Hubbard Radio’s adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD Frederick, MD (820) has already been making radio history as one of the test stations for all-digital AM broadcasting. Now the station offered another peek at what could be in radio’s digital future with what was likely a first-ever multicast broadcast for an AM station. The five-hour test was conducted last week with WWFD’s regular programming airing on the main channel with the HD2 subchannel relaying sister all-news WTOP-FM Washington (103.5). Not only did the test include airing two channels of programming, but Hubbard and digital radio developer Xperi were also able to feature station logos on a receiver and other Artist Experience features that have now become commonplace on many FMs. It’s believed to have been the first time an image was transmitted by using a digital AM signal.
“Currently we don’t believe that radios will actually decode this right now,” said Dave Kolesar, transmitter engineer for Hubbard Radio Washington, DC and WWFD’s Program Director, revealing the experimental broadcasting on an episode of the This Week In Radio Tech podcast. “This is a feature for future receivers, that will probably come out sooner than you think,” he said.
Mike Raide, Senior Manager of Broadcast Technology at Xperi, said that for receivers to be able to pick up an AM multicast will require new code to be written for the receiver chips that radio manufacturers install in their devices. He said that will take some time to be developed and vetted by both Xperi as well as the receiver makers. “Every radio that is manufactured has to come back to us for certification,” Raide told podcast host Kirk Harnack.
WWFD has been operating as a digital-only AM station since July 2018 under experimental authority granted by the Federal Communications Commission. In comments about a proposal under consideration that would allow any AM to do the same, Hubbard said that it has seen “significant improvement” in WWFD’s audio quality and that the digital signal has been “much more robust” than the analog signal. And while the move has meant that analog radios can no longer receive WWFD, Hubbard says the feedback from listeners has been positive. “Hubbard’s experience with WWFD has resulted in the company considering transitioning additional AM stations to all-digital broadcasting, once Hubbard is permitted to do so,” the company said.
Nine all-digital AM tests were previously conducted between 2012 and 2014, spanning a variety of station types and geographic locations. Based on what have so far been positive reviews from many broadcasters, primarily those operating in smaller markets, the Commission voted last month to open a formal rulemaking on the all-digital AM proposal. “Offering this choice will allow AM broadcasters to make their own assessment for their circumstances,” said James Bradshaw, Senior Deputy Chief of the Audio Division in the Media Bureau. But the FCC said it is also examining the market penetration of digital receivers as well as the impact the move would have on Americans with analog-only radios.
The attention that digital-only AM has brought to the band is welcome by Kolesar. “A lot of AM stations out there have suffered from neglect over the years where if it’s on the air, and you can hear the audio, then good enough,” he said on the podcast. As both engineer and programmer, Kolesar spends plenty of time listening to WWFD and he says while the sound quality isn’t perfect, it’s an improvement for most in-car listeners.
“I think the average listener will consider it pleasant,” Kolesar said. “I forget that I’m listening to something extraordinary. I forget that I’m listening to AM, which is probably the key.”