AM radio

While Americans have been using their thumbs to communicate on a smartphone, and enlarging the type size on a tablet with a thumb and forefinger, one formerly popular method of information distribution is coming close to extinction. AM radio, which was at the center of electronic delivery in cities and small towns for perhaps 60 years, has been greatly declining in influence. And, part of the reason for its slow demise are the numerous wireless technological industries which encroach on AM’s small portion of the spectrum.

AM stations now represent only 21 percent of radio stations, down from 63 percent in 1970, according to a recent story in The New York Times. The percentage of FM stations is twice that. And, the size of the AM audience, according to a recent study, stands at about 3 million, down from an earlier 18 million.

Content on AM radio today is heavily conservative talk radio, and a sizeable portion of the stations are minority owned. It is a popular frequency for religious programming. In the past, AM’s content was created by local announcers and local disc jockeys – sometimes one in the same, interviews with local figures and high school sports. FM, where it existed in cities, was classical music and news reports that seemed vaguely high brow and European. FM did deliver better audio quality, however, for music that benefitted from it (33 rpm records, seemingly so, but not for 45 rpm records).

At night, listeners might pick up stations hundreds of miles away as AM’s waves were deflected downward to some distant location by the Earth’s atmosphere.

In Durango, the two AM stations were KIUP 930 and KDGO 1240, delivering community talk, music and sports.

As the Times reported, today, all sorts of mechanical devices with their wireless controls are using frequencies very close to the ones used by AM stations. Refrigerators, air conditioners and computers, among them. (A switch from analog to digital would sharpen signals in AM and allow for more transmission, but at a cost of replacing millions of radios.)

AM signals, too, are blocked by tall buildings, commonplace in large cities.

As the Times reports, technology has to a small extent come to AM’s aid. AM signals can also be broadcast over an FM signal, to expand the audience for its content.

The Federal Communications Commission regulates frequency use, and can mandate rules beneficial to AM radio. But it is not difficult to imagine the arguments that AM is yesterday’s technology and should be allowed to slip into disuse.

We are fascinated by the changing nature of media and the increasing number of ways that people can communicate, and how quickly favorites change. At the same time, yesterday’s methods may still appeal to some, and be viable. Conservative talk radio and religious programming have a large number of listeners.

If the FCC can come up with ways to make more full use of the AM spectrum, it should. If that includes mandating a switch to digital waves as opposed to analog, perhaps it should. Those with older televisions made that change a few years ago.

The options in communications are numerous.

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