Location, Location, Location
March 29, 2013
I need a new clock radio. This has led me to reconsider one of my opinions about content in the talk radio industry. Bear with me, it eventually ties together.
So, the alarm clock is on its last legs. The old one, circa the early '90s, purchased for, I believe, nine whole dollars, has served me well for many years through a cross-country move and a few decades of alerting me to the fact that I need to arise at a particularly ridiculous hour, complaining not even a little bit when I wake up ten minutes before the scheduled alarm. It has been a workhorse, but you can tell the end is near -- the little light that tells you the alarm's been set is flickering, the switch is loose, and, well, it's time. So I dutifully went looking for a replacement. I don't need anything too fancy. Here are my requirements:
- Easy-to-read, dimmable clock, and easy to set and shut off, too.
- Adequate reception and sound to wake me up.
- Battery backup.
- I'd like an iPhone dock, because this is 2013. Optional, but preferred.
- Not expensive. Under fifty bucks, the more under fifty, the better.
- AM and FM.
That last one would seem to be obvious, but, much to my surprise, that's been the toughest part of the shopping exercise. It turns out that a lot of the clock radios with iPhone and iPod docks don't even come with AM radios. FM only. Huh. And you have to pay close attention when shopping, because it's easy to miss that fact. You see the words "clock radio," you assume it's both bands, but you can't do that any longer. And the few AM/FM/iPhone dock sets out there seem to attract the kind of Amazon reviews that make them sound like a poor choice. "This radio burned down my house and ate my Chihuahua," they say, or words to that effect. (Most also have clock displays that are close to unreadable. It's enough to make one long for analog, or at least those clocks from the '70s with the little metal flip numbers that clicked all night long)
So, I'm not finding a lot of choice. AM is a necessity, because if you, like me, prefer to awaken to a voice or music rather than a buzzer or beep, let's face it, you can't take a chance on Internet streams because they're not always there when you need them -- at least, regular ol' radio doesn't need a router reboot now and then. And where I live, FM reception is so bad -- we're blocked from L.A. signals by a mountain, and San Diego and Tijuana signals have 100 miles to travel and don't always make it -- that I can't rely on that, either. In fact, only two signals make it into the house consistently and cleanly, the two 50,000 watt AM boomers, KNX (8 miles away) and KFI (about 20 miles away). So I need a radio that'll wake me to one of those.
And that's where I stand at the moment, unable to find just the right combination of features. I'll have to settle for something less, like no iPhone dock or a less readable clock face or something like that. The whole experience makes me feel like I'm old, too, because nobody seems to be buying clock radios anymore -- they use their phones. I just like the reliability of waking to the radio and the reassuring sound of the news anchors informing me that the world didn't end overnight. Is that too much to require?
While I've been searching for the perfect clock radio, Rush Limbaugh was defending AM. Well, actually, he wasn't quite defending AM, he was saying that it doesn't matter whether he's on AM or FM or wherever, that what's important is "content, content, content." I've made the same argument before -- good content will succeed no matter what the medium. Marshall McLuhan, that argument goes, was wrong -- the medium isn't the message, the message is the message. You know the drill.
But it's only partly true. A strong message -- good programming -- can transcend its medium, but if the medium isn't where people are, it makes your job so much harder. If everyone in a given demographic is listening to FM, they will not just happen upon you if you're on AM. They have to decide to seek you out. And that's more than just a marketing job. It takes a lot of buzz to get someone under the age of 50 to go to the AM dial. It's easier for Rush and the most successful of AM shows and stations because they've been there for decades and there's an established base, but has any new format launched on AM in the last decade and attracted a large audience under 50 years old? Worse, if there's no AM tuner at all in your clock radio, in your table radio (does anyone have a table radio anymore?), in your home theater receiver, in your FM-tuner-equipped cellphone, can you expect them to go look for you, no matter how good you are? If you're not established like Rush or KFI or WINS, probably not. And that heritage advantage will go away rapidly as the loyal listeners age out of the prime demographics.
We haven't even touched on the inherent technical disadvantages of FM in an age of omnipresent electrical interference, or the deleterious effects of AM HD (which makes KFI at the top of our hill cut back and forth between analog and digital, sounding like it's going underwater and back again). The bottom line is that AM isn't where a lot of the listeners talk radio needs to survive are congregating. Maybe we'll all be listening exclusively to online streams someday soon, but we're not there yet, either. The lion's share of listening by people in the money demos is to FM, and the clock radio caper proves that AM isn't even necessarily available on every radio even if you might want it to be. Content may be king, but if you can't easily access that content, it doesn't matter HOW good you are. You can't make people work to find you and succeed in the long run. AM has become work.
We'll discuss the related issue of what works on FM in another column (just being on FM is far from a panacea). Right now, I still need a good clock radio that does what I need it to do. Suggestions welcome.
Here's another reminder about this year's Revlon Run/Walk for Women in Los Angeles on May 11th, and how my wife Fran, a cancer survivor of seven years, and I will be participating once again -- we walk every year to celebrate survival and raise money through the Entertainment Industry Foundation for research and services dealing with women's cancer -- and how your donations will be appreciated. I've gotten a few donations already, and they're very appreciated- thank-yous are on their way. How 'bout you join the list and make a donation? You can do that at do.eifoundation.org/goto/pmsimon2013. Thank you!
Quickly, now, I have to get to a convention this afternoon, so I'll just remind you that All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics has hundreds of stories and comments compiled with radio in mind, available by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where you'll find every story linked to the appropriate item. It's free, too. And read "10 Questions With..." Chris Peterson, the APD at Glenn Beck's TheBlaze Radio Network, who's right on the front lines of creating a new talk radio network that is trying to be where its target listeners live: the Internet, satellite, and cable.
Hey, it's about time you follow my personal Twitter account at @pmsimon, find me on Facebook at www.facebook.com/pmsimon, and visit the other site I edit, Nerdist.com. And watch the return of "The Nerdist" on Saturday night, March 30th at 10p (ET) on BBC America (or Sunday at 7p (ET) on Space in Canada), after the half-season debut of "Doctor Who" and the debut of "Orphan Black." This week, Dominic Monaghan of the "Lord of the Rings" trilogy and "Lost," Matt Smith and Jenna-Louise Coleman of "Doctor Who," and Tatiana Maslany of "Orphan Black" are the guests. Try it.
Okay, gotta run to a comics convention. Talk to you next week, and in the meantime, have a good Easter/end of Passover/whatever you celebrate.