Radio Apocalypse: Hardening AM Radio Against Disasters

If you’ve been car shopping lately, or even if you’ve just been paying attention to the news, you’ll probably be at least somewhat familiar with the kerfuffle over AM radio. The idea is that in these days of podcasts and streaming music, plain-old amplitude modulated radio is becoming increasingly irrelevant as a medium of mass communication, to the point that automakers are dropping support for it from their infotainment systems.

The threat of federal legislation seems to have tapped the brakes on the anti-AM bandwagon, at least for now. One can debate the pros and cons, but the most interesting tidbit to fall out of this whole thing is one of the strongest arguments for keeping the ability to receive AM in cars: emergency communications. It turns out that about 75 stations, most of them in the AM band, cover about 90% of the US population. This makes AM such a vital tool during times of emergency that the federal government has embarked on a serious program to ensure its survivability in the face of disaster.

Alphabet Soup

In the United States, it has always been the case that the grant of a government license to operate on the public airwaves carries the potential to turn a radio station over to authorities in a time of emergency, at least temporarily. That’s been the case ever since the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) sprang into being in 1934, but the emergencies imagined back then were strictly local in scope, or perhaps at most a regional disaster, like a hurricane. It really wasn’t until the dawn of the nuclear age that a nationwide emergency was even really possible, and with that potential came the need for a systematic method of reaching the entire population at a moment’s notice.

The earliest Cold War approach to emergency alerts was the CONELRAD system, which was geared mainly at denying incoming enemy bombers of easy radio waypoints for navigation while still getting emergency instructions out to the public. The idea was that all AM stations would switch their transmitters to one of two frequencies, either 640 kHz or 1240 kHz, and transmit in a round-robin fashion, limiting each station’s transmission to just a few minutes. At best it was an awkward system that quickly became obsolete once ICBMs became the preferred delivery system for nuclear weapons.

The successors of CONELRAD focused much more on the rapid assembly of a nationwide network of radio stations than on the control of emissions. The most recognizable element of the current system is probably the Emergency Alert System (EAS), with its distinctively discordant two-tone alert and shrill Specific Area Message Encoding (SAME) digital header. But EAS is just one of many methods of disseminating alerts to the public, all of which fall under a complex and hierarchical architecture known as the Integrated Public Alert and Warning System, or IPAWS.

IPAWS architecture. Source: FEMA

The complexity of IPAWS is understandable given its mission and the rapidly changing communications ecosystems. Rather than relying solely on terrestrial broadcasters to disseminate emergency alerts, IPAWS rolls cellular carriers, satellite and cable providers, ISPs, and even local alert systems like sirens and electronic signboards. Additionally, IPAWS allows for a wide range of alerting authorities to access the system, meaning that it can be used not only for presidential messages in times of national emergency, but for everything from regional alerts for severe weather to Amber alerts for missing or abducted children.

Despite this increased mission scope, terrestrial broadcasters still play an outsized role in IPAWS. There are currently 77 radio stations across the United States and associated territories that are designated as Primary Entry Point stations for the Emergency Alert System (EAS). PEP stations tend to be so-called “clear-channel” AM stations, which operate at a high effective radiated power — at least 10,000 Watts — and on frequencies that are least subject to interference from other stations. The vast geographic reach of these PEP stations is one of the keys to the EAS network, since all participating stations are required to monitor signals from at least two different PEP stations, and to follow specific procedures if and when the PEP stations initiate an emergency alert.

Primary Endpoint (PEP) stations cover most of the continental US. Source: FEMA

PEP stations, in turn, are required to maintain a direct connection to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Mount Weather Emergency Operations Center in Virginia. Mount Weather is one of the many relocation facilities intended for continuity of government in times of national emergency, and is designed with maximum survivability in mind. It is also the primary point of access for the president to the EAS. Details of the links between Mount Weather and the PEP stations are limited, of course, but multiple redundant fiber optic lines and satellite links certainly play a role.


Since the EAS network is a daisy chain system, with messages flowing through the system from the top down, the survivability of the PEP stations is critical. PEP stations have always been mandated to have redundant systems, including auxiliary and backup transmitters, backup power generation, and staffing requirements, but as a result of increasing awareness of the vulnerability of critical infrastructure to attacks by electromagnetic pulse (EMP) or the possibility of Carrington Event-level damage, FEMA undertook a program designed to substantially harden the majority of PEPs.

Studio-in-a-box-in-a-box. The FEMA shelter at WBZ in Boston has extra shielding. Source: Radio World

The upgrade effort began in earnest in 2016, with station WJR in Detroit and WLW in Cincinnati, although it appears that at least some stations were being upgraded as early as 2011. The basic “station-in-a-box” seems to consist of a pair of modified 20-foot shipping containers that are prefabricated and transported to either the station’s primary or auxiliary transmitter. One container is devoted to power generation and distribution, while the other houses studio equipment and transmitters. The studio container for some of these installations seems to have extra protection in the form of a reinforced concrete enclosure around the container, presumably for protection against storm damage.

In most cases, the shelters are installed adjacent to the station’s antenna farm inside security fences with other equipment including satellite dishes, a likely link to FEMA’s operations center. Provision seem to have been made for local hazards, though; the shelter at WWL in New Orleans, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River, has been installed on a raised platform to avoid flood damage.

Station WWL New Orleans auxiliary transmitter with platform-mounted FEMA upgrades. Source: Google Maps

Detailed specifications of the PEP upgrades haven’t been easy to locate online, but press releases and local news coverage contain some tantalizing clues as to the thought process behind the design. The shelters are described as “all-hazard” hardened against chemical, biological, and nuclear threats, as well as reports of being Faraday shielded to withstand EMPs. The studio shelters are equipped with air filtration systems, a 60-day supply of food and water, and bunk space and hygiene facilities for two. Backup generators and a large stockpile of fuel are provided, although we very much doubt the 60,000-gallon figure cited by one article.

In short, these facilities are built to survive, and to keep the broadcast engineers inside alive and working. It’s not clear if these shelters are to be staffed at all times; indeed, since station KIRO in Seattle is reported to have a standing order with the local Coast Guard station to transport engineers to its hardened transmitter on Vashon Island at a moment’s notice, it seems not. But that only proves the point about how serious FEMA is about the survivability of the PEP system as a whole.

63 thoughts on “Radio Apocalypse: Hardening AM Radio Against Disasters

  1. Radio? That thing which forces you to listen to adverts about female yeast infection remedies, occasionally interrupted by “music” and bad news? No, thanks.

    9 years ago I’ve bought a used Miata with a broken electric (retractable) antenna. The same day I’ve bought a casette adapter with mini-jack plug and connected it to some old 4-inch Samsung smartphone fitted with a 32 gigabyte SD card. This setup still works, I still haven’t bothered to fix the antenna and I’ve taken out this casette adapter only twice, when cleaning the interior.

    1. Some of us don’t plan on giving up on receiving anything every time we don’t have cell service. And I’ve no idea why the way the U.S. accomplishes simple, reliable long range coverage for emergency alerts would be less important than personal entertainment preferences.

        1. Raises more questions then it answers.

          It answers the question:
          Is fdp stubby and scrawny? (A: Yes, very).

          Just to start the questions:
          Did he engine swap in a V8?
          Real trans or slush box?

          These things separate Miata owners into car people and other.

    2. You have to get the greater picture here.
      AM is timeless (esp. on medium wave). Everyone could built a crystal set or a simple AM transmitter.
      In times of catastrophe, a society can easily re-built an AM network anytime. AM as a technology could survive the centuries.
      AM radio was and still could be the foundation of (information) society.
      However, removing AM reveivers now makes AM lost in time.

  2. FM, DAB… What’s AM anyway? Is AM still a thing in the US? According to this article, it seems like it is… interesting. I’ve been wondering since I was a kid (almost 30 years) what AM was for on the radio… seems like it’s for the Yankees! :-D” (“AM is more commonly used for talk radio, news, and sports broadcasts. AM’s signals travel further than FM, especially at night, which makes it useful for reaching rural areas or long-distance broadcasting.” hooo make sense on big lands of US )

    1. Hey, we Germans here are the same. 👋😁
      We hold on UKW (ultra shortwave, “FM”), though.
      Medium wave was “shut down” a few years ago, but a few AM transmitters from Europe can still be heard at night time.
      Plus, some museums do have low-power transmitters. Thunderstorms can still be heard on AM, so it still has a purpose.

    2. The AM band’s physical properties make it too long-range for many use cases – my local station has both AM and FM in the same location, and the AM range is noticably greater than the FM, despite having much less power. It’s approx 250W day / 10W night for the AM, versus 1500W for the FM. (The nighttime range isn’t as much worse as you would think, but if they ran full power they’d interfere with other stations especially via random ionospheric skip)

      No matter what sort of signal you make to use the low frequencies, they follow the ground very well even when they aren’t bouncing off the ionosphere. That makes them great for one-directional broadcasts for reaching people who are miles from any other type of communications except satellite, but not necessarily profitable for entertainment. Especially assuming you keep backwards compatibility with the very simple receivers that we’ve had for ages and which are a good part of an emergency kit – they convey voice well, but they’re not meant for high fidelity apart from intelligibility.

      1. There are at least three types of propagation, btw.
        – ground wave (follows earth curvature)
        – direct sight (straight line)
        – reflections on ionosphere/ionized clouds

        Just saying, because the direct sight is often being forgotten.
        Especially among shortwave amateurs.

        1. Direct sight being line of sight, aka what you care about with almost all the higher bands and microwave. Ground wave is a bit more complicated; the signals can be diffracted or refracted, and both will cause them to reach over the horizon, but the refractive index varies with frequency so for some frequencies the signal curves into the ground faster than the earth’s curvature and for higher frequencies it curves slower but extends the apparent distance of the horizon. (very loosely) For anything with appreciable groundwave, the line of sight and groundwave are basically the same. Otherwise, there isn’t enough to make a difference. Again, loosely.

    3. 82 million Americans over 12 years old listen to AM radio at least once a week. Whether it’s sports, weather, or news… it’s what i listen to when i’m not streaming from my phone while driving. AM signals travel so well, I’ve heard people call in to KFI640, a Los Angeles station, where they were able to listen in the south pacific. Apparently AM radio signals can reflect off parts of the atmosphere and reach opposite sides of the planet at times. I think it’s called troposcattering.

    4. AM (Medium wave) has a great range at night, and so does every other frequency up to about 10 megahertz. On 40 meter (7 megahertz) ham radio, we worked the Chek Republic with 100 watt SSB (voice) transceiver and a portable antenna. Morse Code equipment is even simpler.

  3. Hi. I read the links, but I still don’t understand. I’m not from the US, maybe that’s thw reason, not sure. Why do want car makers remove AM reception in their cars?
    Even if it’s not used often, it doesn’t hurt anyone. The AM receivers for medium wave are one-chip solutions, since the 70s or so.
    Why do car makers even waste a thought on removing them?
    Their new cars are so expensive, anyway and the receiver ICs do cost nearly nothing.
    Just pass the cost over to the drivers. A potential buyer wouldn’t even notice if the car costs 25 cents more. I don’t get it. The negative publicity about AM removal hurts them worse, financially.

        1. I doubt its a myth. I live about 20 to 25 miles from one of the “clearchannel stations” that supposedly puts out 50KW (not a typo though I have a suspicion they have dropped output power some in the last few years). But even at this extreme power AM is easily drowned out by noise at this distance With the crappy factory radio/antenna in my 08 jeep, the signal is indistinguisable from noise near stoplights, and presumably poorly connected overhead power line road crossings. I can detect every improperly grounded electric fence controler within about a hundred feet of the road by the length and duration of the click on the AM, and I know the alternator in my older van needs attention by the buzzing on the radio that started last week. Oh, and in the morning turning on that AM station for the news and weather while having my coffee I have to unplug the 65W power supply to my 3 year old HP envy laptop because if the battery is fully charged and the power supply is inactive or “idle” the static it causes on the radio is unbearable (since new). So yes AM is very suceptible to noise and I believe they have probably not bothered to address rfi on the AM band in the motor/battery control of electric vehicles because noone old enough to remember it’s there works in the electronics or enforcement industries :-)
          On the other hand if you have an old analog tuner am radio and surf the channels at night you may catch a station skipping in from a couple thousand miles away in the right conditions

      1. Yes. But I still don’t get it. The logic behind it, I mean. The though pattern. Even if there’s interference caused by car electronics, AM still can be received. It’s merely degrading audio fidelity due to noise.

        Back in the old days, car radios had to cope with interference caused by spark plugs or the alternator. When CB radio was introduced, it used AM, too. Filters circuits were being sold or published in magazins (73 magazine, CQ magazine, etc pp) to reduce noise.

        Plus, if the motor is turned off and car is parked, there shouldn’t be so much interference. If merely the good old 13,8v car battery is at work, I mean.

        That’s what confuses me. The article in links make it sound as if the car makers say that AM was in the way somehow. A layman might even think that it’s the AM receiver that causes trouble to the car electronics, which doesn’t make sense.

        These modern AM receivers aren’t back-feeding, like Audions did back then. They’re completely passive. A miniature magnetic loop antenna could even be used to block out noise generated by the electric field component. Because, magnetic loop antennas are deaf to this component in the near field. This would get rid of most noise, except for the electric engine itself. It’s a jammer, essentially, generating both components.

        1. But removing AM radios means the car makers don’t need to do anything to improve reception on AM radio, their cars can be as electrically dirty as they want and it costs them nothing. Also consumers would complain if the AM radio sounded bad, but if the AM radio was taken most consumers probably wouldn’t notice, so no AM radio, no problem.

      1. There’s a workaround, though: Synchronous AM detection.

        If the carrier wave is being created locally in the receiver, it doesn’t matter if the AM carrier wave is being distorted by RF noise.

        Just have a look at WebSDR of Uni Twente.
        It features “sync AM” in addition to normal AM.

        If done correctly, an SDR solution could cost even less than installing a discreet AM receiver chip.

        1. Synchronous detection is an improvement to the common envelope detection, but it can’t eliminate the effects of interference caused by poorly shielded switching of hundreds of Amps.

          1. Synchronous detection as imfplemented in many radios allows selectable sideband. So with a signal at 1040KHz, you lose WBZ on 1030. But select one sideband and WBZ is listenable.

            It’s also great if there’s fading,the signal is still detectable when the carrier fades.

  4. The only people who us am anymore are the quacks and right wing conspiracy shows like the reruns of coast to coast am… its a breeding ground for misinformation and advertisements… if am dies in america the world is better off. and am doesnt do anything special in america anyway. we have fm and tv.

    1. Of course you want to get rid of AM radio since doing so would silence those with whom you disagree with. You want to talk about misinformation, try looking at CNN, MSNBC, and other “mainstream” news sources which spent the past 8 years+ pushing fake story after fake story for their ignorant viewers to further divide this country every chance they got. Stories like the Trump dossier, or Russia using sonic weapons on US diplomats in Cuba, or Trumps secret server to Russian bank, or Biden’s laptop, or the FBI spying on Trump. I could go on for days but for anyone to claim Conservative radio is misinformation when they’ve been right on almost every major story in the past 8 years is just crazy talk. I can’t think of a single fake news story drummed up by conservative media that has had any major implications such as investigations on American politics during those same years.

  5. Nowhere have I seen a report on how bad the interference level is on a particular EV model. OEMs test for this kind of stuff so they must know how bad it is in certain conditions and how much filtering is required to achieve an acceptable level of AM reception. The inverter is putting out over 100Kw of square waves but it’s enclosed in metal inside a faraday cage. AM radio reception is highly dependent on distance and power level of the transmitter, plus static, storms, bridges, fading, etc. So some combination of filtering and power density will allow reception. How much is the consumer willing to pay for extra filters so they can receive AM? When did you last listen to it?

    The FEMA downlink is by satellite. Well, think of the coverage map of regular satellite radio overlaid on that PEP map. A lot of us out in the boonies have no AM coverage.

    1. That is just one reason it is called “the boonies.” I hope you were not expecting chain grocery stores, nightclubs, buss lines, etc. … when … you …moved … to “the boonies.”

    2. “How much is the consumer willing to pay for extra filters so they can receive AM? When did you last listen to it? ”

      Yes, good point. On the other hand, don’t car owners have cars with the complete feature set? With all the extras, if possible? How would they feel if grandma’s old car could receive AM nicely, but not their fancy new high-tech car? Wouldn’t they feel silly, somehow betrayed (by the car maker)?

        1. Difference: cassettes are probably no-one’s sole option, except in a contrived scenario. (Maybe they’re in a zone that bans wireless and their new car supports only wireless and 3.5mm, but their phone has removed the headphone jack.)

  6. Or, to put it another way: If modern 4G+ mobile networks died overnight, no modern EV would be driveable the next day anyways, so having an AM receiver in them would be like having an ashtray on a motorbike.

      1. Ask yourself: What would make all modern 4G+ mobile networks stop working overnight?

        Besides, modern cars (and not just the EV’s) are fascinatingly fragile, so all this talk about how the AM radios in cars would be a lifesaver is quite comical.

        1. Surely you don’t think that just as long as all the towers haven’t been destroyed in an apocalyptic event, that means no-one could possibly ever find themself unable to connect through a mobile network everywhere they happen to go? I’ve not happened to have access to a mobile network plenty of instances in the past few years. I’m not sure how long was the longest I was out; most of the time, either it was brief or I had a different connection to the internet I was using and didn’t track the mobile network. Often, I had no service because I was using a phone deep inside a building unlike what a car would do, except I suppose for in a parking garage. Or because the phone was at fault; you do get better coverage with certain phones on certain networks. Part of the time, I also didn’t have power or I was traveling or otherwise not paying close attention to how long I was without so I still don’t know how long I did or didn’t have service. But if I lived in one of the nearby deadzones, then I’d be without mobile service overnight every night, so it’s easy to imagine that I’d use radio regularly in that case, and want my car to start up in the morning. If terrain got in the way of the FM signal, as it often does, I’d try AM.

  7. A lot of AM stations are now simulcasting on FM. I remember back in the 1970’s 92.3 FM was WKTU, disco 92, then it became K-ROCK. Currently it is the FM simulcast of 1010 WINS AM, which they remind us of every few minutes. Kind of like the tv news stations that remind you to download their app.
    If you download their app, then why would anyone need to watch their tv channel?
    It’s ridiculous. With a crystal receiver and some wire, you can pick up AM. Simple works.
    New York is one of the most diverse radio markets. WCBS FM 101 which had been broadcasting the oldies for decades. They tried that “Jack FM we play what we want”. It went over like a lead sinker.
    They brought back the original DJ’s and revived what worked. Is AM relevant? In my opinion, yes.
    Yes you can stream live, but take away the internet, and there goes your streaming.
    AM just works, has been working since the 1900s and continues to work. But of course you’ll have someone who comes along and thinks they can improve things. AM works. It will always be around.

    1. If C-QUAM had taken over, that’d be nice. It works fine with crystal & various envelope detectors. Or maybe nowadays instead of encoding the stereo difference in the phase like C-QUAM, they could encode something digitally for noise reduction or data transfer purposes while continuing to be compatible with the conventional AM receivers otherwise.

    2. The FM simulcast of an AM station is likely to be a low-power transmitter. Drive to the city limit and it starts to fade. A station here has a low-power FM simulcast that fades some times of the year due to skip interference from an FM station 100+ miles away in Mexico. FM co-channel interference is either one station, the other, or static. One time it lasted long enough that I could hear the station ID, but station IDs in Spanish might as well be code talking if you don’t know the language. I live about five miles away from the station and its AM antenna farm. With that kind of interference, I hope the FM transmitter isn’t on the same site.

      As far as oldies go, there’s one AM station here that has been playing them since at least the ’80s. They now also have an FM side that plays ’80s music.

  8. On that PEP graphic, there was a time in the not-too-distant past that KOA 850 Denver was “clear channel” and could be heard coast-to-coast at night, as well as several states away during daylight. I used to listen to the Denver Broncos and University of Colorado Buffalos football broadcasts on KOA while I was stationed in Iowa.

  9. One nice thing about AM that can’t be said for many other forms of broadcast is it can be received by the simplest equipment, even a crystal radio. Imagine in a disaster, say a Carrington Event, the government giving out thousands of crystal radios to keep people informed on relief efforts? Can’t do that with cell phones.

      1. Err, Yes? Because a government is nothing without its citizens? Their citizens are their power?

        Seriously, what’s wrong with you American people nowadays? 🤷‍♂️
        You guys always seem to be so negative and sarcastic about your government and democracy. Why?

        Where did that American optimism of the old times go to?
        I always thought that kind of paranoia does merely exist in ‘The X-Files’.

        I mean, not all people going into politics need to have second thoughts, right? Some enthusiastic people simply want to improve things, make a change. They want to have a purpose in life by doing so.

        1. No. All ‘leaders’ in government are scum. Para the hitchhikers guide to galaxy: ‘Nobody has figured out how to select leaders, the only thing agreed on is that anybody who wants to be a leader should under no circumstances be allowed any power.’

          It’s because they have to select their path to money and power _before_ they live, or they will do something that makes them unelectable.

          Hence only gutless, weather vane, teenage weasels can run for office. They will have only gotten worse with age. Look at the last 10 US presidents…the exception proves the rule.

          Nobody in government wants to improve things for anybody but themselves. The system is designed to filter out the stupid, idealistic children and leave the power to realistic cynical olds (some of which pose as idealistic children to get their votes).

          It’s pretty unfixable, at least until Vermin Supreme wins the presidency.

        2. The essence of the American system is protection against unlimited power, which is best maintained by continued suspicion of political power. That suspicion has been magnified in recent decades by the obvious corruption of those in high office and the failure of the system to punish many of those corrupt officials.

          Also, during the Vietnam War a large portion of the population grew to hate America, and that hatred was maintained as the same people became educators and politicians. As these new politicians enacted their damaging policies, those in opposition also became more vitriolic toward government.

  10. This attempt to kill-off AM broadcast radio in the United States is all about politics. One political party cannot censor what is being said on some AM radio stations, so they must be silenced!

    1. The issue is about removing AM receiving capability from CARS which is I strongly suspect is a case of “Well, since virtually no one listens to AM in their car, let’s save a few pennies per vehicle and remove it.”

      1. But how do they save those “few pennies”, at all?
        The car makers do rip off the buyers anyway, by selling overpriced cars.
        The buyers wouldn’t even notice those extra pennies,
        because the profit is multiple times larger the manufacturing cost.
        And even if that wasn’t the case, in the end, prices are going to change at will, anyway.
        The whole discount concept makes this possible.
        If a new model is made, for example, the old one gets a drop in price.
        Or do I miss something? I really don’t understand US economy, I’m afraid (I’m not from US).
        The whole idea that less profit equals financial loss makes no sense to me, either.

        1. In short:
          – you don’t pay for listening to the radio
          – you do pay for streaming services
          – once radio is removed people will subscribe more streaming
          – VFD+wires+motor is a system that needs good shielding. If your shielding sucks nobody notice unless it interferes with radio.
          – They don’t even need to remove physical component – just uninstall app (this already happened with smartphones and nobody really noticed).
          – “you don’t need this old technology once you buy our new product” is for some reason good point for some people.

  11. I feel pretty strong that there’s a money angle here that the car companies are working. I can’t say for sure but it probably has something to do with subscriptions of some kind. Because WE all know how cheap and tiny I2C radio chips are. And as an EV driver, I can say that AM in an EV is no worse than AM in a car with spark plugs.

    And yeah AM is great for listening to baseball.

  12. “In the United States, it has always been the case that the grant of a government license to operate on the public airwaves carries the potential to turn a radio station over to authorities in a time of emergency, at least temporarily.”

    I have been lead to believe that the Amateur Radio vanity plate on my car works the same way. In an emergency, I must be willing to surrender my car to emergency personnel.

    1. I’ve never heard that. The license plates are mostly vanity, but underlying is the notion that some might be doing emergency work. Or someone might need help, if they recognized the plate.

  13. Corporate broadcasters have been making a big stink about a few EV car makers dropping the AM band off the radio from the cars ( due to high levels of radio static from the car build ) we should be cracking on the FCC to go after radio static sources and use the laws on the books to control static levels from man made sources ( chinese switching power supplies , crappy plactic case Wifi and web over power lines stuff…. fix that… and no need to regulate what someone can install in the dashboard of a new car…. ( talk about government overreach… )
    plus 99% of what is on AM band is hate speech….
    these big AM corporate stations lose a lot of money now days, the listeners are dying out…

    Frankly I am more concerned about RFI from the cell phone cigarette lighter/changer and 3 foot long cord… this seems to put static on the FM band affecting the weaker (non corporate ) stations….
    A lot of rear window defroster can do it also if your using a in the rear window antenna like on many Japan cars!

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