AM Radio - Dead In Europe?
September 8, 2015
Something that surprises many visitors to North America or Australia is the amount of AM stations: and the fact that many of them are still market-leaders.
In Sydney, 2GB on 873 AM is massive - so much so that the regular ratings story is who is the most popular FM station. North America's AM stations are ratings and revenue winners - from 1010 WINS in New York City, 680 News in Toronto, or KFI in Los Angeles.
And in Europe? Hmm, not so much.
(We have two AM bands here, by the way - MW and LW. I'll call Medium Wave 'AM', since we all do these days, though pedantically Long Wave also uses AM transmission, just on a different wavelength. I'm falling asleep writing this paragraph.)
The national radio station in France, France Inter, is closing their LW transmitter next year, saving a claimed $15 million. BBC Radio has given notice that they plan to close BBC Radio 4's LW transmitter when the remaining valves - they have less than ten - burn out.
In the Netherlands last week, explosives brought down the last AM mast at Lopik, a radio transmitter that until last year broadcast public and commercial radio. Other AM masts have also been closed in the country. The NPO, the public service broadcaster, claims that savings for them alone are $1.3 million a year.
France Bleu and France Info, two more French public service radio stations, are closing over ten AM frequencies in the next twelve months. In 2012, the Irish broadcaster RTÉ closed its last AM transmitter, and plans to close its own long wave transmitter in 2017.
In Germany, the public service broadcaster there is closing their AM transmitters. Russia has recently closed their LW broadcasts. In many of the Nordic countries, AM was switched off years ago. The BBC is slowly closing AM repeaters for their local radio stations, and closed a big AM transmitter for the BBC World Service in 2011. Commercial radio in the UK mostly broadcasts DJ-less jukebox services or foreign language broadcasts on AM, and has handed AM licenses back in the past.
And so the list goes on.
Here's the reality about AM. And I'm sorry, because I'm normally relentlessly positive about radio, but lovers of positivity might look away now.
AM antennas are bulky and difficult to put into pieces of consumer electronics. AM radio is never going to be built into mobile phones, for example. Recent electric cars from BMW have removed AM radios altogether because the motor makes too much interference.
AM is more susceptible to interference, and getting more so with services like DSL connections and the large amount of devices in homes which have processors inside them. It also sounds comparatively worse than other transmission platforms, particularly in countries with 9kHz channels.
AM carries no data that enables hybrid radio or even RDS. (There is actually an RDS-like service, AMSS, but I'm unable to find anyone that uses it, or any receiver that picks it up).
It's getting harder to buy an AM radio, too. There are almost none at my local ASDA/Walmart. It was hard enough finding one in Hong Kong when I was there five years ago.
And possibly because of that, fewer people have them. In a recent audit of my radio sets in my London house, I realized that I have only one radio capable of picking up AM in the house, in comparison to six receivers that deal with FM and DAB. Worse - I've had the radio with AM for six years, during which time I have never plugged in the AM antenna. I also realize that while my car has AM, I have never used it.
The great hope for AM is a system called DRM, which - like HD does - puts a digital signal on the transmitter. DRM is an impressive technology with some great people working on it, but is increasingly looking like its stillborn. There are still no mass-market receivers available, and precious few transmissions. In spite of using very similar technology to DAB, the organizations behind the two technologies compete and fight each other, rather than co-operate. All India Radio, the only major broadcaster to fully embrace DRM's possibilities, appears to be talking a very long time getting there: currently with just five transmitters that aren't, yet, offering a full service.
While AM's large broadcast range and superior coverage shouldn't be discounted, most AM broadcasters in Europe are now abandoning the band. Seeing the writing on the wall, they've started a transition to FM or DAB, where most of their audience are now.
So - in Europe at least - if you were to ask me what the future for AM radio is, I'm not sure there is one.