A radio console at the WLSD station in Wise County. WLSD, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, plays classic hits at 1220 AM and 92.5 FM. Photo courtesy of Adam Sturgill/WLSD.
A radio console at the WLSD station in Wise County. WLSD, which celebrates its 70th anniversary this year, plays classic hits at 1220 AM and 92.5 FM. Photo courtesy of Adam Sturgill/WLSD.

This is written to response to our story: “Radio stations push reach and utility of AM as some carmarkers move to drop it.”

AM radio, a pioneering force in the world of broadcast communications, has for several decades been an essential medium for disseminating information and entertainment. However, its appeal has been progressively diminishing due to social, regulatory and technical challenges. Nevertheless, this scenario presents an opportunity for a significant revival.

The decline of AM radio can be traced back to significant changes in content, notably the reduction in locally focused programming. Many AM station owners made strategic decisions to move away from content that directly catered to local communities, often replacing local news, events and issue discussions with syndicated programming. These changes left a void of locally relevant content, reducing listeners’ connection with stations.

The Federal Communications Commission’s abolition of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 exacerbated the situation. This doctrine, which required broadcasters to present contrasting views on controversial issues of public importance, ensured a balanced discourse on the airwaves. Its repeal led to increased broadcasts favoring extreme political views, either heavily liberal or conservative. While this trend may have appealed to specific audience segments, it risked alienating listeners seeking balanced discourse.

Compounding these programming shifts, religious content on the AM band has considerably increased. While serving an essential audience, the sheer volume of these broadcasts reduced the variety and balance of programming, possibly leading potential listeners to turn away. 

There are also technical hurdles beyond the social and regulatory issues. Technical challenges inherent to AM broadcasting have also contributed to its decline. AM radio suffers from lower audio quality and higher interference susceptibility than FM and digital platforms. Furthermore, peculiarities like AM signal skip can disrupt listening experiences, especially at night when signals bounce off the ionosphere and travel further than intended.

The way forward for AM radio lies in addressing these challenges head-on, beginning with a comprehensive reevaluation of programming strategies. Stations must reclaim local relevance by providing content that caters directly to local communities. This can be achieved by restoring local news and events coverage and providing a platform for local voices and issues.

The content balance also needs to be addressed. Stations should strive for a fair representation of varying political views, ensuring their broadcasts do not skew overwhelmingly toward one political ideology. Furthermore, while religious programming fulfills a vital need, maintaining a balance with other types of content can broaden the appeal of AM radio.

The next critical step towards rejuvenating AM radio is to embrace technological advancements. Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM) offers a promising solution. DRM operates on existing AM bands but provides far superior audio quality, comparable to FM, and is more resilient to interference. Furthermore, DRM allows for additional features like text and image transmissions, enhancing the listener experience.

The transition to DRM, however, necessitates a significant investment from station owners in new transmission equipment and DRM-capable receivers. While the upfront costs are considerable, the long-term benefits of audience reach and satisfaction could make the investment worthwhile.

Another technical solution lies in optimizing signal coverage. Modern signal processing techniques and advanced transmitter designs can improve signal strength consistency across the service area. Additionally, better frequency spectrum management and eliminating clear channel privileges go a long way to solving many of our problems.

Further, integrating AM radio with digital platforms like internet streaming can help AM stations reach global audiences. This move would particularly resonate with the digital natives who are used to accessing content on-demand on their digital devices.

While the current state of AM radio may seem precarious, its potential for revival is significant. Its challenges are undeniably considerable, spanning social, regulatory, and technical domains. However, these challenges also present opportunities for transformation and innovation.

Revitalizing AM radio necessitates a concerted effort from various stakeholders, recognizing the importance of their involvement. Station owners must take the lead in reevaluating programming strategies and prioritizing local relevance. This may require investments in talent, resources, and community engagement initiatives. By providing content that reflects the local community’s interests, concerns, and diversity, stations can rebuild the personal connection with listeners.

Moreover, regulatory bodies and policymakers can play a crucial role in supporting the revitalization of AM radio. Policy changes that promote diversity, balance, and local programming can create a favorable environment for stations to thrive. Incentives and support programs can encourage stations to invest in new technologies like DRM while fostering partnerships between broadcasters and local communities.

Financial support from local communities and advertisers is equally vital. Recognizing the value of AM radio as a platform that serves essential needs, such as local, regional and national emergency communication, communities can contribute through sponsorships, donations, and active engagement. Advertisers, too, should recognize the potential of AM radio as an effective advertising medium, especially when paired with engaging and relevant programming.

Looking ahead, it’s important to acknowledge that the challenges and discussions surrounding AM radio are not isolated to this medium alone. FM radio, as another essential broadcast platform, may face similar content-related issues in the near future, so it’s important to take a hard look in the mirror today if you are a radio owner. 

Rejuvenating AM radio requires collaboration, innovation, and investment from various stakeholders. By addressing the underlying failures in content diversity, technical limitations, and community engagement, AM radio, in general, can reclaim some of its relevance and serve as a valuable medium for information, entertainment, and local connection.

The potential benefits of revitalizing AM radio are significant for listeners and stakeholders. AM radio can provide a distinct and vital voice in the media landscape, offering local perspectives, diverse programming, and a reliable platform during emergencies. However, time is of the essence. To seize this opportunity and secure the future of AM radio, stakeholders must act decisively, embracing change and working together to create a thriving and vibrant broadcasting ecosystem.

William "Eddie" Amos is the retired Senior Vice President of Technology for GE, and the current Chairman...