by Randolph T. Holhut
American Reporter Correspondent
November 16, 2013
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DUMMERSTON, Vt. -- I started my journalism career in radio in 1980, and it still occupies a nice place in my heart.
I worked at several small AM radio stations around New England for five years. It was still a time when, as a condition of holding a broadcast license, an owner had to prove he was serving his community in the public interest. Thus, most radio stations were live and local and had news staffs.
The days of AM supremacy were fading then, as the top-40 AM stations of my youth were supplanted by the album rock stations on FM. Where in 1978 half of all radio listeners listened to AM stations, today, it's 15 percent and falling fast.
Deregulation and the end of the Fairness Doctrine finished off local AM radio in many markets. Most AM stations now are automated, playing either conservative talk shows, religious programming, or brokered foreign-language shows.
Local radio news is extinct, and freed of the need to prove community service, most radio stations don't bother anymore.
Aside from sports play-by-play, I hardly ever listen to AM radio anymore. And there is considerable doubt whether AM radio can survive the next few years.
But official policy decisions aside, AM radio is near death due to a combination of lousy programming, sloppy technical standards, and mediocre radios.
I'll leave the programming aside. My problem with it is that most of what's on commercial radio today - whether its right-wing talk, sports talk, or a canned music format - comes from a satellite dish and there is little local or original programming. This is especially true at many AM stations.
As for sloppy technical standards, a spin of the AM radio dial today yields unlistenable static and electronic hash, particularly at night. Nearly every consumer electronic product today from smartphones to compact fluorescent bulbs interferes with AM signals. Even the 50,000-watt superstations have trouble cutting through the static.
The sound quality of AM radio wasn't always lousy. In 1991, Herb Squire, the former chief engineer for WQXR in New York City, put a tape together for the FCC of off-the-air recordings made from radios of the 1930s through 1970s You can find it at http://teddavid.org/fccsquire.mp3, and it is worth a listen to see how the sound quality of both AM radios and AM signals have nosedived over the years.
Inspired by this recording, I did my own little test by picking up a couple of used portables on eBay - a battery-powered Zenith Royal 705 AM radio (circa 1963) and a General Electric World Monitor AM/FM/SW radio (circa 1970) - for a grand total of about $50. The AM sound quality and reception on these two well-used old transistor radios ran circles around the modern radios I've tried recently.
It's hard to find a decent-sounding AM radio today, because there's no incentive for anyone to build one, especially if you're talking about a band that only 15 percent or less of U.S. listeners use. And the listenership is that low because the sound quality on AM is awful and the programming is a vast wasteland of canned blather.
There are more than 5,000 AM stations in the United States. How many of them are actually operating in what the FCC used to call "the public interest, convenience, and necessity"?
The FCC currently has a proposal to help AM stations by offering them a one-time chance to apply for FM translator licenses to boost their signal coverage, and to tweak some of the rules governing power and coverage of AM stations at night.
To me, this is the equivalent of putting a Band-Aid on a sucking chest wound. More translators won't solve the main problem: that AM radio has become irrelevant to most listeners.
Instead of more stations, we need fewer. The FCC ought to require stations to program a certain amount of local programming every day as a condition of keeping their licenses. It should also bring back the public service requirements of the pre-deregulation era.
Yes, there are local radio stations that still live up to the spirit of public service. But there are too many that just take up space on the dial, and that offer nothing to their communities. Local, creative, and relevant programming would bring listeners back to AM radio before it passes into a self-inflicted oblivion.
AR's Chief of Correspondents, Randolph T. Holhut, holds an M.P.A. from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and has been an award-winning journalist in New England for more than 30 years. He edited "The George Seldes Reader" (Barricade Books). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.