Posted in Opinion, Radio, Technology

Technology is abandoning AM radio

The only portable AM radio I could find at a huge electronics store - a $10 radio with analog tuner

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.

A portable CD player sports a ferrite bar AM antenna (left) about 4cm long and 3mm thick.

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.

"AM RF IN" marks where the AM antenna connects to the circuit board ("RF" means "radio frequency")

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.

25 thoughts on “Technology is abandoning AM radio

  1. Marc

    This past summer I was passing through North Conway, NH and purchased one of these, (tax-free of course being NH):

    http://www.radioshack.com/product/index.jsp?productId=3734118

    Has good sound and reception.

    I wouldn’t worry. I’m sure that live coverage of the end of the world will be broadast on AM stations everywhere.

    I also have the Griffin RadioShark USB radio, which I use daily and am quite pleased with. That, via software, allows you to record the radio.

    Reply
  2. AlexH

    There are a couple of issues for putting AM receivers into digital devices. One of them (really key) is that the digital devices tend to create a fair bit of internal interference, which can be a real pain. This leads to having to separate out the AM parts onto seperate, shielded boards, which adds weight and bulk to devices that are striving to be small.

    There is also the basic fact that FM receivers are now “FM on a chip” (See: http://www.datasheetcatalog.org/datasheets2/36/365198_1.pdf ). So in that example, you need a chip and a couple of extra basic parts, very small, and you have a receiver. While there are AM radio on a chip designs, for the most part they still require a significant amount of external parts and such to make work, so most tend to shy away from them.

    I think that AM in the end will continue it’s decline. There might be some hope in the distance future that a small part of the band just below 88.1 gets allocated for broadcast, there are many places that could use 4 or 5 extra channel slots. But considering the FCC in the US is fighting tooth and nail for every part of the spectrum for digital wireless services, I think it’s pretty much not going to happen.

    Reply
  3. ATSC

    Good observation. The AM band seems to be on the Endangered List of Technology. Perhaps doing better than VHS. But on the list never the less.

    Some AM stations in the US have appeared as HD Radio sub-channels on the FM band. Of the 2144 radio stations indicated on the ibiquity site converted to HD Radio in the US, I don’t know how many of them are actually placing AM stations on their FM/HD Radio sub-channels.

    http://www.ibiquity.com/

    According to press releases, the HD Radio people seem to be targeting smart phones next in their portable access to radio. That would allow access to AM stations on the FM/HD Radio sub-channels. Though Insignia does currently offer two portable FM/HD Radio units. No AM though.

    http://www.hdradio.com/buyers-guide/hd-radio-player/insignia-nshd-01

    http://www.hdradio.com/buyers-guide/hd-radio-player/insignia-nshd-02

    What I’m basically saying is even if the AM band does go the way of VHS. There are currently attempts thru FM/HD Radio to place AM stations as sub-channels in the US.

    As for getting a portable AM/FM radio, may I suggest you look at the NPR Shop. You may have to call them to purchase anything for shipping to Canada. Worth the look though.

    http://shop.npr.org/radios/

    But overall, you are right in pointing out on how these AM stations will survive on the future if the AM band is being left out more and more on new radios.

    Reply
  4. Tim Veale

    I remember my father giving me a crystal radio for Christmas in 1951. It was manufactured by Heathkit and consisted of some very simple components including a ‘cat’s whisker’ and a piece of, what looked like quartz rock crystal. You learned to place the whisker at a particular location on one of the crystal’s facets and, voila, am AM radio station was magically tuned-in. This device was, of course, a forerunner of a basic hobby interest in radio which, today is in freefall ecept for a few diehard hams who are still swinging antenna arrays and spinning dials to find their compatriots signals in the ether.
    Modern devices such as satellite and internet radios transcend most of the drawbacks of AM radio’s interference-prone broadcasts and, virtually eliminate the old antenna footprint limitations once typical of terrestrial broadcasts.
    I’m glad to have experienced the evolution of a cat’s whisker device and all that has ensued since. It certainly points to a complete redundancy of commercial radio, AM or FM, transmitted by terrestrial antenna.

    Reply
  5. Adam

    The app “TuneIn Radio” for iPhone/ iPod touch devices is a great solution– it not only has local AM/FM stations but it’s very easy to find and discover stations around the world. Very easy to record too…

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The app “TuneIn Radio” for iPhone/ iPod touch devices is a great solution– it not only has local AM/FM stations but it’s very easy to find and discover stations around the world. Very easy to record too…

      The problem is that TuneIn (and other apps) use online streaming. This requires that the phone have Internet access and that the streaming feed be operational. It also can easily result in additional charges to the cellphone bill because of data usage.

      Reply
      1. Andy

        true about the data and we continue to be killed by those fees here in Canada, but tune in is a great service and I use it via WiFi when ever i can and there is a lot of WiFi available

        Reply
  6. Michael Black

    Can’t it simply mean the market is saturated?

    AM broadcast radio has been around since 1922, (or 1920, depending on who claims to be first). Ninety years to accumulate radios. Twenty years more than analog tv. At this point who doesn’t have an AM radio?

    Yes, there are people who don’t want them (I would wonder how you got to this point without an AM radio, since the answer might explain others), but they are still out there. That boombox in the closet, the alarm clock that nobody uses the radio for, the extra car radio taken out when the fancier one put in the older one now sits in the closet too. Endless analog or synthesized AM/FM tuners sitting around.

    You likely would have found loads at the Salvation Army, unless they’ve stopped taking them due to lots of supply and little demand. If you’d searched in the summer, endless garage sales (and all those rummage sales in the spring) would have offered up endless alarm clock radios, car radios, portable radios, some including cassette players. When McGill gets out in the spring, it’s invariable that someone will toss a working boombox or mini-stereo that still works fine, and which still includes AM. There’s not really a significant change from 20 years ago, so chances are this is just the regular stream of radios going out of fashion, rather than people getting rid of radios because they have “AM” and “nobody wants AM”.

    At the beginning of September I got a Sony shortwave portable, quite expensive when new, for ten dollars at a garage sale. Then found an Eton pocket shortwave (with analog tuning, but unlike the Hallicrafters S-120A that I bought in the summer of 1971, it has a frequency counter for readout) for 2.00. The fall before, I got a nice Sanyo AM/FM headphone radio for feeding headphones for only five dollars at a garage sale. Oddly, I was glad to find that because while I saw lots of cassette players with radio built in, they can be A web check indicated it went for a couple of hundred dollars new, a last gasp before people moved to MP3 players for jogging. bulky if you’re not interested in playing cassettes. Those are just some I noticed. A few years ago I got a Grundig Satellite 700 at the Westmount Rotary Club garage sale for two dollars. And a steady stream of shortwave radios since.

    Lots of places still sell windup radios, that do include AM. I found mine a few years ago on the July 1st moving smorgasboard, it’s not a great radio and now the part that tunes analog tv audio no longer works, but The Source, Can Tire, MEC, endless places sell them. Of course, they are analog (but the weather radio feature is crystal controlled.)

    The Source was still selling shortwave radios up till sometime last year. Last year they had great sales on what remained, though it turned out to be a clearance rather than sale. They still advertised the Eton G8 in the flyers in December, an interesting radio since it’s AM/FM/Shortwave, but uses digital signal processing. I kept meaning to buy one when on sale, because it likely mimics the IC manufacturer’s design, and chances are good one could make better use of the IC by modifications. It’s said to be quite good on FM, I can’t remember about AM. There are some well known ham equipment places in Canada that tend to be a good source of shortwave radios, for a hundred dollars you can get one that beats most of what was avialbe at that price forty years ago.

    The Source still has analog tuned AM?FM/Shortwave receivers for 20 or 30 dollars, a later variant of that analog tuned Eton I got at a garage sale, so it has a frequency counter rather than synthesizer for tuning. They have had small cheap synthesized radios for headphones in recent years that included AM.

    There are endless radios available on the used or free market, more than enough for everyone, so why would anyone buy new? But even then, they are still there, and in better form than that analog radio you did buy.

    One interesting thing about the FM tuners in MP3 players is that they seem to be particularly good. A lot of FM receivers were designed for optimum sensitivty, which means they overload in the city. I brought one mini-stereo home on July 1st one year and reception of VPR was lousy, initially I thought it was lack of sensitivity. But it turned out to be too much, when I removed the whip antenna, reception was perfect. So FM often is lousy, those Delco digitally tuned car radios I was finding at garage sales in the nineties were some of the best FM receivers I’ve had. Cheap often means bad (even when spending money on portable shortwave receivers, the FM section may not be like the rest of the receiver, it using different circuitry), and I expected FM receivers in MP3 players to be cheap. But my Sansa Fuze gets VPR when oriented right (such things depend on the headphones for the antenna) and I haven’t noticed much in the way of overloading. Which leaves me wondering what they are using in there, given the size I suspect it is some sort of digital based radio.

    Michael

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      At this point who doesn’t have an AM radio?

      Plenty of people, I imagine. And that number will probably go up as fewer devices come with AM radio.

      You likely would have found loads at the Salvation Army, unless they’ve stopped taking them due to lots of supply and little demand.

      Perhaps my point is being lost here. I’m not saying it’s impossible to find an AM radio. I’m saying there are fewer new portable devices that come with AM radio as an option. Portable cassette and CD players had AM and FM radio, but portable digital media players and smartphones come with FM, if anything.

      Reply
  7. Pefder Magfrok

    my new xmas sony clock radio with ipod connection (excuse me, “personal audio docking system”) has AM band plus an external am antenna (one of those wound in a loop things). After reading this I guess I won’t throw out the AM antenna!

    Reply
  8. Michael D

    The question here is and maybe someone can answer me is when is digital radio coming to Canada as Europe had had for years….wouldn’t this solve the problem of am vs fm..as in no more AM or FM..

    CRTC could limit to licence holders to 2 stations in a market,maybe 3 in Montreal becaus eof the bilingual nature…this would surely open up the market to more players and more importantly, more choice..I still would love to see an “oldies” or Montreal’s greatest hits type station, would be really neat on a nice stereo station….AM obviously is not for music….but with two companies running the Montreal market…therein lies the problem….there ould be other type of formats that could thrive..

    a nice oldies station with creative personalities being given the freedom to play, now we’re talking…

    Reply
    1. Fagstein Post author

      The question here is and maybe someone can answer me is when is digital radio coming to Canada as Europe had had for years….wouldn’t this solve the problem of am vs fm..as in no more AM or FM..

      It’s already here. It’s called Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), and it’s the same technology used in Europe. But even though Canadian broadcasters spent millions developing for it, there’s no market for it. Partly because the U.S. doesn’t use it (so there are few receivers for it in North America), partly because people are perfectly happy with FM radio and DAB doesn’t offer any must-have feature that would cause people to choose it over FM.

      Reply
      1. Michael D

        Translation Steve I guess: unlike Digital TV that both countries mandated..am I too assume that manufacturers like the Sonys and Panasonics of the world won’t make produce digital radios if the USA is not on board……

        But question here is why can’t CRTC and Industry Canada madate Canadian stations by a certain date to broadcast in digital….then those companies would produce knowing there is a market to purchase…

        some staightening out here please…

        Reply
        1. Fagstein Post author

          But question here is why can’t CRTC and Industry Canada madate Canadian stations by a certain date to broadcast in digital….then those companies would produce knowing there is a market to purchase…

          Why mandate broadcasters to setup transmitters using a technology that nobody is interested in using? For there to be a transition (and why would we be doing this in the first place?), the CRTC would also have to force broadcasters to stop using analog FM.

          It sounds a lot like a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.

          Reply
          1. Michael D

            same argument could be used for the changeover to digital TV, don’t remember seeing or hearing any claamor for it, except for some outcry about having to buy digital converters…

            But it seems the HD-Radiolinks that have been posted here seem the way to go..and all those sub-channels, wow more variety, more work for talented people I know out ther existing….

            I see a station like CHOM maybe having a jazz and blues sub-channel..Randy Renaud already does a great job with his Sunday blues show…isn’t this a jaz market with supposedly the world’s largest jazzfest….doesn’t seem to revolutionary..and AM coming out digital, crisp and clear newscast and hockey games..etc…

            Reply
            1. Fagstein Post author

              same argument could be used for the changeover to digital TV

              Perhaps, but there are two major differences:
              1. The widespread use of cable and satellite service meant that analog over-the-air television had been abandoned by 90% of the population.
              2. Because most high-definition television sets made in the past five years come with built-in digital tuners, the receiving equipment is already widespread and easy to purchase.

              Reply
    2. ATSC

      DAB was launched in Canada over a decade ago. Fell flat on it’s face. I even read on some other site that the CBC handed in it’s DAB licenses about a year ago back to the CRTC. From what I understand, since I never brought a DAB radio was that stations would simply feed their AM/FM stations onto their DAB stations.

      The US on the other hand adopted the HD Radio system. This system has also been adapted in Mexico by that countries federal communications department. Adoption to the HD Radio system has been rather slow in the US. But, none the less finding car units, portable units, stereo units can be found. What makes this system interesting is that it works on the AM & FM Band. But, you would require a new AM/FM radio with HD Radio abilities. The FM side of this tech. allows for stations to multi-plex. Meaning you can get more speciality radio stations if the current FM stations goes for it. Some have added Sports, some ethnic, some have other music formats, and even some have placed their AM stations on one of those sub-channels.

      Here is an example with the Pittsburgh market. Notice the various sub-channels on the FM stations.

      http://www.hdradio.com/stations/Pennsylvania-PA/Pittsburgh-68

      For the Montreal area, only WVPS-FM offers HD Radio.

      http://www.hdradio.com/stations/New+York-NY/Burlington-Plattsburgh-365

      Reply
      1. Michael D

        Good stuff, this is exactly what I am talking about…so here Astral would have their 3 English properties… CJAD could be the main station and CHO and Virgin could be HD-2 and 3…

        like I said to Steve, just mandate like they did for digital TV, with a generous time frame…and the companies will produce receivers as the demand will then be there….

        there was no big clamor for Digital TV, but yet we have it, and companies produced Digital converters and people bought them, at least those that aren’t satellite or cable customers.

        Reply
  9. Bill Lee

    Down the road is Durham Radio and Atlantic Radio
    http://www.durhamradio.com/portable-am-fm-radios-canada.html
    for AM/FM sets.

    But they have been made in China and this is a lot of China warehouse surplus.
    I have a nice Grundig G6 with AM, FM, SW, Air and 700 memories in banks.
    Yes, there is no recording. Sigh. But there are 4 clocks to turn it on at certain times.
    The DE1123 Degen AM/FM/SW/MP3 Player with Digital Recorder at $90 half the price of your CC Witness.

    http://radioworld.ca/index.php in Toronto and
    http://universal-radio.com/ in Ohio will show others.
    http://www.dxer.ca/ulr/75-introduction-to-ulr is a web page fora series of small portables that had extremely sensitive reception, albeit with analogue readouts, based on Sony tune radio chips.

    You still should be able to get the Sangean
    http://www.amazon.com/Sangean-PR-D8-Portable-Receiver-Recorder/dp/B002PMKG1Y
    and the Sangean DPR 17 +
    http://www.sangean.com.au/products/digital-radios/portable-radios.html

    Someone might have the classic Sangean 818CS with cassette recording
    http://windupradio.com/sangean818cs.htm

    But it is difficult to get standard cassettes these days, and i had to hunt all over town for the micro-cassettes for my answering machine and portable mini-dictation recorder.

    Best of luck.
    And stock up the Mayan apocalypse now

    Reply
  10. Robert Sole

    I had an old 1988 Dodge Caravan years ago with a factory AM-FM radio. I noticed that the “stereo” light on the radio was lit when I was tuned to CJAD. Sure enough, CJAD was broadcasting in AM stereo back then.
    Actually, AM can be quite hi-fi, it’s just that the receivers are usually designed to receive speech, not music, on that band so the freq. range was limited.

    Reply
  11. Rob

    Yes, I too was disappointed to discover that iPods and other similar devices do not have an internal AM receiver. With no disrespect to AM radio or its enthusiasts, I’ve been praying for the day that Concordia’s CJLO is able to make its move to FM.

    Reply
  12. Angela

    Thanks for some perspectives on the AM portable radio issue. I live in Newfoundland and our local CBC Radio 1 channel is on the AM dial and it has frustrated me that both of the portable devices I have that have radio tuners are only FM. After reading this it makes sense why one wasn’t included in my iPod Nano!

    Reply

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