When Rush Limbaugh died, it was pretty inevitable that his death would mark the end of most viable commercial AM radio stations in the United States, at least the English-speaking non-religious population. The bankruptcy of Audacy, the owner of the all news stations in major markets (formerly operated by CBS radio) was yet another indicator.
About a week ago, I received a phone call from a woman whose father was distraught because his local AM radio station in rural Pennsylvania was off the air and they didn’t know why. They have been carrying the predictable conservative talk lineup of Glenn Beck, Mark Levin, Ben Shapiro, etc. After a little digging around, I found the answer and it’s a sign of things to come. They had switched to a music format and apparently turned off the AM transmitter.
A few years ago under the FCC chairman Ajit Pai, who was elevated to Chairman by Donald Trump, an attempt was made to “save AM radio”. It was thought that if each AM station was given an FM translator with a range of about 5 miles, the AM stations could remain viable financially, including being able to be on the air 24 hours a day at full power with emergency broadcast capabilities after the sun goes down. Interference on the AM dial from electronic devices is killing the signal quality.
There are approximately 4,400 licensed AM stations, and about 3,300 of them now have new FM translators. If by “saving AM radio”, they meant saving the AM local full-service format of news and information and local talk shows from the 1950s, it is a dismal failure. Once the station owner moves their audience to the FM band, it’s extremely tempting to drop News talk and switch to a music format. Many have done just that.
So once all of your audience is listening on FM to your AM station, it becomes very tempting to just turn off the AM transmitter to save electricity. But that’s against the rules. In theory, the FM translator is supposed to be listening to the AM signal and rebroadcasting it, but if you actually did that you’re going to have the narrow bandwidth of AM radio on your FM station – without stereo.
What is happening, and has been going on for a long time but people are slow to acknowledge it, is that AM station operators have turned off their transmitter, some of them have torn down their antennas, and almost nobody notices or cares. In some situations, that means listeners will no longer be able to hear the AM station because it had a further range than the FM translator that is replacing it.
If I were in charge of the FCC, I would acknowledge reality. Give the AM station owners the option of permanently turning off the AM transmitter, tear down the tower, sell the land, recycle the copper and move the call sign to their FM translator instead of its current name like W246RQ. Within the limits of not causing interference, allow the FM translators to increase their effective radiated power.
The national association of broadcasters (NAB) is trying to use their political clout to force vehicle manufacturers to continue to offer AM radio in their new vehicles. That is roughly analogous to forcing Henry Ford to include a buggy whip in every Model T. People are not relying on radio to hear the traffic report “on the 8s”, or discovering new music. Most people under age 50 who care about music are listening to Sirius XM, Pandora, or Spotify or their own collection of music, using Bluetooth on their phone to play music on the entertainment system in their car. Podcasts are replacing live news talk because people can listen on their schedule and be able to pause the program, or skip commercials. Some people download audiobooks and listen to that in their car. Many people now work from home and don’t even commute.
Many of the traditional advertisers on AM radio no longer exist, having been replaced by Amazon or people buying automobiles over the internet. The once powerful Sears Roebuck is down to only a handful of remaing stores across the entire country
It’s time to let go of the past.