Radio Waves: August 6, 2021

How do FM translators help AM?

A recent commentary in Radio World — an industry newspaper dedicated to radio engineering at radioworld.com — brought up something I have been wondering for many years: how does adding a low-powered FM transmitter simulcasting an AM station’s signal help in any way to “revitalize” the AM band?

Read it yourself at https://www.radioworld.com/columns-and-views/guest-commentaries/fm-translators-for-ams-are-a-double-edged-sword.

The problem with AM radio for years has been self-inflicted wounds, i.e. programming that absolutely no one wants to hear. Argue all you want about sound quality — admittedly an issue but not the major problem — but programming is king. Want people to tune into your AM station? Give listeners a reason to tune in. Syndicated political talk radio or moronic sports talk formats won’t cut it.

Some stations add what are called “translators,” the low-powered FM transmitters mentioned earlier, to theoretically add coverage to the AM signal. Often the operators then “forget” they are an AM station at all, and just pretend they are a full-power FM, mentioning only the FM frequency, as if people actually tune into a station that can often be heard in a radios of a few miles.

They don’t. Not worth the trouble to even try to tune in a station that will become unlistenable before you even get to work. And of course the elephant in the room: if the translators did work how does bringing people to the FM band help revitalize AM? In the end, it doesn’t.

In the Radio World commentary, the problem is one of sales: the FM signal is so limited that potential advertisers won’t buy because they can’t pick up the signal in all the areas they would want to be heard … all the while the AM signal is strong everywhere. The author is considering giving up the FM signal and focussing on his AM.

I agree.

I think the time has come to dump translators, forbid simulcasts, and let the weak AM stations be sold or transferred to an owner that cares; the remaining can go off the air. Fewer stations will decrease interference and the remaining stations — if they want to survive — will find a way to program what people might want to hear.

On-Line Fun

I’ve been a radio junkie for years. I actually thought it was when I was ten and my Aunt Ina gave me a Realtone 10-transistor radio; but I recently discovered, because of the many really neat air checks that have been showing up on MixCloud, that I was off a few years. Now I think I was closer to five or six. 

Not that it really matters, other than I have been a “radio dork” for a few more years than I thought. Here’s what I’ve been listening to lately, courtesy of MixCloud.Com:

KCBQ/San Diego, featuring Christopher Kane and Shotgun Tom from July of 1971. Growing up in San Pedro, San Diego radio stations came in almost as strong as locals, and I loved KCBQ. Shotgun Tom, of course, made his way up to KRTH (101.1 FM) for many years, but I remember his first from KCBQ. Christopher Kane I had forgotten about, but hearing this air check brought back memories of hearing his show as well. Absolutely fabulous top-40 radio.

KFRC/San Francisco, with a summer sampler from 1979. KFRC was San Francisco’s version of KHJ, and actually outlasted KHJ as a top-40 powerhouse. In 1979, KFRC still dominated Bay Area radio, and you can hear why.

KROQ (106.7 FM) with Freddy Snakeskin from July of 1982. This was when KROQ was actually a trendsetter, at the time breaking new music that traditional album-rock stations like KMET ignored. It wasn’t “alternative” as is thought of today; it was a super-wide variety of music presented in a modified top-40 approach. Totally different than the KROQ of today. And Snakeskin is great.

KTNQ (1020 AM) — Ten-Q with Andy Barber from July of 1978. Just as KHJ was trying to keep listeners from moving to FM by playing Led Zeppelin and disco in the same set, Ten-Q was offering a high-energy top-40 format utilizing the formats that KHJ abandoned. The excitement was exhilarating … and still fun to hear. See if you can keep up with the songs that were sped up.

KABC-FM (now KLOS, 95.5 FM) with “Brother John” Rydgren from August of 1969. This was known as the Love format on KABC-FM, one of the early album-rock formats on FM radio.  I would not consider this a great format, but it is an interesting historical recording; one I have not heard before. It sounds as if Rydgren is on tape — perhaps the station was automated with announcers pre-recording their sets as was often done in the era. But is is absolutely different than was found on any AM station of the time. 

The above were found on Radio Maven’s page (https://www.mixcloud.com/rob-frankel) and the page of Retro Radio Joe (https://www.mixcloud.com/retroradiojoe). There are many more, but these two have been my stomping grounds as of late. Very fun recording to hear, and there are many, many more.

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