All Digital AM in Frederick
One possible version of AM radio’s future was posted on a Facebook group called “I Love AM Radio.” It came from group member Steve West and was a recording of WWFD/Frederick, MD as received on a radio in Beacon Falls, CT. This is a driving distance of about 320 miles via I-95; as the crow flies it’s probably closer to 275. Still very impressive.
Of course long distance AM radio reception is not new … people have been listening to distant stations since radio broadcasting began in the 1920s. In my case, when I was young and before I even knew what phenomenon I was really experiencing, I remember picking up stations at night from great distances on my tube table radio, then wondering why I could not hear them during the day.
I also wondered why I picked up a buzz sometimes … turned out that was due to my Dad using a fluorescent light in his office down the hallway from my bedroom. But I digress.
What makes this recording intriguing is that WWFD doesn’t transmit analog audio like most stations. Instead, they are all digital, under special permission of the FCC. Only those with HD radios can hear them. West is demonstrating that long distance digital AM radio reception is indeed possible, and — perhaps (though it may be wishful thinking) — AM radio could be better than FM from a practical standpoint.
All-digital is a mode of the HD Radio system that uses the space formerly used for analog broadcasting and puts the digital signal there instead of sandwiching the digital around the analog as with the hybrid system currently in use on all other AM HD stations, which locally includes KNX (1070 AM), KSUR (“K-Surf” 1260 AM), KFWB (980 AM), and KBRT (740 AM).
The problem with the hybrid mode is that the digital portion of the signal extends out far enough from the main frequency of a station and thus can cause interference to other stations nearby. Hybrid mode thus limits the digital signal to a fraction of a station’s broadcast power.
All-digital, being centered on the frequency, allows a station to broadcast the digital signal at a station’s full power, permitting better coverage, less interference, and better sound quality.
At least that’s the theory. Right now more testing is needed, primarily to see what happens when more stations are using the system. The problem is the all-digital system is not yet authorized without special permission, and of course many stations would be reluctant to try it, as doing so means losing every listener without an HD radio … most of the potential audience.
West’s recording is not perfect. The signal is like any digital signal — as on your computer or your digital television, the signal is either there … or it is not. Being received at such a great distance the reception is not perfect and cuts out, but as I said, it does show some great potential.
Speaking of AM
PastDaily.Com had an interesting post recently: “It’s September 1980 – You Live In L.A. – You’re In College – You Suddenly Realize It’s Not The 70’s Anymore.”
The focus of the post was the announcement that KHJ (980 AM) was dropping top-40 and going country later that year, November as it turned out. The accompanying recording, https://tinyurl.com/RWPDKHJ, is from the period after the announcement of the change was made but before the change actually happened … and is frankly somewhat depressing. Almost all the energy KHJ had just a few months earlier was gone as management sabotaged the top-40 format in preparation for the change. No jingles, even. But it’s still good for historical purposes.
“You’re stunned – you don’t know where the time went,” the post says. “Seems like last week you were still in high school and KHJ was on your radio, glued to your ear. But now you’re in college and somebody just told you that KHJ would be a Country-Western station soon – no more Boss Radio – no more Boss Jocks. Although, to be honest – you stopped listening when you got your first car after graduation and it had an FM radio …
“And you fell in love with The Mighty MET, and KHJ was relegated to ‘emergency listening’ status. Still, Boss Radio was your youth – the thing that represented good times and parties. The go-to consoler when things got crazy and out of hand, or when that breakup happened, totally out of the blue.”
Read the entire story at https://tinyurl.com/RWPD0608.
One could argue that the post is a little harsh. Indeed, just before the ill-fated decision to go country, KHJ under programmer Chuck Martin had earned its highest ratings in years. The trades called it a “miracle.” But there is truth to the fact that KMET and other FM stations had stolen listeners from KHJ as they got older.
Indeed, almost all of my friends listed to KMET. So did my brother, Victor. They liked the music, they liked the personalities that seemed somehow more hip, more relevant to their lives. But as with the PastDaily post, they left for the music and the DJs, not (gasp!) the sound quality.
Which brings me full circle to a point I fully believe — if AM stations would play things people want to hear, those people would listen. Using the sound quality argument — while admittedly valid — is a copout and the sign of a lazy programmer or owner. AM destroyed itself by dropping music and going with sports or political talk. Now that most FM stations are stagnant, boring and predictable, AM could gain listeners by being doing what FM once did: take chances. Play new music. Be irreverent. Be what FM once was.
Considering that few AM stations even pay the electric bills any more, what do they have to lose?
Larry Van Nuys has left the morning slot at K—Surf. That makes for about six months at the station; his last show was June 28th … Patrick Osburn is the new general manager at KCSN (88.5 FM), He replaces Jeff Penfield, who took over as interim GM after Sky Daniels retired … Dave Beasing’s Sound That Brands podcasting/marketing company attracted the attention of radio’s Emmis Communications (former owner of Power 106 FM). Emmis’ investment in the company will help Beasing expand at a faster rate.