Time for the FM band to turn Japanese?

AM_FM“Hello, hello, this is station CKZC, Winnipeg,” were likely the first words ever spoken over a Winnipeg radio station, by Lynn V. Salton, a former Royal Navy wireless officer who founded radio station CKZC at his Grosvenor Ave. home in February, 1922.

CKZC was a modest operation that only operated on Sunday and Tuesday evenings at a wavelength of 420 meters (roughly 710 on the AM dial) and a power of just 100 watts. The station would sign on with Salton playing the “El Capitan March”, followed by more records from Salton’s collection during the course of the evening.

It is presumed that CKZC disappeared from the airwaves around the time that the Winnipeg Free Press launched the short-lived CJCG at about 730 on the AM dial a few weeks later, with Salton as the station’s first announcer.

Though it was a mere fraction of the power used by modern AM stations — most Winnipeg and southern Manitoba AM stations broadcast at at least 10,000 watts —  Salton’s 100-watt station was picked up as much as 845 miles away (1,360 kilometres) according to the Manitoba Historical Society, thanks to the tendency of lower-frequency AM band signals to be reflected off the atmosphere at night.

It also helped that the radio bands were much less congested 91 years ago, when the first primitive AM radio stations were going on the air.

Tune across the AM band at night now, and you’ll hear a cacophony of sound as stations from up to 3,500 kilometres (2,175 miles) away clash with each other.

Unlike signal range, where AM still has a certain advantage over FM in rural areas, sound quality has never been one of AM radio’s advantages. AM stations still have to pack their signal through a relatively narrow “pipe” about 20 kHz wide, one-tenth the bandwidth typically available to an FM station and one-seventy-fifth the bandwidth used by a satellite radio channel.

It’s not just the bandwidth and background interference from other stations that puts AM at a disadvantage. So does its relatively low frequency, which makes it more vulnerable to crackling, crunching and buzzing noises caused by lightning, machinery, appliances, household electronics and power lines.

As portable FM radios and cassette tape players, with their superior sound quality, took the marketplace by storm in the late ’70s and early ’80s, AM radio stations began losing listeners rapidly. Many dropped music in favour of talk formats, and as profits continued to evaporate, replaced local programming with inexpensive syndicated shows.

AM’s descent into irrelevance continued nevertheless. In the United States, AM reached the turning point in 1978, the last year that it accounted for more listener-hours than FM. Today, AM stations account for less than one-fifth of all U.S. listener-hours, and the typical U.S. AM radio listener is 57 years old, according to a 2009 U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) study.

Among younger listeners, who vastly prefer listening to music whenever they listen to the radio at all, AM is a rarely visited wasteland of feverish haters, conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalism. The same FCC study found that 12-24 year olds spend just four percent of their listening-hours on the AM band, rising only slightly to a nine percent share among listeners aged 25-34 years.

This led the U.S. broadcasting regulator to conclude that, “the story of AM radio over the last 50 years has been a transition from being the dominant form of audio entertainment for all age groups to being almost non-existent to the youngest demographic groups.”

Consequently, many broadcasters are beginning to give up on AM radio. The former 58 CKY and CKRC 630 have long since decamped to the FM band as 102.3 Clear FM and 99.9 Bob FM respectively. Two more stations — CKSB 1050 and the weaker CKMW 1570 from Morden/Winkler — are poised to join the exodus, with plans to shut down their AM transmitters and to move to 88.1 and 88.9 FM respectively.

This, plus CJNU’s plans to move from 107.9 to 93.7 FM, and plans to open a new country music station in Steinbach on 107.7 FM, mean that the Winnipeg FM dial is running out of bandwidth.

A new station on any other frequency would have to prove that it wouldn’t cause interference not just to any other Winnipeg or southern Manitoba station, but would extend the same courtesy to FM stations as far away as Brandon, Kenora and Grand Forks — a consideration that limits the FM dial to 20-25 local stations in even the largest cities.

Where will that leave CJOB 680, CKJS 810 and TSN Radio 1290, the three remaining Winnipeg stations without an FM slot?

One possibility would be to take over an existing station’s slot. This is a viable option for CJOB, which has a sister station in 99.1 Fresh FM that has been doing only so-so in the ratings. CKJS and TSN Radio, however, could only do this by displacing a more successful sister station.

Another suggested option would allow for massive power increases to fight off electrical and weather-related interference. Yet another would be for AM stations to simultaneously broadcast in both analog and digital, with the receiver switching back and forth between the two modes depending on which one produces a better signal; but results so far in places where digital AM radio has been attempted are far from encouraging.

There is also growing talk in the United States about expanding the FM band by annexing the frequencies currently allocated to TV channels 5 and 6, located just below the FM band between 76 and 88 MHz.

Such an expansion, if it even happens, is probably years away. Though most full-powered U.S. TV stations abandoned channels 5 and 6  in the 2009 digital switchover due to poor reception — digital TV reception on channels 2-13 often ends up looking something like this — a few stations still continue on. Some analog low-power and repeater stations that were exempt from the U.S. 2009 and Canadian 2011 switchover deadlines will continue operating until about 2015, and some might attempt to stay on channels 5 and 6 as digital stations thereafter.

Either the remaining channel 5 and 6 stations would need to move to other channels, or some kind of frequency-sharing agreement would have to be reached.

That latter option has a precedent: while FM radio was expanding rapidly in many parts of the world in the ’70s, Australia was struggling with the fact that it had already assigned the 88-to-108 MHz band used in most of the world for FM radio to Australian TV channels 3, 4 and 5.

After considering the possibility of using higher UHF frequencies, a move that would have made Australian portable FM radios useless in other parts of the world and vice-versa, an agreement was reached to move most TV stations overlapping with the proposed 88-to-108 FM band to new channels, aside from a few repeaters in isolated areas with no FM service. A second agreement will eliminate the remaining TV/FM overlap when Australia’s last remaining rural analog TV transmitters shut down at the end of 2013, reserving the 88-to-108 band exclusively for FM radio.

Given the long distances between the few full-powered channel 5 and 6 digital TV stations that will exist in either Canada or the U.S. after 2015, such a dual-use agreement could be reached. Accommodating FM stations in the space currently reserved for these TV channels should not be a problem in Winnipeg: both channels have been allocated for digital TV use in Winnipeg, but both are unoccupied and almost certainly will remain that way.

A second advantage of expanding the FM band downward is that radios that can tune in those frequencies are already being manufactured for the Japanese market, where FM radio stations have traditionally operated between 76 and 90 MHz, and might soon start showing up in the 90 to 108 MHz band after being vacated by Japanese TV stations during that country’s 2011 digital TV switchover.

Even if the North American FM band is extended down to 76 MHz in the years ahead, allowing all remaining southern Manitoba AM stations to move to FM if they choose, some local stations will continue simulcasting on both bands for 10-15 years after a 76-to-108 FM radio becomes standard in Canadian vehicles, as that is where many Canadians do their radio listening, and no ratings-sensitive broadcaster will give up that market segment.

At least not yet. But radio listening habits, like many other habits, are developed early and are progressively more difficult to change with age. This does not bode well for AM stations competing for the ears of a younger generation that spends more than 90 percent of its radio listening time on the FM band, and many hours more listening to high-quality audio tailored to their own tastes online and on their iPods. Like the listening public, AM radio stations will need to migrate to new technology to survive.

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About theviewfromseven
A lone wolf and a bit of a contrarian who sometimes has something to share.

9 Responses to Time for the FM band to turn Japanese?

  1. unclebob says:

    Holy Hanglider Batman – where are all those poor deprived feverish haters, conspiracy theorists and religious fundamentalists going to go? Homelessness should be everybody’s concern.

  2. theviewfromseven says:

    Online. I keep a link on my browser that takes me to the latest documentaries uploaded to YouTube. It’s a good way of finding newer stuff from the likes of the BBC, and some archival documentaries such as the 1979 seven-part series “Diamonds in the Sky”. But it also means wading through all kinds of questionable stuff about chemtrails, 9/11, Obama being a Muslim, etc.

  3. Drew Durigan says:

    Despite all of FM’s advantages, it doesn’t have near the range of AM. This is especially true for AM stations on the “left” (low) end of the band and in places like southern Manitoba with it’s excellent soil conductivity. This allows the signals to propagate far beyond their target market.

    CJOB is a monster. It’s daytime signal is of city-grade (local) strength as far south as Devils Lake, ND. Easily receivable in Fargo and well into South Dakota. On a car radio, I have carried a listenable signal as far south as Sioux Falls. (It could actually be heard beyond Sioux Falls if not for KFEQ/680 in St. Joseph, MO.

    While not quite potent as CJOB, CKRC was another blowtorch signal. It’s 10,000 watts on 630 carried into west central Minnesota before being overtaken by KDWB/630 in Minneapolis.

    Even though it’s directional pattern pointed away from the States (to protect WNAX/570 in Yankton, SD), I spent many hours as a kid listening to 58/CKY from my grandparents’ house west of Grand Forks. That signal also made it into Fargo and beyond.

    Of course, Winnipeg-based advertisers aren’t interested in reaching these listeners. But I’m guessing it is an issue in rural Manitoba where there are only a few stations on the dial. If CJOB were to migrate to FM, they would lose many listeners located outside the immediate Winnipeg metro. (Unlike U.S. stations, Canadian broadcasters are not allowed to simulcast programming on both an AM and an FM signal.)

  4. theviewfromseven says:

    That’s a good point about CJOB, Drew. I regularly listen to Richard Cloutier’s 9-to-noon show, and it is very much a regional station both in terms of advertising and in terms of the people calling in (including occasional calls from U.S. listeners). If they went to FM-only, even with 100 kW from a 2,000-foot tower, their reach would be limited to about 50-55 mi. for indoor reception, maybe 80-90 mi. for car-radio reception.

    Likewise, I grew up being able to tune in weak but audible daytime signals from CBK Watrous/Regina, KFYR Bismarck, KSJB Jamestown, CKDM Dauphin, KFGO and WDAY Fargo, KNDK Langdon (a mere 1 kW) and CKX Brandon on all but the least-sensitive AM radios in Winnipeg thanks to the good propagation. There are even handfuls of people in Winnipeg today who listen to sports radio on 740 The Fan from Fargo and ESPN 710 from Bismarck, and to country music on Maverick 105.1. (I’m amazed at how well Maverick comes in on my DX-friendly radio, despite the fact that the station operates at only 764 ft. HAAT from 95 miles away. Too bad KNRR-DT, with a line of sight to Winnipeg, can’t do the same…)

  5. On a good day, I can still pick up Nashville WSM 650 AM. On a good day. Often as not, the AM band is an uncopyable mess at night.

    I’d welcome an expansion of the FM band – both of my main radios can tune down to 76MHz – and frankly, the more variety on our free terrestrial radio bands, the better.

  6. Drew Durigan says:

    The reason the FM band is a useless mess is because the FCC broke up the clear channels in the U.S. and allowed nighttime operation for stations that previously had daytime-only authorization.

    In the “old days”, only one station in the U.S. or Canada could operate on a Class 1-A clear frequency at night. These were 50,000 non-directional stations. Other stations on the frequency signed off at local sunset. This allowed the 50kW stations to be heard clearly for 1,000+ miles at night. CBW is a Class 1-A clear. Before the channels were broken down, I could hear it with a solid signal in Colorado every night.

    The former daytimers must operate with severely reduced power output at night. Even so, these stations create a “noise floor” underneath the primary station on the frequency. Add a few of these flea-powered stations and the noise becomes enough to where it’s unlistenable. Using WSM as an example, it used to be solid into Minnesota at night. The signal is still there, but you can hear co-channel interference underneath from various, unidentifiable stations. Same for WLS, WGN, WLW, CBW, CBK, etc.

  7. reedsolomon says:

    I’ve thought this before, but if we’re going to change our radios anyways, we might as well go digital. If Digital Radio Mondiale comes to AM it could create a resurgence on that band.

  8. Which would hopefully, in turn, spur development of a capable stand-alone (non-SDR) DRM receiver.

  9. theviewfromseven says:

    From what I’ve heard, Digital AM produces a near-FM quality signal as long as the signal is clean and strong. To that extent, Digital AM might work a bit better in Canada where most stations operate at 10 kW or 50 kW, compared to the 1 kW or 5 kW that many U.S. stations operate at.

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