September 13, 2013
This week, the New York Times devoted a column to the quest by FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai and radio industry leaders to "rejuvenate AM radio." At the NAB/RAB Radio Show Jamboree in Orlando next week, Pai will be there talking about the same thing, as he did in Las Vegas at the NAB Big Content Don't Call Us Broadcasters Hootenanny in the Spring, and, sure enough, there'll be yet another "revitalizing AM Radio" panel at the convention next week, too. And as in Vegas, I'm sure there'll be a room full of people in suits raptly listening as the experts talk about going all-digital, jacking up power, shoehorning FM translators in everyplace (middle finger extended to LPFM applicants) to milk every last penny of value out of those AM licenses.
Do I really need to say this again, guys? Come on. You know the deal. Even the previously unscathed monster 50,000-watt heritage stations are eroding. You can't fight demographics, you can't fix ambient electrical interference, you can't change this particular thread of history. You can hang on for the short-term, but times changed, technology changed, and AM is not the ideal carrier for radio. Even its main advantage -- long distances at night -- has been trumped by the Internet's international reach. I think there's a certain panic among those who own AM licenses and realize that the value isn't going up and the options to generate cash flow from the operations are narrowing in many cases to a) brokered religion, b) brokered ethnic programming, and c) brokered male enhancement quackery infomercials. The panic is understandable, but the idea that the band can be "rejuvenated" is wasting a lot of brain cells, time, and money better invested elsewhere.
Look, if you own an AM that isn't either a major-market heritage boomer or a small-market monopoly, money-wise, you're likely best off selling the land out from under your towers as long as the real estate market's in a relative upswing. That, however, would make for a short convention panel and an even shorter speech. If I was on that panel -- they don't ask me, for obvious reasons -- I'd tell them that, and this:
1. Get your heads out of the past. Even the Commissioner resorts to misty-eyed recollections of listening to the ballgame on the ol' AM transistor radio. That's nice. I think about that, too, growing up listening to the skywave signals bringing in distant stations from exotic far-away places like Chicago and Salt Lake City and St. Louis, jumping from the static crackle of a thunderstorm interrupting the Phillies on WCAU or the Mets on WHN. My first real thought that I could work in radio was not from listening to the big city FM stations but from hearing local-yokel AMs in places like Pompton Lakes and Parsippany and thinking, hey, real people can do radio, too. I was a DXer. I loved the great Top 40 AM dominators and the proto-talkers. I still do. But that's history. Anyone who thinks that the world went to hell in a handbasket when WABC switched to Talk and all AM needs to do is bring back the great oldies and standards is delusional. At best, you'd generate a small audience of people over 65, and I'll let YOU argue with agencies and clients over whether that's a desirable target for their marketing. People under 65 are on FM most of the time. The Internet is still a secondary option but making major inroads. AM? Opposite direction.
2. Good luck with translators. If you have a compact metro which can be covered by 250 watts or less -- and that has to be VERY compact -- a translator will help, even if the signal's a little thin for listening inside a building. But otherwise... you ever listen to a translator while driving around a market? You know those little dropouts you overlook because you're in the business and you know that it's a low-power affair? Regular folks don't put up with that for very long. And in a geographically large market, ugh. (Forget multiple frequencies or a string of co-channel 10-watters; ANY gap or drop-outs and they'll head to a station that DOES come in everywhere they are.)
3. Digital? As in new radios? Really? Why would someone who already thinks they have what they need, digitally, with his or her cell phone need a new radio to get digital AM? How is HD Radio working for AM these days?
4. Oh, yeah, HD Radio. If the industry wanted to hasten AM's demise, HD is doing a nice job. You buy a car, there's HD Radio in it, and... well, here. I have a late-model HD-capable car stereo. There are two 50,000-watt non-directional AMs near me, both in HD. One is 10 miles away and always locks on HD. The other is 20 miles away and doesn't. In fact, in my daily drive in my own town, on a hilltop overlooking the basin with no obstruction to either tower, that second station drops in and out and in and out of HD the entire run to the post office, every day. It's hard to listen to that. I bet more people who want to listen just throw up their hands and switch away. They aren't going to read the manual to see if they can turn the HD off. And if you don't have 50,000 watts, you have no idea how shaky your HD signal can be not that far away from the towers. (The less said about nights, the better.)
5. While we're at it, are you putting anything on those AMs worth saving? Anything that can't be duplicated by an FM or be delivered more efficiently by an Internet stream and mobile app? Tradio's nice, but, you know, Craigslist. Local talk is nice but there's not a lot of that. Unless your station is offering material that can't be found elsewhere or can't be moved to an FM, save the crocodile tears. So many AMs are just satellite programming conduits.
6. The brands... well, it's possible to create a brand from an AM station that you can then deploy on a more viable platform with success. WTOP and the other News and Sports stations that migrated to FM and online show that. But if you're still wondering about that in 2013, your AM brand probably stands for Old People's Radio. That's not going to work anywhere.
So, what would I advise those who own AM licenses in 2013? Focus on a few things. Focus on the short-term, on offering what people can't get anyplace else, whether it's exclusive sports play-by-play or... well, that's about it. Find a way to migrate to a full-power, full-market FM. Develop your brand, or A brand (not necessarily your call letters), online and aim it at the demographics marketers favor. And figure that your days as just an AM station are numbered, and that five years from now, you'll be on FM or an online option or something. And get the numbers of some likely time brokers, because that might pay the light bill and debt service for a few more years.
But the market is deciding this, and nothing the FCC or station owners can do will stop the tide. As romantic as it is to think about the AM past, it IS the past. Articles about radio and panels at conventions should be embracing the future. AM is a 1973 Plymouth Valiant in a Tesla Model S marketplace. At some point, you have to let the old warhorse go, take a deep breath, and go get the new model.
Speaking of what's happening today, All Access News-Talk-Sports' show prep column Talk Topics is filled with very current stuff to talk about. See it all by clicking here for the full column or going to Twitter at @talktopics, where every story is individually linked to the appropriate item. Then read "10 Questions With..." Justin Barclay, the artist otherwise known as Top 40 and Rock morning guy Puddin' who has taken the leap into talk with a new daily show at WOOD in Grand Rapids. Check out the column and hear his thoughts about the differences and similarities between morning shows and talk radio.
As I mentioned, there's that convention in Orlando next week. I will be there. If you're there, too, you know where to find me -- somewhere on the side of the room near an available power outlet. By now, you'd think they'd put plugs and USB ports everywhere.