The holy grail of radio

[4:45pm EDST  2 October 2013 — Late breaking news: RadioINK reports that Darryl Parks' blog post — the first item below — has been pulled off the 700wlw site. — Doc]

In A SERIOUS Message To The Broadcast Industry About Revitalizing AM Radio, Darryl Parks of 700WLW made waves (e.g. here, here, here) by correctly dismissing six FCC ideas intended to make life easier for owners of AM radio stations. Those ideas are detailed at that last link (by David Oxenford of the excellent Broadcast Law Blog).

All six, Darryl says, would increase interference. Instead, he suggests, “The answer is not MORE interference. The answer is LESS interference. And you do that by turning off non-viable stations. And before station owners start crying poverty, many of these non-viable AM stations have one thing that is worth a ton of money. The land their towers sit on.”

Well, not all stations own the land their towers sit on. KCBS/740 leases their land from a farmer up in the North Bay. Other stations’ towers, such nearly all of those serving New York, sit in tidal swampland or on  islands that would revert to nature if the towers came down. (For example, WMCA and WNYC, which share the towers next to the New Jersey Turnpike, shown here. Likewise KGOKNBR and WBZ.)

But Daryyl’s right: there are too many stations, and too much interference — not only between them, but also from electronic thingies that didn’t exist when AM’s base technology and regulatory system were framed out in the 1920s.  Computers, mobile phones and energy-saving light bulbs all play havoc with AM reception.

I see three other solutions, only one of which is likely to happen.

The first is better AM receivers. The old tube and transistor types were much better, on the whole, than the newer chip-based ones. But even the chip-based receivers were better in the early days than they are now. The faults are not just in the electronics, but in the methods used for gathering signals. In cars, for example, the fashion in recent years has been to shorten antennas or to embed them in windows, mixed in with defrosting wires. Radios in cars I drove in the 1960s and 1970s would get New York’s biggest AM signals (on 660, 770 and 880) past Richmond, Virginia, in the middle of the day. The radios were not only better, but served by whip antennas on their fenders. Even portable radios were better. When I was a kid riding in the back seat of our new Chevy, on a family trip in the summer of 1963, I listened to WNAX in Yankton, South Dakota, from the Black Hills to Minneapolis, again in the daytime (when AM signals don’t bounce off the sky, as they do at night — on a Zenith Royal 400 seven-transistor radio. Alas, modern receivers and antennas are studies in cheap-out-y-ness, and don’t do the same job. In the absence of regulatory or market urgings, the chance of improvement here is zero.

The second is moving to an all-digital AM band. In this Broadcast Law Blog post David Oxenford says all-digtial “has shown promise for an interference-free operation in recent tests,” but “would require that there be a digital transition for AM radio just as there was to digital TV. That might be problematic, as it would require new AM receivers for almost everyone (except for those few people who already have Ibiquity IBOC receivers which should work in an all-digital environment).” I have one of those receivers in my kitchen. (That’s a shot of its display, there on the left.) HD on AM sounds like FM. Combine that with better receivers and antennas, and it’s a double-win. Here there is a small amount of regulatory urging, but try to find find a portable HD radio at Amazon or Radio Shack. Not happening.

The third is to develop better ways of getting radio streams on mobile devices. I have a mess of apps for getting radio streams on my iPhone and iPad, and none of them provide the simplicity of radio’s original dial & buttons system. If one app provided that simplicity, radio would move smoothly to mobile along with every other medium already re-locating there. Stations would continue to operate on the AM and FM bands until doing so no longer made technical or economic sense. But the path would be clear.

The one company that might have made this easy is Apple; but Apple has never been interested in improving radio as we know it. For years it buried radio station streams in an iTunes directory most people didn’t know was there — and then created a Pandora competitor with iTunes Radio. Like Pandora, Apple calls its streams “stations,” which also fuzzes things. The old stream directory still exists, for what it’s worth, under “Music.”

So it’s up to app developers. TuneIn, WunderRadio and Stitcher are currently the big three (at least on my devices), but all of them bury local radio deep in directories that are annoying to navigate and often incomplete. For example, let’s say I want to navigate the “dial” for Boston while I’m here in New York. On TuneIn, I hit “Browse,” then “Local Radio,” then find myself in New York. Not Boston. Then I hit “By Location.” That gives me a map I can pinch toward a red pin on Boston, where I find a virtual dial in the form of a list. That’s less work than it used to be, back when TuneIn wanted me to drill down through a directory that started (as I recall) with “Continent.” But it’s also missing all the great discoveries I used to make in local radio elsewhere in the world, such as the UK. (There are red pins only for major cities there.) Over on Stitcher one hits “Live Radio,” then “Massachusetts,” then “Boston” to do the same kind of thing, but the directory is has just three minor AM stations, then a bunch of FMs, but not WEEI/93.7, my favorite sports talker there. Between WBOS/92.9 and WTKK/96.9 there is nothing. All three do offer search, but that’s not easy to do when you’re driving or walking. (Nor is any of the above.)

All of them also assume, correctly (as do Apple, Pandora, Spotify, LastFM and many others), that individuals would rather put together their own “stations” in the form of music types, program collections, or whatever.

Individuals doing what they want is both the threat and the promise of radio online. Bring back dial-like simplicity, marry it to “roll your own,” and you’ll have the holy grail of radio.

4 comments

  1. Roland’s avatar

    Solutions for #1 & #2 would be reasonably-priced software-defined radios, and that’s a change that can’t come soon enough. Demand for SDRs need to hit a critical mass. As for #3, we’ve had multiple simple solutions for some time on the fixed web. All they require is a streaming URL. The exception is sites like samsclassicrocknroll that still cling to flash. If flash were open it would be easy to get around that. So the mobile web needs a similar app with bookmarking for streaming URLs.

    Streaming should be easy and available to everyone. ‘Streamripper’ makes it easy for anyone to re-stream from a streaming URL. Something similar that connects to gstreamer is needed. Then we’d have the freedom of a wide-open broadcast band without the interference.

  2. Mike Warot’s avatar

    For me the essential nature of AM radio is that it can cover large portions of the country from one source. The idea of “saving power” or using less efficient antennas is just the opposite of that and needs to be quashed. I’d have to see the field tests to be convinced that this can cope with being subject to multipath and fading across 1000 miles or more.

    Why give someone a license to service a region of the country, then use technology that makes them a poor cousin to an FM station, with a similarly small foot print?

  3. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Thanks, Mike.

    Many years ago a wise old AM broadcast engineer told me “Every effort to improve AM over the years has made it worse.” One example., here in Boston (where I am now), WLS from Chicago booms in at night. But the FCC decided a few years back to protect the old “clears” like WLS only to 750 miles from the transmitter. So we now have a WCRN, a 50kw directional night signal that is trashed by WLS and vice versa. The station is intended to serve Boston, but basically fails, and actually went off the air for awhile, during which WLS sounded just fine.

    I think there will be a place for big AM signals for a long time to come, at least in places like the prairie states. Fun exercise: compare the coverage of three 5kw AMs, each at 570 on the dial: KLIF in Fort Worth, WNAX in Yankton, and WWNC in Asheville. KLIF covers most of Texas and Oklahoma. WNAX’s signal reaches across eight large states. And WWNC covers counties the way those other two cover states. The difference is ground conductivity. When the FCC’s site comes back up (it got shut down along with the government), look for “Figure R3 of 47 CFR 73.190″. That’s the “M3″ map of ground conductivity across the country. Across the mid-country states it ranges from 8 to 30mhos/m. In the southeast it’s 4, 2 or less. In Atlanta and Long Island, it’s 0.5. Much of that high-conductivity ground has no cell sites on it, so having a stream on the Net isn’t going to do much good there.

    Anyway, it’s a fun digression to go over this stuff.

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