Thursday 31 December 2015

Farewell Medium Wave

Farewell, dear friend.

AM has fallen silent across a chunk of Europe as engineers in France, Germany and Luxembourg flicked the switches and turned off their Medium Wave signals at midnight on New Year's Eve. Au revoir.

Amongst others, Deutschlandradio closed down its seven Medium Wave transmitters; and Radio France, France Info, France Blue RCFM and France Blue Elsass all went dark. RTL also finally turned off the famous 1440 (208m) Luxembourg apparatus which had carried our 'Luxy' service until 1991.

In the UK, the BBC has quietly begun to shut down some of its power-hungry BBC local radio AM transmitters, using the cunning plan of turning them off for a ‘trial‘ and seeing if anyone notices. Many though still battle on. Commercial radio’s local AM business is in peril too, with many frequencies kept breathing by leaning on parallel brands and sharing business overheads.  If the little chicks had to feed themselves, most would likely perish.

BBC 5 Live still delivers appreciable audiences on AM as do Talksport and Absolute. The national scale of those stations adds bulk to the UK AM total listening hours figure, but one imagines that the costs of transmission and the Ofcom licence fees mean that the owners, UTV and Bauer, can see the day when they wouldn’t trouble to contest their AM licences. DAB alone would work better for them.

Radio 4 boasts a clutch of Medium Wave transmitters, but its prize possession remains its powerful 198 Long Wave transmitter, beaming out from an antenna slung from the 700' high masts at Droitwich. The closure of that would be for the BBC what the poll tax was for Maggie.  Don’t mess with Middle England. Woman's Hour sounds best with the warm rounded AM sound booming out a Hacker.  It may be apocryphal, but it is suggested that this dusty transmitter relies on valves which can no longer be replaced. Like much of the ageing AM transmission infrastructure, it’s long past its best. Mind you, in the words of Stephen Butt (@KibworthStephen), this transmitter is 'the most resilient part of the BBC's radio system - with copper wire feeds'!

It’s all to be expected. When a superior option exists, the market moves elsewhere. FM easily took the AM territory, although it took a little time, dictated by FM radio set availability. The DAB parallel is clear.

From 1967, the BBC launched local stations solely on FM albeit a little prematurely for the new band's usefulness. They were subsequently afforded Medium Wave back-up to help their audiences thrive.  Without that support, they might have suffered the digital death of One Word or Core.

By the early seventies, it was seen as the other way round for commercial radio, broadcasting proudly in stereo on FM, with Medium Wave as support. Having said that, the audience remained largely AM in those early days owing to set availability – hence the wavelengths forming part of those familiar early stations idents: ‘2-fifty- sevunnn – Swansea Sound’; ‘Capital – 194’; and the luscious ‘Beacon – 303’.

I recall rusty Cortinas only had Medium Wave sets. Actually, our Vauxhall Victor didn’t even have that – we used to bung a red tranny on the parcel shelf at the back when returning from Skegness.

It did have its magic. But – let’s be honest - it's pretty foul to listen to.  AM has had its day. The burring when you switched on your cake mixer; the overseas stations marching to our shores overnight; the Doctor Who noises as you drove under electricity cables; and that curious 'Luxembourg effect' on 208 when it sounded like poor Bob Stewart and his Stuyvesant fags ads were being turned inside out.  

'In every hearse that goes by, there's an AM listener', quotes @_DavidHarber.

So, the end must be nigh for our beloved AM after around a century of use.  It's done us proud.  BBC 5 Live (1994), Atlantic 252 (1989) and Laser 558 (1984) were likely the last UK AM stations  to launch with sufficient scale to disrupt.  Its death, however, is evidently likely to be slower here than other parts of Europe, where 'the old is giving way to the new'. Both DAB and FM sound much better – even though maybe they don’t quite sound like ‘radio’.

And - when it is all over - at least we won't still get those intense letters from Norway proclaiming they have heard our stations and demanding a QSL reception acknowledgement. Yes, it was indeed us. But surely you have your own stations to listen to? Or some gardening or something to do?

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  1. AM mushy and not great FM is still the best - I'd prefer a nice clear FM reception over DAB any day

  2. I have wonderful memories of listening to Luxembourg, the BBC World Service on "the 49 metre band", Radio Moscow and, I think, Radio Caroline due to propogation waves for a few hours only in the Azores where I lived as a youngster in the early 60's. The inverted L aerial connected to my father's Bush DAC 41 wireless pulled in signals on Shortwave from almost everywhere it seemed. I used to stare at the green 'magic eye' tuning indicator as it changed pattern depending on the strength of the incoming signal. Of course I missed all the exciting radio developments during 1964-67 with the pirate stations in the UK at the time but I caught up with that years later thanks to audio recordings. MW was unique, you felt a sense of distance when stations would momentarily fade out and then return and the Luxy fade happening in the middle of your favourite pop song was annoying. Those were in many ways the great days of radio and whilsy I too have an FM and DAB tuner and listen to iternet radio I still power up a replacement DAC41 I bought some 10 years ago to relive the childhood memories and a Pye 75A I rescued from being thrown into a rubbish skip. I consider myself lucky indeed.

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  4. If these people are shutting down their medium wave services, does this offer up an opportunity for Caroline?

  5. Countries, the size of Minnesota and / or Wisconsin. And, in a world that 'taxes' EVERY receiver, to support it's government owned stations. Nothing beats AM for 'farther than line-of-sight', anywhere in the world.

  6. I wonder what will happen to all that wonderful spectrum when the whole dial goes dark. Digital modes would allow for low data rate signals that could be extremely valuable for wide area emergency alerts and emergency communications.

  7. In Australia. AM Broadcasting is absolutely essential when traveling by car in remote areas. Only way to receive news and weather information when away from towns and cities. Only reception available is from High Power ABC AM Stations. Not too concerned about Audio Quality. Range of FM and DAB+ stations are quite useless in the "Outback"

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