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Friday, May 10, 2019

Another shot of redemption for AM radio?

Will the static be gone? The subject of saving AM radio is before the FCC once again. The feds have been taking comments on allowing digital-only broadcasts for any stations that wish to drop their AM component.
Currently, stations that broadcast in digital mode (HD Radio) use a hybrid of digital and analog that occupy the same signal in a process known as “In Band On Channel (IBOC).”
There's a lot to like about this new idea. The digital signal would be encoded in MA3 format, a more robust version of the currently used MA1, with better receiver-lock and fewer drop outs. MA3 would eliminate one of HD radio's biggest demons - splatter and interference to adjacent stations, especially at night. according to the petitioners, Bryan Broadcasting of Texas
iHeart Radio's WELI in HD.
Since the glory days of AM radio in the 1950s and ‘60s, the band has become overcrowded and riddled with electrical noise and interference. Nighttime signals fade in and out, and many stations are forced to reduce power or shut down at sunset. 
“No modern audience will accept the low audio quality that can be observed by anyone who tunes into the senior band; the noise floor problem represents an existential threat to AM radio,” states the Bryan petition.
“All digital systems represent the future of AM radio; they will provide the listener with a pristine audio product free of the aforementioned audience-eroding interferences,” it continued.
The downward spiral began more than 30 years ago. 
The tipping point came around 1978, when FM surpassed AM in listenership and FM radios began appearing in cars, including those drifty after-market converters that were all the rage in the late '70s. (Mine was an Audiovox and it barely picked up a thing.)
Digital-only AM is being tried on a test basis by commercial station WWFD (The Gamut) in Frederick, Maryland. Last summer, WWFD received permission to turn off its AM signal, and transmit only MA3 on its frequency of 820 kHz. 
Power level is 4300 watts daytime, and 430 watts at night. WWFD is a great station for medium wave hobbyists, since its digital MA3 signal has much broader coverage than its former AM signal. 
Audiovox FM converter from the 1970s.
Called “The Gamut,” the format is music-based and free form. It covers the Greater Washington D.C. area.
Just before the close of the FCC comment period on May 11, about 50 people had submitted official opinions. Most were in favor, but those against the MA3 idea said the digital signals would be too wide and would interfere with traditional AM radio and to low-power TIS (Traffic Information Service) broadcasts.
Other efforts to fix AM broadcasting have occurred in the past. Perhaps one of the most promising took place in the early 1980s, when AM stereo was introduced – and might have caught on had there not been several competing systems vying for attention, allowing the idea to die on the vine. 
The FCC eventually endorsed the Motorola system, which is still used by a sprinkling of stations in the U.S. and Canada.
In 2015, after an expansive two-year review of what’s wrong with AM, the FCC released its findings on revitalizationFM translators were made available to AM stations to address nighttime power reductions and coverage loss. Application windows were staggered, with the smallest and least powerful AM stations getting first dibs. 
While the FM-for-AM approach does solve some coverage issues, it also crowds the FM band with low power stations. In the heavily populated northeast, open FM frequencies are very hard to come by.
What’s next? I expect that if the MA3 proposal is enacted, most existing mom-and-pop stations can’t or won’t drop conventional AM modulation, due to the high cost and technical demands. 
For those of us with the proper receivers, MA3 might make for some exciting listening, but’s too little too late for many AMs already struggling.

Added note:

For the past few nights, I've been trying to decode WWFD directly off the air with my Sony HD receiver. The problem is that 820 KHz is also home to WNYC, a public radio station in the Big Apple. At night, WNYC reduces power and I can null it out with my homemade loop antenna. So far, I have found an HD signal that "locks" the receiver - presumably from WWFD - but there is no audio or text. If I succeed in capturing and decoding, I'll post a video.

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