AM radio once played a central role in American life. The family would gather around the Philco to hear the latest Western or detective drama. The transistor radio was where baby boomers first heard the Beatles and other Top 40 hits. And, of course, there's no better way to take in a ballgame.
But the AM band is not what it used to be. Now, it's mostly a mix of talk shows and infomercials. According to the Federal Communications Commission, in the mid-1980s, AM radio still claimed 30 percent of the nation's radio listening hours. By 2010, that had dwindled to 17 percent. And among younger listeners, the number is just 4 percent. Part of the problem, says FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, is that the AM signal is getting increasingly hard to hear.
"Whether you're outside and you're getting interference from a power line, or you're inside and everything from the bulbs in your house to the cable box on top of your TV send out signals that conflict with the AM radio signal, and so for broadcasters trying to reach an audience, it's more and more difficult for them to do that," Pai says.
Pai and other commissioners are proposing a number of fixes for the interference problem, including making it easier for AM stations to move their signal to the FM band. They've also proposed modifying the rules that require many AM stations to power down at night.
Pai says AM radio is an important source of information, especially during an emergency like a natural disaster. Keeping the medium thriving is also important for minority broadcasters, two-thirds of whom broadcast on AM.
Pai also admits to some nostalgia of his own.
"I still remember almost 25 years ago listening to the KLKC 1540 broadcast of my high school basketball championship game in 1987, when my mom wouldn't allow me to go to the game in person so I had to go into my room, sulking a little bit, and tune it to 1540, and I listened to the broadcast that way," Pai says.
That station, KLKC, in Parsons, Kan., still broadcasts high school sports, says Brandon Nivens, the general manager. He says his station is taking other steps to increase its listening audience, including streaming its signal on the Internet.
"Getting into the online aspect of it really helps a lot. We actually stream our AM station online, so that kind of helps reach into the digital realm and kind of get a younger demographic that way," he says.
KLKC, like many in rural America, is tied to its community through local news. The station provides services that includes a swap show called The Trading Post, where on a recent day listeners offered everything from fresh-picked pecans to a used guitar amplifier for sale.
It's this kind of intimate connection AM broadcasters have with their listeners, Pai says, that makes revitalizing the AM band important.
"Whether it's the long-haul trucker who got used to listening to a station as he or she drove across the country to kids who listen to baseball games on warm summer nights, there is something about AM radio that's really embedded in our national culture, and so long as I have a perch here at the FCC I hope to advocate for that to continue," Pai says.
Not all of AM radio is struggling. In fact, five of the top 10 revenue-producing stations are on the AM dial. That's one reason Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters is optimistic and supportive of the FCC's proposals.
"There's a lot to be said for AM radio, and the challenges are purely related to interference, and [if] we get those resolved, the industry is going to boom," Wharton says.
The FCC is gathering public comments on the proposed rule changes and may vote on them by next spring.