AM radio, born in the 1920 election, dies as 2020’s votes are counted

3 November 2020 by Steve Blum
, , , ,

Kdka 2nov1920

If 2020 wasn’t 2020, I’d be in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania today, listening to election returns on KDKA and honoring the 100th anniversary of the birth of broadcasting. Then owned by Westinghouse, a radio manufacturer, KDKA signed on and reported the results of the 1920 presidential race between republican (and victor) Warren Harding and democrat James Cox.

Some experimental stations were on (and, mostly, off) the air early in the preceding decade, but were shut down during World War I. With wartime restrictions lifted and technological advancement making radio receivers accessible to a mass market, Westinghouse was the first company to get a broadcasting license from the federal Bureau of Navigation. In a move copied by Steve Jobs when he opened the iTunes store, Westinghouse put KDKA on the air to give consumers a reason to buy radios. Although some stations experimented with advertising, it wasn’t adopted as a business model until 1923, when WAMD went on the air in Minneapolis.

To mark this anniversary, the Federal Communications Commission decided last week to allow broadcasters to abandon AM. Not the band or the stations or the sounds, but the technology – amplitude modulation – that gives the service its name.

It’s a bittersweet decision. Converting from analog amplitude modulation transmissions to all-digital broadcasting means losing the pleasure of coaxing in scratchy signals from distant stations or building a radio set using a lead crystal, an oatmeal box and some wire and tin foil. But those pleasures are already falling victim to an increasingly noisy radio frequency (RF) environment, as the FCC noted in its decision…

AM stations have been affected by the rising RF “noise floor” from various sources such as power lines, phone chargers, fluorescent and LED light bulbs, computer monitors, and flat-screen TVs. Manufacturers of AM receivers have attempted to reduce interference by using a narrower receiving bandwidth—but at the cost of audio fidelity. As the [Consumer Technology Association] explains, very narrow audio bandwidths lead to a “tin can” effect even in the best of signal conditions. As a result, AM stations are largely confined to voice-only formats (e.g., talk radio) and have consistently lost audiences to FM radio, satellite radio, and online streaming services that offer higher sound fidelity and a broader array of programming.

The AM digital transition is voluntary, so analog amplitude modulated signals will be on the air for a while longer. But once the migration picks up speed, it’ll mean a rapid end to signals you can tickle out of the air with a cat whisker and headphones.

Do it while you can.