RNZ: “Signal to noise – is AM radio really under threat?”

Many thanks to SWLing Post contributor, Connor Walsh, who shares the following piece from Radio New Zealand:

Signal to noise – is AM radio really under threat? (RNZ)

Old-fashioned AM radio was an information lifeline for many during Cyclone Gabrielle when other sources wilted without power. Now a little-known arrangement that puts proceedings of Parliament on the air has been cited as a threat to its future. But is a switch-off really likely? And what’s being done to avoid it?

“Government websites are a waste of time. All they’ve got is a transistor radio – and they need to actually provide a means for these people who need the information to damn well get it,” Today FM’s afternoon host Mark Richardson told listeners angrily on the day Cyclone Gabrielle struck.

He was venting in response to listeners without power complaining online information was inaccessible, and pleading for the radio station to relay emergency updates over the air.

Mobile phone and data services were knocked out in many areas where electricity supplies to towers were cut – or faded away after back-up batteries drained after 4-8 hours. In some places FM radio transmission was knocked out but nationwide AM transmission was still available.

“This will sharpen the minds of people on just how important . . . legacy platforms like AM transmission are in Civil Defence emergencies,” RNZ news chief Richard Sutherland told Mediawatch soon after. [Continue reading at RNZ…]

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10 thoughts on “RNZ: “Signal to noise – is AM radio really under threat?”

  1. Tony Glazier

    The sad fact is that technical developments continue and digital transmissions are far more power efficient than AM transmissions.

    Here in the UK only the very latest cars have digital receivers and all the older ones have medium wave and FM reception.

    In any national emergencies many people would have continued access to their car radios but when all the MW transmissions have ceased soon then there will be no further way to receive broadcasts.

    There is now increased fear of nuclear bombs and they can do a lot of infrastructure damage.

    The UK is quite technically advanced but we do not have any emergency transmission capability. Our LW transmissions cover most of Europe but are likely to be turned off within a year or two because of the power consumption of about 600 kW. Few receivers now have an LW band any more anyway.

    1. mangosman

      The EU made the reception of terrestrial digital radio compulsory in new vehicles in 2020. This has meant that DAB+/DAB is in all new vehicles. These radios will generally receive FM as well. Norway has and soon Switzerland will only have DAB+ broadcasting, with no AM or FM.
      DAB+ is more reliable and gives more choice of stereo stations than DAB, but only some broadcasters are using it in the UK. It is about time that DAB encoders are replaced with DAB+ ones to improve the sound quality. How many DAB only receivers are there. DAB+ has been on air in Australia for 14 years using radios designed in the UK.
      As for emergency warnings, both the DAB+ and DRM systems have an emergency warning functionality which is better than the AM systems
      DRM can operate on all frequency broadcast bands. The BBC does transmit DRM it to Europe for an hour daily on 3955 kHz. The sound quality is much better than AM. They should convert a high powered AM transmitter to DRM which will drop the electricity consumption by more than 67 %

      It will mean that the broadcasters will need to maintain electricity and program supply to transmitters in the affected area, which is more of a problem with mobile phones and the internet.

      There is no point in having a transmitter who’s only function is emergency warnings, just like the NOAA system in the USA. It is expensive, usually lacks maintenance and listeners. It is much better to have a transmitter with popular programs which can add emergency warnings as required as an additional sound stream as can be achieved in DAB+ and DRM.

      1. Braden Glett

        Serious question: are these digital transmissions something I could listen to 600 to 800 miles away, as I currently do on analog AM frequencies? If so, then bring it on! Otherwise, it’s a step in the wrong direction.

        1. mangosman

          I have listened to the BBC from Singapore to WA a distance of 4000 km using high frequency DRM. It sounded better than MF AM from a transmitter 2 km away.

          1. Braden Glett

            Do you mean “High frequency DRM” that doesn’t depend on internet? All VHF and higher frequencies are line-of-sight only and can’t travel long distances, as I’m sure you know if you read this blog. So I’d like to understand what you mean by high frequency and how you are able to hear a signal from 4000 km away without aid of internet or satellite? Can you expand on that?

  2. Don Hall

    The most impressive use of AM radio during an emergency, in my opinion, was during Hurricane Katrina. 2 (or 3?) big local New Orleans AMs and a SW station pulled together for several days with continuous, commercial free, news and call-in programming, allowing listeners to phone in messages to family and friends, and to pass on information from the flooded city in addition to official info. This was the only time I ever heard that kind of cooperation among competitors in the broadcast biz, and it made a big impression on me, listening in California. If the FCC were to make such a model mandatory for designated stations in declared national emergencies, arguments about AM radio as an essential component of emergency communications would carry more weight. As I remember, this was a voluntary effort among the stations involved.

  3. mangosman

    The article does not mention that Radio New Zealand Pacific transmits from the the centre of the North Island over most of the South Pacific continuously and in addition transmits in Digital Radio Mondiale for 3 hours a day, 6 days a week. https://www.rnz.co.nz/international/listen Despite being on the high frequency (Short Wave) band the sound quality is un affected by noise because error correction overcomes both the noise as well as the phasing distortions. In other words it sounds better than local AM and stereo is also possible.

    In addition Radio New Zealand Pacific has bought a new high power high frequency, high power DRM/AM transmitter which is currently being constructed.
    DRM has an emergency warning function which if the receiver is in the defined area, can wake the receiver from standby, waking the potential victims, make a loud announcement, show maps of the disaster and give indexed text instructions. This will allow multiple simultaneous disasters to be kept separate to each site.

    1. Frank

      Boy, I sure hope we don’t lose AM radio as it’s the only thing I listen to! It would be foolish to discontinue it, but foolish is exactly the status quo of most bureaucrats.

      1. pedro

        Iceland, sadly has decommissioned a an AM (Long wave to be more precise) transmitter this past fortnight, sadly. This piece actually addresses the importance of AM/SW radio even in this day and (digital) age.


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