Can Analog Stereo Help AM?
Last week I wrote a little about streaming audio and how, with the use of smart speakers, smart phones, and plain old computer streaming, the possibility of internet radio essentially replacing traditional broadcast radio.
This week I want to travel to both the past and one of broadcast radio’s possible futures, spurred on by the ideas presented last week, my absolutely illogical love of AM radio, and a letter to the editor of industry newspaper Radio World that I read online at radioworld.com.
AM radio broadcasting is almost a century old in the United States – numerous stations in Los Angeles, including KHJ (930 AM), KFI (640 AM) and KNX (1070 AM) will celebrate 100 years of broadcasting in two years. That’s an impressive feat, especially considering the technology is essentially the same as it was in 1922.
As I mentioned last week, digital HD Radio, considered for a time as the savior of both AM — due to higher fidelity — and FM — due to potential higher fidelity and extra stations — just hasn’t made the impact many had hoped. For various reasons, many AM stations have turned off the HD signal, even while FMs continue to use it, and consumers don’t seem all that interested in either. But as I said last week, with smart speakers, what’s the point? And a related question comes up: is broadcast AM radio just a dead technology?
Christopher Boone thinks he has the answers. No, AM is not dead. But if you really want to improve it, bring back a technology that already “failed” … AM stereo. In a letter sub-headlined “Want revitalization? Mandate AM stereo in any FM stereo radio,” Boone makes the point that analog AM stereo is still an option for broadcasters, and that it would be an easy technology to re-implement.
“One-hundred stations in the United States still broadcast in C-QUAM AM stereo, and there are more returning. A station in the New Orleans market will be starting C-QUAM as I write. There is one in Texas and more thinking about it. Australia has announced four stations there will be begin C-QUAM stereo transmissions in the next month or two.”
AM stereo was a technology tried in the 1980s, but it didn’t pan put for two primary reasons: The FCC didn’t set a single standard until years after interest waned, confusing both manufacturers and consumers having to deal with four incompatible standards. And stereo means nothing if the audio still sounds muddy, as many AM stereo receivers did.
But AM stereo has the potential to sound absolutely amazing. I own a Carver tuner that was made with an AM tuner capable of reproducing AM audio quality all the way to 20 kHz … higher than most humans can hear, higher than the standard for FM stereo, and much greater than the 3 kHz that the typical AM radio can produce.
The problem is that there are no currently-available radios that can decode AM stereo, right? Wrong. HD Radio is similar enough to the AM stereo standard C-QUAM that a station can’t broadcast AM HD and traditional stereo at the same time … which also means that many HD radios in use can already decode it. “The HD Radios (that can decode analog stereo) only need some code written to decode it and open up the bandwidth for full analog fidelity,” Boone says, adding that modern receiver designs can reduce or eliminate static and other noise inherent to AM broadcasting, making for an impressive listening experience.
The solution for AM improvement, according to Boone: Mandate stereo on AM for any radio that receives stereo on FM, and include receiver standards that make the audio sound better. My additional suggestion: program something worth hearing.
Want to hear some samples of AM stereo? www.i1430.com sends their online live stream through a Carver AM stereo tuner, and a member of a Facebook group dedicated to AM stereo uploaded a recording of WDGY/Minneapolis-St.Paul recorded on a Sony Walkman that receives AM stereo; for educational purposes head over to tinyurl.com/RadioWaves0626.
Going full circle, though … what’s the point? Well, broadcasting is still more efficient than what might be called netcasting, and there is a limit to the number of listeners who can stream a station at the same time. Additionally, using a radio is easy and reliable. Perhaps it’s time to make it work again.
It is long in coming, but the volunteers behind ReelRadio.Com — an online museum of classic top-40 radio airchecks — recordings of stations from the top-40 heydays — were able to finally break free of the RealAudio player that was needed to hear the recordings … but which hadn’t been compatible with the encoding used by the site in years, forcing users to keep old versions of the Real Player program and operating systems that allowed them to run on their computers.
Effective as of June 1st, the recordings were all re-encoded into what is known as M4A/AAC, and you can use the VLC Media Player and play every recording on the site, including older files that have not been heard by some users in years.
The site focusses primarily on top-40 stations and personalities of the past from all across the United States. But there are some hidden gems outside of the norm … such as a recording with Bing Crosby on KHJ … from 1931!
This is the site that made me love the internet, in the days when dial-up modems were needed to access the world-wide web. Back in the early days you needed a 2400 baud modem … super fast at the time … to hear the files.