The fate of AM radio in the car dashboard may pass through Frederick, MD. That’s where the latest experiment on an all-digital AM signal is taking place, on Hubbard Radio’s adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD (820). The project, in conjunction with digital radio developer Xperi and the National Association of Broadcasters’ PILOT program, is already generating interest from carmakers in the U.S and around the world.

The Federal Communications Commission in July approved a proposal to allow WWFD to turn off its analog signal for the next year while remaining an all-digital operation. The aim is to use the real-world environment to conduct experiments designed to improve the all-digital AM service.

WWFD has 4,300-watts day (non-directional) and 430-watts night (directional) and the company proposes to operate with roughly the same output when it goes digital-only, 24-hours a day. Dave Kolesar, Hubbard’s senior engineer overseeing the project, said it’s an ideal station to use for a test case since it’s non-directional by day and directional at night. For Hubbard the risk to WWFD is minimized by the fact that the AM simulcasts on the Frederick, MD-licensed translator W232DG at 94.3 FM.

The switch has already been flipped and Xperi senior manager of broadcast technologies Mike Raide said preliminary results are encouraging. “We haven’t had any problems with OEM receivers,” he said, noting he drove 70 miles from the transmitter site and still picked up WWFD without any problem. In fact, one DX listener in the Pittsburgh area, roughly 300 miles away, said they were able to hear the station during the daytime. “That’s a testament to how robust all-digital is,” Raide said. “I’m not saying it’s going to increase the coverage of your station, but it will make it a lot more listenable out along the fringes.”

The experiment has already piqued interest with several carmakers already asking questions. “Up to a dozen car manufacturers have approached us, either German, Japanese or American, and said they want to come out and test and see the system in operation,” Raide said. “They want to be able to understand and characterize how it works in their cars.” So far, no car company has actually pulled into Frederick. Raide said they first want to have the digital-only system up and running and to make sure there are no transmitter “hiccups” before that happens. But by the end of the year, it is expected carmakers will begin giving the project closer inspection.

“At a time when we’re all hearing rumors about car manufacturers cutting AM from their factory offerings, something like this could come along and show the auto manufacturers that AM still matters and AM has a digital solution as well,” Kolesar said.

Xperi and the NAB have already conducted a handful of all-digital tests for FM, most recently in Las Vegas last April. If adopted, it would allow FMs to provide additional services. But National Association of Broadcasters VP of advanced engineering David Layer acknowledged there’s less of a push to do something on that dial. “FM broadcasters are not in the same position of needing a real improvement to their service—FM is very good,” he said.

Turning Off Analog

Xperi reports about 50 million cars on the road in the U.S. are now equipped with digital radios, including more than half of new cars that are being sold today. One factor for selecting the Frederick, MD, market for the all-digital test is that HD Radio receiver penetration in the greater Washington, DC metro area has grown. Xperi says 20.4% of cars there are now equipped with digital radios. “As the program director of a music station on AM,” Kolesar said, “I would rather take my changes with that 20% than try to convince people they should hear the format on analog AM.

But Layer said even as the goal is to eventually switch over all stations to HD-only broadcasts when digital receiver penetration is high enough, that day remains down the road. “We are certainly progressing in that regard, but I don’t think anybody would suggest the industry as a whole would want to do a switch to all-digital, based on where we are at the present time,” he said.

Meanwhile, switching to an all-digital radio dial has already begun to take place in Norway. “It’s a much different country. I would never suggest what happens in Norway is analogous to what would happen in the U.S. since it’s a much smaller market,” Layer said. But he noted the results have also been “mixed” to date. Surveys show a majority (56%) of Norwegians aren’t happy that the powering down of the analog signals has made most receivers useless when trying to hear about 700 FMs around the country. Of greater concern to broadcasters is that listening to Norway’s national radio network has dropped 20% since the switch. At the same time, the local FMs that are still airing an analog signal have seen their listening more than double. “So, I guess the guys who kept their stations on the air are happy about that,” Layer said.

Back in the U.S., Layer said the answer when a similar all-digital move eventually happens may be different for the AM and FM bands—and FM translators may figure into that equation. “Well over half of the AM stations in the U.S. now have FM translators,” he said. “So, there may be a strategy where an AM station can take their AM signal all digital but still continue to reach listeners with analog radio using their FM translators.”

“In many ways we think of this as the next step in AM revitalization, where the translator is the intermediate step,” Kolesar added. “It’s a place you can park an analog audience and then promote the increased coverage and better sound quality of the AM.”

Kolesar hopes WWFD becomes more than just a test site, but in fact, the first to make such a leap. “One way or another I intend to keep it going,” he said. “At this point forward, we’re all-digital and we’re going to do what it takes to remain all-digital.”

Layer hopes other operators have a similar ambition, saying, “If you have a translator and it makes sense, it would be great if more AMs broadcasters could consider this.”