I did some Boxing Week shopping Thursday night. Despite the cold, I went wandering for about three hours around various stores, though for the first time in years I didn't have any big-money purchases in mind.
One thing I had been looking for was a portable device capable of receiving AM radio. Ideally it would have had a digital tuner, an antenna of some sort and an internal memory capable of recording the radio. As someone who writes about radio a lot, it helps to be able to record as well as listen.
But going through the aisles of iPods and other MP3 players at Future Shop and Best Buy, I discovered that such a device does not exist. Well, actually, it does, but it's kind of expensive and you can't buy it in one of these stores.
In the end, I bought the radio you see above, a Dynex (read: cheap as hell) FM/AM pocket radio. It has an analog tuner and cheap plastic parts (and obviously no recording capability), but it has an antenna and a headphone jack, and though it's a bit noisy it receives CJAD and CKGM.
It used to be, even as little as a decade ago, that no one in their right mind would try to sell something as a "radio" and not include one of the two bands. But as portable CD players were replaced by smaller MP3 players with lower power demands and no moving parts, FM has become less of a priority and AM has been all but abandoned.
There are a few technical reasons for this. For one, because the AM band is at a much lower frequency than FM (centred around 1 MHz vs. around 100 MHz), the antenna has to be much longer. For older portable devices (like my old CD player pictured above), this is accomplished by coiling a long antenna inside the device. Ideally it would be strung out in a straight line for maximum reception, but coiling it is a compromise that works here, though its reception isn't as good and it's highly directional (which is why the angle at which you're holding a portable AM radio affects its reception).
In smaller devices, such an antenna - about the size of a AAA battery - becomes prohibitively large. Smartphones and iPods don't even have room for that AAA battery, much less an antenna for what has become a secondary function. For FM reception, portable devices ingeniously use the headphone cord for an antenna, but that doesn't work for AM.
In addition to the size of the antenna, AM radio is more susceptible to interference, requiring even more electronic real estate being used for filtering and amplifying.
And then there's the simple matter of demand. Music stations long ago moved from AM to FM, as has CBC and Radio-Canada in Montreal. We're left with only three large commercial AM stations (CKAC 730, CJAD 800 and CKGM 990) and a handful of smaller AM stations that would be very difficult to capture with a portable antenna anyway.
That's about to change. The CRTC recently awarded two new frequencies (the previously dormant 690 and 940 kHz), and two new AM stations will be on the air at some point in 2012. Two others, who lost in the bidding for those frequencies, may also reapply for other vacant frequencies. By the end of 2013 we could have four new high-power AM radio stations in Montreal, at a time when most broadcasters have all but abandoned the band.
But can these stations survive if there's nobody left who can listen to them? It's not just iPods and smartphones. Even larger desktop alarm clock radios have started to abandon AM in favour of iPod connections. Unless a device's main function is broadcast radio, you're much less likely to find AM on it. And people like multifunction devices.
The one big thing keeping AM alive is the same thing keeping most radio alive: cars, which are so large there's no need to worry about space for an antenna. Entertainment for drivers obviously can't be visual in nature, so radio has become the perfect source for them. And radio has responded in kind by catering to drivers, focusing on rush-hour programming and having regular reports on traffic.
The industry has also responded by offering online streaming as an option, via apps for iPhones or other smartphones. Rather than capture a noisy signal through the air with a big antenna, smartphones can download a high-quality audio stream through the cell network they already use for phone calls and checking their Facebook.
But switching to the Web opens up these broadcasters to competition from all over the world. For people who don't care as much about local content, there is a seemingly infinite choice of things to listen to.
Five years ago, when asked by Forbes about why its MP3 players didn't have AM radio, a representative of SanDisk explained the technical reasons behind it, but added that "SanDisk is exploring the possibility of adding an AM receiver to some of its MP3 players."
I'm still waiting. Hopefully AM radio will still be around by the time a solution is found.
UPDATE (Jan. 9): La Presse has an arts section cover story today about the future of AM radio, which discusses this issue as well as the larger market for the band. It includes quotes from broadcasting consultant Michel Mathieu painting a dire picture for AM radio, which is kind of ironic because Mathieu was hired to get many smaller community stations their broadcast licenses, including stations like CJLO on the AM dial.
There's also a story about Paul Tietolman and his upcoming French-language talk radio station, with some thoughts from experts about its viability.