I’ve heard the reason an antenna, such as the one on your car, is so long is because it needs to be large enough for the long radio waves to pass into it. Is this true? Why are antennas for radio stations so tall and slender? — LW, Blacksburg, VA
A vertical pole radio antenna receives a radio wave by allowing that wave to push electric charges up and down the antenna. The radio senses this moving charge and is thus aware of the passing radio wave. The ideal length of a vertical receiving antenna is a quarter of the wavelength of the radio wave it’s trying to receive—in which case, charge that the radio wave’s electric field pushes up and down the antenna has just enough time to reach the end of the antenna before it has to reverse directions.
The waves used for standard AM radio transmissions have very long wavelengths—typically 300 meters—so that they require vertical pole antennas that are about 75 meters long for optimal reception. An antenna of that length is also optimal for radio transmission, which is why the antennas of AM radio stations are so long and slender. However, because such long antennas are inconvenient for most AM receivers, most AM receivers use small magnetic antennas. A magnetic antenna is a device containing an iron-like material called ferrite that draws in magnetic flux lines like a sponge. A coil of wire is wound around this ferrite so that as the magnetic flux lines of a passing radio wave enter the ferrite, they induces electric currents into the coil of wire. This coil then acts as the antenna.
But the waves used in FM radio transmission have much shorter wavelengths—typically 3 meters—so that antennas of about 75 centimeters are all that’s needed. The vertical pole radio antenna on your car is designed to receive these FM waves. The antennas of FM radio stations are also rather short, but they are usually mounted high up on a pole so that the whole structure looks like an AM radio antenna. However, if you look near the top of an FM radio tower, you’ll see the actual FM antenna as a much smaller structure.