...that was the question I asked my Dad, a radio engineer for many decades, who worked at the biggest AM station in St. Louis, KMOX. The station is approaching its centennial in 2025, as are—some YouTube commenters argue—its primary audience!
I recorded that video during my convalescence at my parents' house (I am feeling much better now, thank you!), and my Dad discussed a few reasons why AM radio—at least in the US—is not dead. But it is suffering.
In the video, I pointed out the current dichotomy:
On the one hand, the FCC Commissioner advocates for preservation, and cites the popularity of AM radio for farmers and emergency coverage.
On the other, companies like Tesla stopped shipping AM radio entirely, and if you want to add it on, they'll gladly retrofit your EV for $500.
The video's comment section has run the gamut, from Hams advocating preservation and expounding the simplicity of AM signals on 'Medium Wave' bands, to those who cheer as each AM transmitter is switched off. Very recently, the UK's Absolute Radio 100 kw transmitter was powered off for the last time, and its signal migrated to DAB+ and online streaming.
Here in the States, market-leading AM stations mostly simulcast on the FM band and constantly push listeners to download an app to 'listen anywhere.'
I wanted to ask my Dad about this topic specifically because he still works with multiple AM stations in the midwest, and he has a lot of insight into FM, AM, and broadcast radio in general, as he's seen the transition from tape to CDs to digital, from mono to stereo FM, and ultimately to a failed rollout [that's me, editorializing... I haven't asked his opinion] of HD Radio in the US.
Satellite radio seemed neck-in-neck with digital radio for a time, until the Internet came in and ate everyone's lunch.
Even still, some commenters longed for the 'warmth of the AM signal' when listening to their favorite baseball team, or enjoyed 'knowing a storm was approaching from the crackle in the signal'.
There's a lot of nostalgia, too, for the first time someone built a crystal radio set, and discovered the magic of radio.
The AM band is known for its huge range—at nighttime, signals can travel for hundreds of miles, bouncing between the ionosphere and the ground in an effect known as skywave. And before the days of smartphones and always-on Internet connections, such long-distance broadcast felt like magic, as people could hear, in real time, the goings-on from other parts of the globe.
But my Dad made two other points about AM that may be its downfall: narrowbanding and interference.
Due to the nature of AM signals, or 'Amplitude Modulation', any interference on the broadcast frequency becomes noise that completely blocks out the signal. A lightning strike, high power lines, AC motors... or nowadays almost any electronic device with digital circuits that isn't properly designed and RF shielded—all these things make the AM radio listening experience disastrous.
Some AM signals have had their bandwidth cut down too, for various reasons, leaving only a few kHz of spectrum—that's about what you get with an old fashioned telephone call!
Gone are the days of the 'warm, soothing AM stereo' sound. Music has all but left the AM band, with FM (Frequency Modulation) offering far superior listening experience, in terms of interference rejection, stereo signal, and noise floor.
But FM requires line-of-sight transmission, necessitating taller or more numerous towers. It also can't be received on an empty roll of toilet paper with some wire wrapped around it!
AM radio has a long legacy behind it. My Dad mentioned 'content is king', and if you have the content people want to hear, they will seek out ways to listen to it. But as more and more radio stations in the US are controlled by ever fewer radio conglomerates, the local flair that endeared so many people to AM stations in the past fades off. Possibly at the same cadence as AM's relevance in our always-connected society.
"The AM band is known for it's huge range—at nighttime".
I grew-up listening to AM radio in the late-1950s/early-1960s -- WABC and WMCA -- on my Hallicrafters S38-C. At night -- especially during the Winter months -- I was able to listen to basketball games from Chicago and Boston! When I got older and hitchhiked cross-country (and back), AM radio filled the empty, silent miles (3am on the Kansas Plains).
Try using Internet radio in your car on a long journey?
All (OK most) options are near 'home' based, no interest in longer range
since that's where the ad revenue is.
OK, restricted in many ways, but of use? Yep. Most definitely.
Hi Jeff, good to know about your recover.
AM is not dead I still listen to it a lot.
But I do agree that it is struggling.
That's some fascinating technical limitations from your dad's background working with this technology. I didn't realize it was so prone to interference from modern digital devices. It certainly isn't hard to find devices with improper RF shielding to say the least.
This isn't unprecedented as we've gone through the same thing now with standard definition TV. On my HackRF SDR when you tune to all the frequencies used for UHF/VHF it's completely dead. In my area there's absolutely nothing but apparently in some areas they've actually started using this spectrum for other things.
I wonder if we'll eventually see the AM spectrum similarly assigned to other uses potentially here or if it will just eventually go silent. Fascinating article, thanks Jeff!
Here in England UK, AM is dying mainly due to the transmission energy costs and DAB coverage across the country. Although more remote parts of UK struggle with DAB so are committed to AM - remote parts of Scotland and mountainous Northern England. The BBC are also under pressure to cut costs from the government set licence fee, funded by the public. Hence they have closed many BBC stations in medium wave. Only two are left.
There's some information being left out when the article references FM as requiring line-of-sight transmission. That in particular isn't a function of the modulation (FM vs AM), but instead the propagation characteristics of the bands assigned by the FCC to those modulation methods. That is, if FM had been placed in the mediumwave band as AM had been, its propagation characteristics would be the same.
There are characteristics of FM that are inherent to the modulation, such as interference rejection, and the FM "capture effect".
Every so often, I still enjoy turning on WWL 540AM (New Orleans) and hear what's happening back home, especially since my parents kept the station blasting 24/7 while I was growing up. Still find it amazing that living in St. Louis, I can still pick it up.
How about digital AM?
There are precious few HD Radio stations on the AM dial—in St. Louis I think there's only one! HD Radio seems to have failed spectacularly by this point, with such low adoption (not even all new cars include it yet!)—even on the FM side.
Digital AM is known to wipe out adjacent channel signals, especially at night. HD radio has been a massive failure on both FM and AM for many reasons, but on AM the digital sidebands extend out past 10khz of bandwidth. This causes it to bleed over to signals directly above and below it. While there won't be signals that close in a single market, the skywave nature of AM will cause that signal to travel for 100s of miles at night, and even into the day and wipe out the analog signal on that channel.
Your dad is right. The content isn't there. AM is mostly sports talk, right-wing talk with a smattering of foreign-language broadcasters -- and I look to the latter to keep the MW band alive. But for general radio listeners? It's over.
I would be very sorry to see AM go. There was nothing more magical than being on a very long road trip in the middle of the night and Art Bell was providing spooky entertainment that kept me awake. Something about the feel of AM with its low fidelity and static made it even more intriguing. If the station fell out of range, another clear channel AM station could always be found to continue.
Regarding 'low fidelity' of A.M. Ask me, and most folks MY AGE (well over 70) if we give a crap!!!!! Irv.
The sound of a good AM station is a unique experience in radio. Warm and comforting. Even better if there are glowing tubes...
In my homeland, our equivalent to FCC (ANATEL) is ditching AM in every single way possible because “FM sounds better, anyways” - yeah... simply as that
Tesla charging $500 for an AM upgrade is just another move in the shift to where you will own nothing and be happy. Everything you use will be rented. Tesla is the embodiment of the rented economy in the automobile sphere and, like Samsung following Apple in removing headphone jacks instead of capitalizing on the competitor's regression, other car manufacturers will take the same anti-consumer measures. See BMW's heated seats subscription service...
Cue Louis Rossmann ranting...
You're paying $500 for a feature unlock/change in software (so the car's on-board entertainment can support AM), perhaps a hardware tuner (though signal processing can be done in software, too) and an appropriate AM antenna.
I can take my software-defined radio dongle, add an AM loop antenna and an upconverter (this specific SDR does not read signals under 24MHz except in direct sampling mode, which is not reliable... many other SDRs have similar restrictions as they're more commonly applied in higher frequencies) and I have a fully functioning AM radio controllable from a general purpose computer. The upconverter is between $20 and $50. The tuner itself is an upfront cost already paid by having a tuner in the Tesla for FM/Digital radio.
As someone else said, it's not the modulation type that necessarily matters, it's the specific frequency. AM waves (at their ~1MHz frequency) bounce easily off the ionosphere when it's less electrically charged at night. From Central New Jersey, at night, I can hear KXEL (1540AM) from eastern Iowa, a distance of about 1,000 miles.
That would be sad. I used to listen to games as far away as Detroit from home near Philly on a little hand-held AM radio. You gotta love the distance AM works over when you're in the middle of nowhere too.
It may as well be dead based on the same cookie cutter syndicated talk and sports spew in every city. WSM Nashville is about the only one left.
I found it infuriating to have a DAB only rental car in the UK last summer, not even FM. No frequencies apparent. No idea where the signal was coming from. No channel to tune to looking for local news or weather. If all I wanted was BBC or some oldies network then it was fine. It felt like McRadio is our future.
How would Ham Packet Radio fit in this discussion? Because I see much potential for the frequency band and the coverage it provides when we consider packet radio and grassroots mesh networks.
I listen to AM through out my house, just quietly going about it’s broadcast throughout the day. It’s important to keep this technology alive, traffic and weather will certainly be there in the long. In my humble opinion.
Although digital might sound clearer and might seem better,, which it can be sometimes.. AM & FM/SSB/CW have been used for so long, that it is dependable. A FM analog voice signal will beat a digital "voice" signal line-of-sight as far as intelligibility. I think AM has strong areas where it would outperform or be used for a certain reason because digital is not always the solution. Its never a good thing to stop using things that work great, especially in a critical situation. Its like getting rid of all analog clocks because a digital one is better.
I was pretty sure the AM radio is dead in Europe, however there were multiple radio stations that helped to understand the situation when my colleagues were under the Russian occupation in southern part of my country.
Here in Brazil AM and SW are dying. Many AMs stations are migrating to conventional FM 87.5-108 MHz and in the new extended band 76-87.5 MHz combined in general of 76-108 MHz occupying the audio of the extinct band emitted from the tv in the low vhf channels 2-6. Many Brazilian AM stations, including medium and long range ones that were 50 kW, 100 kw, 150 kw and 200 kw, are gone, leaving only a few units that in less than 5 years will disappear, especially those who live in rural areas in a continental country as well as is the case of Brazil. here in the South of Brazil, in addition to being colder with subtropical and temperate climates (unlike most of the country, which is tropical and equatorial), AM radio was the companion of cold nights, both in cities and in the countryside. Unfortunately, it is the price of technology that we are and will pay. This is very sad.
Junior, Silvio Lüders
Curitiba/Brazil (City in the South Region of the Country).
AM radio was elevator music but Rush Limbaugh saved it and it has become fertile ground for talk radio almost exclusively, dominated by conservative hosts whether national or local. Whether you like it or not, I was surprised you totally ignored this development.
Yes, listening to AM, MW, radio in 1960, was the start of
my DX'ing starting in High School, and soon thereafter I
became a Shortwave listener, and then an amateur radio operator in 1962.
AM has changed so much over the years, as this article has pointed out. In Canada and many European nations AM, MW has been reduced and FM has replaced it.
Most AM here are Conservative talk shows or Sports.
Also, there is very little left to listen in the US except for
I have heard about the efforts to save AM on Auto radios.
I do have several radios which receive HD, Ibiquity, FM,
and it helps variety in reception, less so on AM, MW.
It needs to replace analog FM being shared to fully
realize HD FM's capabilities. 73 de W2CH Ray NH.
The only memory I have of my grandfather is that he gave me a radio of Galena, (1949-50). He was a true fan of AM and shortwave radio stations. He took --to Durango, Mexico-- one of the first radio equipment, and with his example he turned my mother, --now in heaven--, a fan and listener every afternoon of her different AM radio equipments, (Zenit ). Where it was very exciting to find more and more remote stations in the different bands, my mother even sent emails to let them know that they were heard by her in Mexico City, What those times, For her I installed a large antenna on the roof of her house in the 60s.
I inherited his hobby and every day I listen to international garden radio on the internet.
My mother predicted the demise of AM when FM installations began throughout Mexico, where the local media advertising business is currently located, every 25km, at least one new station.
However, it is a fact that AM will hardly disappear completely
As a teen in the late 60's early 70's listening to KOMA or WLS was my evening radio in north eastern South Dakota. Fixing the radios that I used was my start in my electronics career as an avionics tech, radio station engineer and hobbyist. It is sad to see AM tower sites razed because the land is more valuable than the radio station. AM has its' place, just hope that these stations can be preserved.
I cannot imagine a society without AM radio. As a kid, my father suggested that I start listening to the "distant" stations at night starting with the AM band. Then it grew into SW listening and I just wanted more of it. Here in St. Louis, I could listen to WLW in Cincinnati, KDKA Pittsburgh, WBZ in Boston, all of the New York stations, and WLS in Chicago for music. When I was in the Navy, a buddy and I drove back from "A" school in San Diego, and when we got over into New Mexico, we heard KMOX here in St. Louis while driving in the desert out there. Nothing, no technology can "remake" that happen now. AM radio was a part of our lives.
Speaking as a long-time volunteer firefighter / radio room dispatcher, I cannot stress enough the importance of the role that AM radio has had in keeping the public informed as to weather conditions and local emergency situations. With so many of these stations going off the air or converting to automated programming - with no local news staff - as well as the demise of local newspapers - many areas of our country are becoming news / information deserts. Please continue to supprt your local AM radio stations and your local newspapers!
Just a correction on the UK 1215 Absolute Radio switch off - it was a network of a total of 34 transmitters in England, Scotland and Northern Ireland (but not Wales). The main ones were on 1215 and the fill-ins were on 1197, 1233, 1242 and 1260. Great transmitter site tour videos by the way, looking forward to more!
Having worked AM and FM station over the years, I have seen the rapid decline of AM stations that went from music stations to talk and sports they have hung on to life, barely. Then with the success of FM stations and the advent of satellite radios they are slowly fading away.