Death by a thousand transmitters

Radio Tomorrow with James Cridland

Absolute Radio in the UK is one of the three “Independent National Radio” stations that were launched in the early 1990s. It’s a national radio station, as you’d guess from the name: but it’s national on AM.

AM Radio in Europe is different from the US: not least, because stations are spaced 9kHz apart rather than the US’s 10kHz. This means that you can fit twelve more stations on the AM band; but also means the audio is worse quality. It’s a waveband that isn’t exactly brilliant for music with lots of guitar and cymbals.

Worse still, Absolute was given 1215kHz AM. If you put more than one AM transmitter on the same frequency, they interfere with each other. Other national AM stations have a pair of frequencies which takes advantage of the UK’s roughly oblong shape, meaning you can effectively run a station on two frequencies without them overlapping or interfering with each other too much. However, Absolute got 1215kHz, and a bunch of frequencies nearby for fillers (everything from 1197, 1233, 1242 and probably a few others).

Anyway, shift forward to today, and the vast majority of Absolute Radio’s listeners are on digital (either broadcast DAB or online), or on an FM frequency that the station successfully gained in London.

Absolute Radio’s now asked Ofcom, the UK regulator, if it can switch off some of those power-hungry AM transmitters, and turn down a few others. It’s worked out that by removing twelve transmitter sites, and turning down five others, it will reduce its coverage from 90.5% of the UK population down to 85.4% – and all of that population can still get the station using either DAB, satellite or internet.

A loss of 5.1% of coverage doesn’t sound a massive reduction. Indeed, the station estimates that it’ll only really affect about 19,000 listeners. However, the cost savings are anything but insignificant: they’re 50% of their entire AM network (according to a former Absolute Radio executive, Adam Bowie). I left the station ten years ago, and my estimate of that saving is very roughly US$750,000 per annum. Not peanuts.

Ofcom should, of course, say yes.

It reminds me of a little piece of research I did last year, idly looking through JB Hifi’s website – an Australian electronics store. I looked at every single radio that was available. 63% of them didn’t have AM on them. Almost two-thirds.

AM in Australia is arguably in better shape than the UK; with AM stations regularly reaching #1 breakfast (or #1 overall) in major metropolitan areas (though these figures also include DAB and online). So it was a surprise to see how few radio receivers actually had AM built-in. Are we really basing the future of these stations on the AM receivers in cars? Where’s the exit strategy for these AM broadcasters?

AM remains a good technical solution to cover a large transmission area: but if you can’t buy the receivers any more, one might wonder how long it’ll be before more broadcasters give back their AM licences, either in part or whole.


About The Author

James Cridland, the radio futurologist, is a conference speaker, writer and consultant. He runs the media information website and helps organise the yearly Next Radio conference. He also publishes, a daily briefing on podcasting and on-demand, and writes a weekly international radio trends newsletter, at

Contact James at [email protected] or @jamescridland