Arceneaux, Ph.D., is a media studies professor at San Diego State University. He lives in San Carlos and is on Twitter, @noahax.
I started studying radio in 2003 when I began a doctorate program in mass communication at the University of Georgia. I had always been fascinated by media history, and radio was my way to parse this broader field of study into manageable chunks. For 10 years before graduate school, I worked for some major television networks. All this is to say that I have been paying close attention to media technologies for decades. Over this time, I became intensely aware of the persistent rhetoric that “newer is better.” Every few years (or every few months), the public is urged to buy the newer, faster, smaller and ostensibly “better” version of what we already have.
The current struggle over AM radio exemplifies this belief. AM (named for amplitude modulation) is the original form of broadcasting, now more than 100 years old. FM radio also uses electromagnetic waves to carry audio, though the technique of “frequency modulation” did not become dominant until the 1970s. The sound quality of FM is superior to that of AM, which explains why music gravitated towards the new platform, leaving AM for talk and news. Different wavelengths, however, have different properties, so the signal of an AM station can travel further than its FM counterparts. This distance is magnified at night when signals bounce off the atmosphere and return to Earth. As to “Which is better, AM or FM?” — the answer varies. Is the sound quality of the latest pop tune the defining factor? Or are we concerned with the way radio unites geographically distant listeners into a temporary, virtual community of listeners?
Admittedly, old-fashioned radio is not as glamorous as the latest K-pop dance challenge on TikTok. Radio is, however, the most pervasive of all media technologies. According to statistics from June 2022, 93 percent of adult Americans listen to some form of radio each week, a higher percentage than those using smartphones or television. Granted, online streaming radio services are gaining in popularity, as are podcasts, but traditional, low-tech, over-the-air broadcasting is the primary way that listeners enjoy radio. Sometimes, old ways work best.
Recently, some major auto manufacturers said they would phase out AM radios in their vehicles. The purported reason they cited is that electric engines create interference with radio reception, though in March, Ford Motors announced that it would even drop AM receivers from internal combustion vehicles. Perhaps auto executives believe that no one needs AM, since there are so many streaming options. And surely, if people have the necessary funds to afford a new vehicle in 2023, they must have a subscription to one of the online streaming services? I mean, what kind of self-respecting adult does not already have a credit card bursting with countless monthly charges already?
As amazing as the internet can be, it is not free, nor is it as stable as radio. Again and again, in times of disaster, radio comes to the rescue. When Wi-Fi goes down, when internet cables are disrupted, or when smartphones run out of power, the signal from a radio transmitter is still there, freely available to all.
The National Association of Broadcasters has launched a campaign to preserve AM radio, and Sen. Ed Markey, D-Massachusetts, is pushing the cause in Congress. Their argument centers on public safety, as AM radio is the most efficient means to get critical information to the public.
The commercial stations that make up the National Association of Broadcasters have a vested interest in maintaining radio as a viable industry. As a radio historian, I do not have the same financial imperative when it comes to defending this form of media. Rather than studying a thriving form of technology, I could easily study an artifact of the past like my colleagues who study Roman coins or the intricacies of Civil War battles. But I would shed a silent tear if radio were prematurely relegated to the dustbin of history.
The accomplishments of our ancestors, such as radio, should not be dismissed as antiquated relics but valued and respected for what they are. And if you are reading this on a phone or tablet, rather than the printed page, try spilling your morning coffee onto these words and see how things work out for you.
Are new media technologies “improvements” over their predecessors? The answer is entirely dependent upon one’s frame of reference.