Memory Lane: Can we breathe back life into AM Radio?

somali_radio_reuters bw
Image Credit: reuters bw

The old timely mass media of AM (Amplitude Modulation) Radio, reminds me of the good old days where the whole family would gather around an elaborate microwave-sized receiver and bask in the warm glow of vacuum tubes all in the name of music, news and local entertainment which was broadcasted by Radio Uganda with the limited content it offered. For those born in the 90s you will be glad to know that Radio Uganda’s Blue Channel and Green Channel (now under Uganda Broadcasting Corporation) are still broadcasting AM years after FM became the ‘in thing’. This was the first Radio technology that first graced our commercial airwaves.

As Ugandans, we have always had that weird habit of disemboweling the past. I bet the radio you own now can’t support AM broadcasted channels (not that its your fault). One of the things that made AM Radio technology stand out back in the days was the mere fact that it was cheap for the broadcaster, and transmitted for longer distances despite the poorer sound quality compared to FM.

AM Radio broadcasters, once a pillar of Ugandan communication culture, have been churning listeners for decades — all thanks to the advent of FM broadcasting technology and of late the mass transition to digital media all of which have brutally killed the AM band.  Predictably, there are only a few people that care about this impending extinction in Uganda of whom I am proudly counted and precisely why I am writing about it..

Can we the preserve AM Radio technology?

An AM compatible Radio of the Good Old days
FROM OUR SPONSOR- Continue for more content

Most of our parents and grand parents grew up listening to Radio Uganda’s continuous announcements not forgetting the hour on hour long Death announcements, sports, community news and the Kadongokamu Music (Local African music played with only one instrument as an artist sings along). AM’s low fidelity makes it relatively unsuitable for music compared to FM; which explains more why the radio stations stuck more to hyperlocal talk-radio programming, The AM band is still home to 90 percent of all news and talk programming. Try Blue Channel on 639 you will know what am talking about.

Should we even care about the future of AM radio? Obviously the popular answer is a clear NO, just because you stay in a Major city where FM is hitting the airwaves or you can stream a local radio station online doesn’t mean the chap deep in the village doesn’t want to enjoy as well. Although I think its time for AM to evolve in terms of the programming content. The 30 minutes I spent listing to the radio station made me feel like killing myself (FYI am not suicidal). One thing is for sure listening to AM radio in 2014 can bring out the worst in you and test your listening patience to the limits.

Current phones like the Samsung Galaxies,HTCs and iPhones have more than seven transmitters inbuilt, and none of them have AM Radio, but you will find a slew of transmitters like Wi-Fi, and military communications hidden within. Most of the cars we buy from Japan apart from the recent ones at least have the AM option but am sure no one ever bothers to tune in. You should also get to know that the AM signal is very susceptible to interference compared to its FM sibling, as non-digital machinery like cars can also wreak havoc on its signal: even nearby light bulbs can make an otherwise-clear broadcast sound like crap — that’s because almost any AC-connected appliance radiates frequencies below the 30MHz band, a place where AM also resides.

Can we preserve AM Radio technology?  I think its time we reaffirmed this spectrum to different use despite its limited strengths of good coverage. The current AM radio technology is not the best choice, and we hope high definition AM radio will save the day. The only gripe here is that  this new transmission technology is still stuck in lab mode forever.

Putting the old horse to rest

Old vintage portable am transistor radio

For  years now we have been hearing of Digital, or ‘HD’ AM Radio transmission, think of it like digital TV. It claims to combat all issues of the old AM Radio technology as it sounds better, and usual, there is always a catch; it requires stations to buy new transmitters and listeners to buy new receivers. I can’t imagine telling Mr ‘Ssalongo’ in the village that he needs to buy a new radio in order for him to continue listening to his good old programs he has come to love in the name of HD quality. I will not even mention the legalities involved in rolling out digital radio, especially that we are still struggling with our own Digital TV migration.

Are current users of AM Radio complaining ? No. Does the regulator need to reuse this spectrum for other purposes? None we know of.  Do you ever listen to AM radio anyway? I will leave that for you to answer.  At the end of the day digital AM seems more like a costly, niche destination than a viable alternative to its analog ascendant. Either way I think its time we put this Old AM Radio horse to rest, since we have enough FM Radio stations and still growing. Perhaps the regulator will find a different use of this spectrum in the near future.