especially when the political and economic heft of the industry resides with those who think that gadgetry might magically fix all woes.