US Wary About Ditching FM Radio

John Lister's picture

Norway has confirmed it will switch off FM radio signals in 2017, making it the first country to do so. United States officials say they are likely to let the switch to digital radio happen more gradually.

Several countries, including the US, have already switched off analog TV signals, with consumers instead either using digital over-the-air services or switching entirely to cable and satellite. In the US, only a few low-power, very local analog broadcasts remain, and they are due to switch off by this September.

Analog Radio Sets Still Widely Used

The digital switchover for radio worldwide has been much slower, however. That's largely because while many people are happy to replace televisions now and again (particularly when flat-screen models became more affordable), they are more likely to hold on to radio sets for many years. Radio use is also particularly common in cars, where replacing an analog receiver with a digital one can be prohibitively expensive.

On the other hand, Norway is well set to make the move to digital. It was among the first countries to launch digital radio, and now has 22 national digital channels, compared with five still broadcasting for FM. The plan is to start the shutdown in January 2017, but switch off will happen gradually, region by region. That will make it easier to deal with complaints and queries from listeners having problems buying and using digital sets. (Source: cnn.com)

Switching to radio broadcasts can free up airwaves for other uses, allow more stations, or a combination of the two. However, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) which oversees radio in the US, says it has no plans to switch off analog signals.

Only Congress Could Force US Switch Off

The FCC says any such move would need Congress to pass a law. It also notes the impact would be huge, as an estimated 500 million analog radio receivers are still used in the US. (Source: yahoo.com)

While up-to-date figures aren't available, it appears most Americans already listen to radio on a digital device, though that figure is hard to quantify. That's because there are a number of factors involved, including whether smartphones, computers and tablets are included; or whether people are listening to recorded shows rather than live broadcasts; and whether people are listening to podcasts that are never broadcast over the air.

Although it's against a mandatory analog switch off, the FCC believes radio stations will increasingly switch over to digital voluntarily. Industry figures suggest that bigger radio stations will lead the way. In fact, most major stations already broadcast digitally, though only one-fifth of all stations do so.

What's Your Opinion?

Do you listen to radio on devices such as computers and phones, on dedicated digital radio sets, or on FM radios only? Should the US follow Norway's plan, and switch off analog radio in the same way as happened with TV? Or should broadcasters be allowed to continue using FM frequencies for as long as they like, even if the airwaves could be used more efficiently?

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Comments

dan_2160's picture

We already have a digital FM radio band now in the USA -- it's called High Definition Radio. Unfortunately it's not widely used and even less widely known. While I really like the excellent variety it offers, there are few HD FM stations in the Chicago area and virtually nobody knows they even exist -- not to mention the difficulty finding HD FM receivers or radios.

The sound quality is definitely better than conventional FM.

I realize that the Norway switchover is likely different than the digital FM radio we now have, but ... heck this is the Internet. You don't have to know what your writing about to share your view.

rodeoted's picture

I am an audiophile and have several high end FM tuners from 1968 into the 1980's. There is no comparison in quality to current digital tuners. The analog tuners bring a squality of sound that, on a station with a high quality signal and very low compression, is indistinguishable from playing a CD. If the station plays vinyl (WTJU - Charlottesville, VA), it's better than CD quality. The analog signal from WTJU is FAR better than the digital signal from my local NPR stations or from any of the other stations that transmit in digital. I would challenge anyone with a digital radio to make the comparison using a quality analog FM tuner.

In addition, my analog tuners pull in great signals from as far away as 70 miles. With a digital signal, you have it -- and then you don't.

No comparison. If we lose the stations with a quality analog FM signal, we'll have lost a lot.

brigadand's picture

When you're talking about countries and their ability to make change universally within, comparing us to Norway is apples and oranges. Norway has a population of 5 million people. The state I live in (WA) has 7.5 million itself. Changing out things for 320 million people is infinitely more complicated.

f58tammy's picture

I installed a new deck in my car over a year ago, it has a HD receiver in it. Also has 2 usb ports, I have a 256gb usb drive with my Cd's in wave format. So far my collection is over 300 albums with 56gb left to fill. When I fill that I can add one to the second port. My total drive time is only about 90 min. on the days I work.
I am able to enjoy all music with no commercials and no annoying (my personal opinion) morning talk-shows.
It will be a few decades to come, but I believe we will see the AM / FM bands removed from car radios altogether in the future, with maybe just a drive report/weather button for those local problems.

SPAD1916's picture

I have an MP3/FM radio that I prefer to use over my phone when away from home or the office. I also listen to several stations online during the day. I listen to FM radio at home as well. It can be much more reliable than streaming.

I might be a rogue value, but I am happy with having both choices--until I can stream radio as afordable and reliably as on air broadcasts.

Boots66's picture

I guess I am getting old-fashioned faster then I think - I still have a couple of AM stations that I like their broadcast and they have all but disappeared - but our new vehicle came with XMS (oh but only free for 3 months) and we have been (I'll admit reasonably politely) hounded to renew - Sorry but I absolutely will never pay $175.00 to listen to my radio for a year - I am happy listening to whomever's choice of songs on the radio - I do try to pick stations of a Genre that I will mostly like their choices and have not had a complaint yet - and Oh you get some ads - well that may be the 'price' you pay for your Free Radio - News - absolutely - I want to know what is happening in the world and in my country and my part of the country - I do not want to be living in a bubble and never know that something major happened somewhere else in the world - God help us if we stupidly go to digital once more for what will they do if and when we have a major EMI event - Lets see - No phones, no TV's and soon no radios - How flipping wise is that?

Phil's picture

They'd like you to think it stands for High Def, so if you press they say it doesn't stand for anything, but it's a Hybrid Digital system.

It uses up to three streaming digital subcarriers on an FM signal, each relatively low bit rate (particularly HD3. designed for speech only). They can carry higher audio frequencies than standard FM, which is rolled of completely by 15Khz to leave room for the multiplex signaling tone at 19Khz. But they're definitely not high definition, being roughly equivalent to 96 kbps mp3 at best (or 64kbps for HD3). HD1 carries the same program as the main carrier, and most HD radios will switch to HD1 from the main carrier within the first few seconds.

If HD receivers became popular, the stations could shift more of their power and bandwith to the HD channels and less to the main carrier, limiting the main carrier to really lo-fo and eventually discontinuing it.

davidfischel_4476's picture

It was one thing to convert to HD television. That only entailed one device. But, the conversion has allowed the cable companies to charge extra for using HD. In other words, I get analog imagery downgraded from the HD transmission. So, not only did TV manufacturers make more money, the cable delivery services got it also. I use the radio a great deal; morning alarm wakeup, music during the day and news, traffic and weather on the road. We have four radios in use, two of which are automobile radios. I do not need improved perception for my radio programs; we do not run a concert hall.

kematheny_4106's picture

Whoa there folks, I have OLD CARS, with OLD RADIOS. They are "period correct" and working fine. Everyone I read on restoration/preservation blogs has the same opinion of "modern head units" in a '40's to '80's something vehicle. Lose It! Oh, you can have the radio "retrofitted" for your hook-up of a digital player, at $500 or so to keep the face looking original. Why? Add a remote player to the trunk, again Why? This is much more than just buying a new TV.
And I NEVER renew those subscription services, I want real time local news, weather reports, (esp. in the convertible, LoL) traffic etc..
A little yakking in the morning is a good thing too, just find someone you can tolerate, ha ha!

ifpusr's picture

Like most of us, I have terabytes of music and other media. Nevertheless I don't use only that. I make active choices to take in broadcast media, because I enjoy the sense that many other people are taking in the same experience at the time. This despite savage cuts to film to accommodate ads and pare them back to fit timeslots.
I also can't stand most talk radio. The exceptions to that are such excellent radio that I wish I could give them a new category all their own and shut the rest down. I feel great sympathy for any country or locality that doesn't have access to intelligently produced discussion/analysis/current affairs radio.
So generally speaking, established radio formats have a place with me, whatever format they're in.

Phil's picture

Most FM and AM stations put up their signals as internet streams - which can be very valuable for niche musics like jazz that have to gather their audience from a larger base than just a local signal can - but there are also some pure internet stations that are following the live broadcast radio model.

One of the pioneering underground bluesy folk-rock stations of the late sixties - through eighties WBCN-FM in Boston - which was taken off the air several years ago after losing its way in the nineties, is being reborn by its original Program Director as an internet stream at wbcnboston.com, which has live DJs 10am-4pm weekdays (Boston time). It plays its old repertoire but also new music. Its DJs are also not afraid to comment on what's going on in the world.

gaelicfog's picture

I grew up on AM radio in the Greater New York area in the late 1950s and through the 60s. WABC was probably the best known with Cousin Brucie and Big Dan Ingram, we didn't have FM until I think 1968 when WOR-AM launched WOR-FM which ran commercial free radio for about year or so before bringing on DJs and commercials. It gets me that Pandora and Apple radio, wanting me to pay $10 a month for Commercial Free music. That might be what kids in their teens, 20s and 30s want, but I've been listening to commercials for 60 years, both AM and FM! I don't mind it, it's like TV where you can make a run to take a pee or get another beer. Sometimes the commercials are better than the music. It was on WOR FM that I first hear The Doors with Light My Fire! AM was and still is the home for Sports talk and Mets and Yankee games and Ranger, Islander and Devil hockey games. I only listen to AM now in my truck, I don't have an AM receiver in my apartment. I still listen to FM, but although I have 12 stations in my Truck, I really only listen to one station WEHM FM on the eastern tip of Long island, NY about 60 miles away as the crow flies or using a ferry. I also still have about 80 CDs so I download them to my computer then onto iTunes and sync with my iPod to listen to the music of the 70s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. That is also what I listen to with Pandora mostly through my Roku box, iPod or computer. I just remembered, does anyone else remember DMX radio? Digital Music Express, non-stop music 24/7 with I think 30 channels of different types of music. It came in through cable and it hooked up to your stereo receiver on the AUX connection. It had a remote that gave you the name of the song, band, which album, who wrote it and the album code to order the CD. I had it for about 5 years or so until my Cable company added music feed on the cable line up.