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Tuesday, 23 April, 2002, 09:07 GMT 10:07 UK
AM radio fights back
radio mics
There are 61 radio stations on AM in the UK
test hello test
By Nick Higham
Media correspondent
line

Barring a few high profile and heavily-promoted exceptions like Five Live and Virgin, AM radio stations are slowly, inexorably dying.

All around the world the audiences for good old medium wave are giving up and migrating to FM, with its crisper sound and good night-time reception.

But AM frequencies are still a potentially valuable resource - virtually every radio set can receive medium wave - and people still want to launch AM stations.

So the Radio Authority earlier this year asked for views on the future of the AM band in Britain.

Demand

It had more than 60 responses. The authority considered them at its annual strategy meeting on 12 April, and will publish its own suggestions next month.

The authority currently licenses 61 AM stations, including Virgin and Talksport.

Though the rest are notionally local, nowadays half carry quasi-national networked services like the oldies networks Classic Gold and Capital Gold.


We were worried people thought the authority wasn't willing to think outside the box

Tony Stoller, Radio Authority
A systematic look at the sector was prompted partly by the number of changes to AM stations' formats the authority was being asked to agree, as they opted into one of these "gold" networks.

But the consultation was also prompted by worries about what might happen in five or six years time, when the supply of FM frequencies for new stations finally runs out, and by demands for new kinds of station (including community or "access" radio and religious and ethnic minority stations) for which there is not room on FM.

Those responding were explicitly asked to think radically.

"Fewer people have been coming to us with radical suggestions," says the authority's chief executive, Tony Stoller.

"We were worried people thought the authority wasn't willing to think outside the box."

Networking

So respondents were asked whether AM stations were declining because of a lack of investment, or perhaps because there were simply more and more FM stations competing for audiences.

Since most the successful AM stations are specialist ethnic minority stations, they were asked if that was the best way for AM to expand.

The authority wanted to know if there should be more networking and whether it should effectively drop most of the requirements for some local programming, even on networked stations.


Ultimately any decision will be for the authority's successor, the new Ofcom, to take

And it wondered what the effects on Talksport, Virgin and Classic FM would be if it did so.

Or should conventional AM radio cease completely, allowing the spectrum to be used for something else - like DRM or Digital Radio Mondiale, an alternative to the costly and complex DAB (digital audio broadcasting) system of digital radio which the UK has opted for?

Stoller will not talk about the responses. But the authority has been told by the access radio lobby (the Community Media Association) that AM is not well suited to community radio, partly because an AM transmitter and aerial costs at least 10-15,000 against 500 for FM.

Decision

It has also heard from at least one of the gold network operators, which thinks AM licences could be issued to help new national digital radio services reach significant audiences.

And it has heard from the London Christian station, Premier, which thinks many more AM licences should be issued, with a block of frequencies allocated in each region to "community of interest" stations.

That would allow Premier and others to transform themselves from local services with few economies of scale into part-national stations with a wider audience reach.

Ultimately any decision will be for the authority's successor, the new Ofcom, to take. But it looks as if AM radio, far from expiring, could be about to expand.

A version of this column appears in the BBC magazine Ariel.

Contact Nick Higham at nick.higham@bbc.co.uk.

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