On AM revitalization, Peter Tannenwald asks, Are we really “revitalizing” AM, or are we walking around in circles?
Late on Friday, October 5, the Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) released a Second Further Notice of Proposed Rulemaking in a five-year ongoing effort to “revitalize” the AM radio broadcast service. The new proposals continue a trend toward allowing higher power operation by smaller stations, by reducing nighttime signal protection for some 60 Class A AM stations located in the continental United States and 16 stations in Alaska. The end result would be less wide area coverage and more local radio service to the public.
To understand why the FCC is considering this action, it helps to understand a bit of the science behind AM signal propagation. AM radio signals travel through both the ground and through the air. At night, the airborne signal component (“skywave”) is reflected back to the earth from the ionosphere — a layer of the atmosphere extending from about 50 to 600 miles above the earth’s surface. The reflected signals may come back down to earth hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away from a station’s transmitter. Class A AM stations — formerly known as “clear channel” stations (no relation to Clear Channel/now iHeartMedia) — are powerhouses, transmitting with 50 kilowatts of power 24 hours a day – 200 or more times the power of the smallest AM stations.
[…]Signal reflection doesn’t work so well during the day, so the FCC has allowed other stations to occupy the Class A frequencies in other markets. But those stations have to curtail power during “critical hours” (two hours before sunrise and after sunset) and often have to reduce power to nearly nothing or shut down altogether at night. In today’s 24-hour-a-day, nonstop world, not being able to reach an audience at night is a losing proposition; so the FCC has yielded to constant pressure over the years to allow more power and longer hours of operation by those “other” stations, at the expense of long distance reception of Class A signals.
Now the FCC is proposing to go further, rolling back some previous restrictions on non-Class A AM stations and perhaps eliminating whatever remains (and it’s not much) of the protection of far-away reception. Under the proposals, which are sufficiently complicated that you should talk to your engineer if you really want to understand the details, Class A AM stations would be protected only within a higher strength signal contour (and so within a smaller area) than they are now; at least some, if not all, skywave protection would be eliminated.[…]
Are the protected night signals of monster 50,000-watt AMs “an anachronism?”
And is the FCC poised to do something that will frustrate late-night DX’ers? The Commission tries again to balance the role of Class A signals like KMOX St. Louis/1120, designed to serve listeners hundreds of miles away, with the desires of local AMs. The “skywave” debate is decades-old – but particularly urgent now, given the rising noise floor from all kinds of interference. The Commission just issued a “Second further notice of proposed rulemaking,” noting the rise of “FM stations, satellite radio and other media.” The first notice drew “a voluminous and diverse set of comments,” with some pointing out that “AM skywave service is sporadic and unreliable, often subject to overwhelming environmental interference, and unlikely to consist of programming tailored to the needs of distant communities.” But then there are questions about hurricane and other weather/safety warnings. In this notice, the Commission has ideas about changes to daytime, “critical hours” operation after sunrise and before sunset, and “nighttime hours.” One observer tells this NOW Newsletter says that cutting through the thicket of details, “It’s clear that there will be a further reduction in protection to the clear channel Class A stations, particularly at night. The main questions are how much protection they will retain.”
More broadcasters than you might realize are helping keep the ionosphere warm (and the power companies happy)
In the May 9 issue of Radio World, I reported on a recent power upgrade at TWR’s Bonaire AM facility that brought that station close to the half-megawatt level (440 kW), allowing the station to make the claim that it is the most powerful medium-wave (MW) operation in the Western Hemisphere. After the dust settled, I thought it might be interesting to poke around a bit in the data available to see if they have a close (or even not-so-close) contender for second place for this title.
With only a few exceptions, U.S. stations have been capped at 50 kW since this power level was authorized by the Federal Radio Commission in the late 1920s. Powel Crosley Jr.’s WLW 500,000 kW 1930s “experimental” operation is one very well-known example, as it received a lot of publicity during the five years or so during it operated before being powered down. However, there was another much less well-known superpower operation during that period (it actually beat WLW to the punch by putting 400,000 Watts on the air about three years before Crosley was ready to belt out his hundreds of kilowatts).
[…]Surprisingly, there is one U.S. AM station that has the necessary paperwork and equipment to operate at 100 kW full-time. However, it’s not listed in the FCC’s AM database. I’m referring to the VOA’s “Radio Martí” in Marathon, Fla. which operates on 1080 kHz.
The VOA station (it sports no call sign) appears to be the only operation in its class in the U.S. and Canada, but it if you cross the border into Mexico, you’ll find “muchas estaciones de radio” that emit lots more than a puny 50,000 “vatios.”[…]
Remember the American television game show To Tell The Truth? This very long-running show challenged four celebrity guests and viewers to identify the real “central character” in the midst of two impostors.I was reminded of this game show when attempting to tell the difference between the original and recently updated versions of C. Crane’s CCRadio-EP Pro receiver when viewing the front panels. If there’s a difference, I can’t spot it! You need to turn around the radios to see the new EP-Pro’s key feature: switchable 9 kHz/10 kHz tuning steps.
The only clue to the newest version of the CCRadio-EP Pro is the 9/10 kHz tuning switch on the back panel.
I recently met with a good friend and radio hobbyist from Oregon to compare a few selected portable radios, FSL (Ferrite Sleeve Loop) antennas, and the newest low-noise Wellbrook ALA100LN module that was introduced just a few weeks ago. I was particularly interested in a head-to-head match-up of my friend’s original EP-Pro versus my newly arrived EP-Pro (9 kHz/10 kHz steps) version.
I’m looking forward to Thomas’ usual thorough review of the new CCRadio-EP Pro, but I want to offer a few observations of medium wave tuning after my time with the two models:
On very weak daytime MW signals, the radios are equally sensitive except on higher frequencies where the new model excels to a moderate degree. It’s enough of an advantage to make the difference between catching an ID or not on a low, DX-level signal.
The new EP-Pro feels more accurate–and simply more enjoyable–to tune, thanks to the elimination of false “peaks” surrounding the main signal. This is a BIG plus for the new radio, and frankly the CCRadio-EP should have performed this way from the start. Kudos to C. Crane for correcting this problem, but I can understand why the original version was brought to market with the odd tuning quirk. It isn’t a deal breaker for most non-DXing purchasers.
I could not find an instance of soft muting on either radio. I listened for a while to signals barely above the noise floor, and never did audio “cut in and out” suddenly, a clue to soft muting. Both receivers are very useful for chasing weak MW stations…but the new version is highly preferred for ease of tuning because of the lack of false audio peaks.
With the tuning working way it should, medium wave channels “snap” in and out as you slowly tune. This took a little getting used to, but after a while I began to appreciate the sense of exactness with the newest CCRadio-EP Pro.
Fast excursions up or down the band (either radio) will blank the audio, recovering when you stop tuning or slow down. I believe this is simply a case of exceeding the AGC’s recovery time, not soft muting. It’s easy to live with, but granted the effect is not one of smoothness as found on traditional, non-DSP analog receivers. Successful DXing takes a slower approach anyway when scanning the band; casual listeners may be more annoyed by either version of the radio if they are used to very quick knob-cranking.
The Twin Coil Ferrite “AM Fine Tuning” control works well on both units, and gives significant gain to weak signals on either extremity of the band. I love this feature; it makes digging out the weak ones a lot more fun!
So, should you buy the newest CCRadio-EP Pro with the 9 kHz/10 kHz steps?
If you already own a CCRadio-EP Pro and are fine with the false tuning peaks and have no desire for the 9 kHz MW step option–keep your radio! Only on high band does the new model have a sensitivity edge. Especially don’t make the jump if you’re a casual listener and listen only to a handful of local stations, or a single distant station.
If you do not own a CCRadio-EP Pro yet, but are in the market, definitely buy the newest version. Be aware that you can only be assured of getting the newest model if you purchase directly from C. Crane. Amazon does not yet carry the newest version according to some reports.
If you’re a radio junkie and just have to have both…go ahead…we understand!
I also made a short video comparison of the new EP Pro versus the top-ranked Panasonic RF-2200 on medium wave:
Guy Atkins is a Sr. Graphic Designer for T-Mobile and lives near Seattle, Washington. He’s a regular contributor to the SWLing Post.
On Sunday, Allen shared the following note with his radio friends. He has kindly given me permission to post it here because, frankly, it’s a most impressive accomplishment from an amazing life-long radio listener:
Fifty years ago today ( June 17, 1968 )
My radio DXing journey began in my hometown of Lacombe, Alberta here in Canada .
Throughout the following years since that day I have been involved in a number of different modes of DXing. From Medium Wave (AM), Ultralight Radio DXing, Shortwave , FM radio , Ham Radio Listening and even TV DXing for a number of years,
They have all played a wonderful part in my DXing enjoyment over the past half century.
My first evening of DXing began on the AM (Medium Wave) radio dial as I logged 560 KMON Great Falls, Montana for my first DX catch. The rest as they say is history and was to remain a lifelong enjoyment in such a great hobby.
Here is a list of some of my DX totals I have been fortunate to achieve in certain categories of DXing from both Alberta and Newfoundland:
Heard all 7 Continents via radio overall
Heard all 195 countries on earth via radio overall
Heard all 50 USA States via radio overall
Heard all 10 Canadian provinces and 3 territories via radio overall
Heard 1820 stations on AM (Medium Wave) radio from within Newfoundland
Heard 787 stations on AM (Medium Wave) radio from within Alberta
Heard 5 Continents on AM (Medium Wave) radio from within Newfoundland
Heard 123 Countries on AM (Medium Wave ) and Ultralight radio from within Newfoundland
Heard 48 / 50 USA States on AM (Medium Wave ) radio from within Newfoundland
Heard all 10 Canadian provinces and 2 Territories on AM (Medium Wave ) radio from within Newfoundland
Heard 1712 Medium Wave (AM) stations on Ultralight Radios
Heard 607 FM DX stations from within Alberta
Logged 109 DX Television Stations (non-local) from within Alberta
Countries heard on Shortwave: 179 from within Alberta
Logged 334 stations from within Newfoundland
DXCC Ham Radio Countries heard 338/340 from within Alberta and Newfoundland overall.
Heard All 50 US States on Ham radio from within Alberta and Newfoundland both.
Heard All 10 Canadian Provinces / 3 Territories on Ham radio from within Alberta and Newfoundland both
Looking forward to Year 51 ahead and many more in the hobby!!
Allen Willie VO1-001-SWL / VOPC1AA
Bravo, Allen! Those are most impressive accomplishments! That took a lot of time, patience and radio fun. Here’s to 51 and onward!
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