The Joy Of Semi-Obsolescence
January 29, 2016
This week, I'm going to try and tie together FM translators, AM "revitalization," cars, and the inevitability of obsolescence. This should be interesting.
All right, then, so, much of my work week was spent tracking down what seemed like an infinite number of sales of FM translators in advance of the window for AM stations to apply to move them up to 250 miles so they can simulcast. This is, on the surface, what I've always wanted: AM stations, mostly, these days, spoken word formats, finally getting to simulcast on FM, where the audience has gone. If I owned an AM station and there was a translator that I could buy for what appears to be the sweet spot price of $25,000-$75,000, I'd do it.
It wouldn't make much of a difference in most cases, though. Sorry to throw a wet blanket on your enthusiasm, AM fans. It just, in the majority of cases, isn't going to save AM radio. I'm gonna speak here not as an engineer and not as a station owner, but as just some guy who observes the market: An FM translator simulcast is of limited benefit. Sure, there are a few examples where it really makes a difference, but there are technical limitations that mean you're not getting what a listener will perceive as a "real" FM station. First, 250 watts isn't going to penetrate too deeply into buildings beyond a very small area. Second, you have to have a mighty small metropolitan area for it to cover even in-car listening to an adequate extent. Third, at certain times during the year, atmospheric conditions will wipe you out. Add that all up and you get a facility that's really good for small-town stations that only need to cover a small area, but not a competitive facility if you need to cover anything more than that. It might add a share to your overall number, but it won't be a cure.
And, yes, I have heard several AM-station-on-FM-translator stations live and in person, including in markets where the population is concentrated enough to suggest that 250 watts from a reasonably tall tower will do the trick, and the signals all sounded thin and interference-riddled and disappeared not just in parking garages and between tall buildings but even on open roads. A translator isn't competitive with full-power stations under most circumstances. It isn't designed to be competitive. Don't think that it'll magically make an AM station competitive.
If translators aren't the answer, what, then, do we do to fix AM? Depends on what "fix" means. If you define it as "making AM once again competitive with FM," the answer is nothing. That will not happen, not with all-digital, not with the fantasy of better, wide-bandwidth receivers, nothing. As I've mentioned before, I got a new car not long ago, and, true to what you'll hear from anyone with a recent vintage car, the AM side is pretty useless -- buzzy interference all over it. I'm down to two clear stations (both 50,000-watt nondirectional stations a few miles away), a few more that are staticky but tolerable to me (but not an average listener -- you REALLY have to want to listen to put up with the noise), and the rest is unlistenable. I'm the kind of radio geek who'll try whatever I have to try to fix that, with the understanding that ambient electrical interference from all sorts of electronics in the area will always cause a buzz. Most people won't, and anyone under the age of 50 probably doesn't even know the AM band is there. Technically, then, it's... limited.
AM WAS radio for decades, then WAS talk radio and sports radio for a few more, and now... it's a handful of surviving heritage stations that will hang on for a while, and a lot of stations that have no future with the standard English-language commercial formats. You've seen AM stations pull the plug everywhere, the real estate under their towers worth more than the license. That's the future for some stations. For others, it's brokered religion, brokered ethnic programming, formats in languages spoken by small numbers of people in each market.
And that's okay. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with stations with technical limitations focusing on underserved markets within their coverage area, or leasing time to those wanting to do radio. There's a business in that, even if it isn't the same business the companies that own AM stations thought they were in. FM translators won't reverse that. The FCC is powerless to reverse that. Technology changed, people's preferences changed, things change.
FM station owners should pay attention to that, too. As FM translators aren't the universal savior of AM, changing preferences are eventually going to affect FM, maybe not yet, but at some point. Did you think broadcast and network TV would be pushed aside by cable? Did you see cable getting hit hard by competition from things with acronyms like OTT and SVOD that didn't exist a few years ago? Even if you did, did you see it happening so fast? What makes you think that radio's immune?
The point is, everything changes, things become obsolete, and some things hang on in a different role than they'd previously occupied. AM's not dead, but "revitalization" isn't going to make it the business it once was; it can, however, serve niches. Radio overall may not be able to forever tout its 93% reach to make the kind of revenue it once made, but it can be a stronger business serving a well-defined audience by stressing what it's good at: reaching large audiences with live programming and ultra-convenient technology. Knowing your limitations doesn't mean admitting failure, it just means that you're acknowledging changed circumstances and adapting to a new reality. 250 watts of FM "power" won't hurt, but don't expect a miracle... and maybe you don't need a miracle as much as a different set of expectations.
Whether you're on a 100,000-watt FM boomer, a 250-watt translator, or on the Internet with no watts required, All Access News-Talk-Sports' Talk Topics, with news items and kickers and bad jokes for your show prep needs, is what you need to plan your show. It's available by clicking here and at the Talk Topics Twitter feed at @talktopics with every story individually linked to the appropriate item. And there's the new Podcasting section at AllAccess.com/podcasts.
Full Disclosure: I also serve as Director of Programming for Nerdist Industries, a division of Legendary Pictures and Legendary Digital Entertainment, which includes the Nerdist Podcast Network, one of your major podcast entities.
And let me wish you and yours a very happy Groundhog Day, which is Tuesday. To celebrate, I refrained from taking the opportunity to do a column relating the movie of the same name and how radio does (fill in the blank) over and over. You're welcome.