How to Get Better AM Radio Reception

Last updated March 7, 2003.


AM radio offers challenges for good reception. It is more susceptable to various kinds of interference, both natural and man-made, and sometimes it's hard to find a radio that gives you decent AM reception. But I enjoy many stations on AM for the programming they offer, and have searched out ways on my own to get better AM reception. I will share them with you here.

I've spent considerable time searching the internet, and haven't found a web-site devoted to helping the average person get better AM radio reception. I hope this web site fills that need, and offers some help. I've tried to keep this as non-technical as possible. Also, please remember that any reference I make to any specific product is my opinion, and that it is your responsibility to be a careful consumer. Shop carefully, whether on-line or in person, and be aware of the seller's return policy (just in case) and any product warranties. :-)

AM Radio Reception

The Antenna is 90% of Your Radio

Who ever thinks about the antenna for AM? Yes, for FM you have the rod antenna that you pull up and move around, or that piece of wire that came with your stereo that most people leave dangling in a tangle behind the entertainment center (then wonder why their FM reception is no good...).

Your AM radio has an antenna, too. In most portables, transistor radios, boom-boxes and table radios, the AM antenna is built in. It consists of a ferrite rod around which is wound thin wire. Since we don't see this antenna, we tend not to think about it, but it's there nevertheless.

This antenna is directional-- that is it picks up signals from some directions better than others. This built-in antenna is best at picking up stations coming in from a direction perpendicular to the rod. It is least sensitive picking up signals coming at it end-on. This phenomenon can be used to your advantage. To get a station in better, try turning the radio. By doing so, you are aiming the antenna inside for a better signal. And if there is interference, you may be able to get the antenna rod pointed end-on toward the interference, thereby reducing it or cutting it out completely.

What if you have a nice stereo system, with a receiver or a rack system? In those cases, the AM antenna is often a loop of wire wrapped around a small plastc frame that you connect to AM antenna terminals on the back of the stereo. Let's hope you didn't throw this away with the packaging. If you did, get a length of wire, maybe 20 feet or so, and wrap it around something non-metallic to make your own loop. You might try using a cheap plastic food dish, for example. Wind it around its circumfrence, then strip the ends of the wires and connect them to the AM antenna terminals. As with the ferrite rod described above, it is directional, so experiment with the correct placement.

Many old stereo tuners and receivers had the ferrite rod antenna mounted to the back of the cabinet on a hinge. Again, experiment with aiming it for the best results.

Buying a Better Antenna

Still need more signal? Try a better antenna. I'll tell you up front, sometimes this isn't pretty. And it can be dirt-cheap, or very expensive. Sometimes when you walk into the local electronics store and ask for a better AM antenna, the sales clerk will look at you like you have 2 heads. But don't give up. Take a print-out of this sheet and stand your ground.

Sources of Interference

But the antenna is only the start. You also have to deal with interference. AM radio is more susceptable to natural and man-made interference due to the way the signal is carried over the air and demodulated (or "decoded") in your radio. The following things can cause interference on your AM radio:

The idea is to shut off any sources of interference that you can. Sometimes this is difficult, as you can't ask the bar next door to shut off its neon sign. But control whatever interference you can.

Sometimes moving the radio to a different location, or even turning it (so the internal antenna is aimed in a different direction) may be enough to reduce or eliminate interference, yet still leave enough signal to listen to the station you want.

If you are not sure where the interference is coming from, get a battery operated radio. If the interference disspears, then it was coming through the AC power line. RadioShack and other retailers of electrical parts and accessories sell AC Line Interference Filters that can reduce this kind of interference. If the interference does not go away, then it is coming through the air.

If this is the case, use the battery operated radio as a "direction finder" to locate the interference. Tune to a weaker station, and walk around with it until you come to where the interference is strongest. If it turns out that the interference is strongest near a utility pole, call the electric company, and see if they'll come out to wash or repair the insulators on the pole. Otherwise, you have the source of the interference, and if it is something you can control then you're all set. Caution! Do not mess with electrial circuits or devices unless you are a qualified technician. Leave that to the professionals as it is dangerous.

Radios that are Good for AM.

Unfortunately, AM radio is often an afterthought when they're designing home entertainment products. It's a sad fact that the $2000 super-duper surround sound system you just bought probably has an AM section no better than a cheap clock radio, if it's even that good! Maybe manufacturers believe there's no demand for a decent AM section, though the fact that you're here reading this is probably proof that their wrong! (There are a very few exceptions, McIntosh being one that comes to mind, but their stuff is mucho-mucho expensive!)

Still, if you care about your AM reception, there are a some portable radios out there that do a good job at receiving stations. The products I mention here are the ones that I know about costing less than $100 (with one exception at $159.95). Although there may be others that also do well, I haven't been able to evaluate them myself. Remember, your results may vary, as reception is different for everyone, although I would suggest that if these radios cannot pick up the station you want when used with a good antenna, it may not be possible.

As with anything you buy, always ask about the return policy of the store or dealer and ask about the warranty before you buy, in case you need to return it, or have a problem. RadioShack's ESO - "Extended Service Option" is available on many of their products, and is a good deal. RadioShack's policy with their ESO is usually to forget the fine-print and make the customer happy. Always save the receipt and packaging, no matter where you buy! Be a smart shopper!

Is there a strong signal in your area?

Know When to Hold 'Em, Know When to Fold 'Em: You can't hear what isn't there.

Everything I write from here on down assumes that you have already have a decent AM radio and antenna, but even if you don't, or can't use a good antenna for whatever reason, the following information is still important.