Over the years, broadcast radio has taken its share of lumps at the hands of digital media. FM radio – once the hippest form of audio on the planet – now has to co-exist with streams, satellite radio, podcasts, and other audio formats now part of a growing renaissance. And crowded marketplace.
So, how well does FM hold up versus its competitors in 2020?
Depends on who you ask and how you're making your judgments. Are we talking personalization? Or commercial quantity – or scarcity? Music curation or playlist services? On-demand versus real-time?
One of the downsides of the connected car technology for radio broadcasters is the proliferation of these myriad new platforms, often accessible through a Bluetooth connected smartphone. And this desire for in-car connectivity is growing with each passing year, finding its way into more and more dashboards as automakers make it standard equipment.
But the other side is the realization that when you listen to “Bohemian Rhapsody” on an FM station and A:B it with satellite radio or your average stream, the frequency modulated signal – even with a Voltair hitched to the air chain – is your best choice – by far. The quality difference is more than apparent to the naked ear.
How FM radio will fare moving forward as more cars are connected and more audio is directly accessible from a voice assistant named Siri, Alexa, or Hey, Google remains to be seen. We're already seeing strong signs in our Techsurveys that broadcast radio will continue to be challenged in its #1 listening location – the car.
But then there's AM radio.
Those of us of a certain age may have grown up with only AM radio, or during those early years when FM burst on the scene and you had to buy a “converter” to receive those early stations while you drove.
Even as FM began to make cultural waves, the big jocks, the mega-budgets, and most of the money was still owned by AM radio stations. Even today, heritage AM stations in many markets – despite struggling ratings – continue to post impressive billing and revenue numbers, often driven by tradition, habit, or content services still unique on either the AM or FM bands.
But to say that AM has hung in there is a misnomer – a hopeful statement no longer backed by logic, statistics, or reality.
And as we see more and more in our Techsurveys, the demand for AM radio by buyers or lessees of new vehicles continues to wane. And not surprisingly, we're beginning to see auto manufacturers leaving AM radio on the cutting room floor, often with the excuse the electric cars aren't compatible with good old amplitude modulation radio.
When we ask prospective new car owners about their “must have” media options, FM continues to lead the pack, while only three in ten indicate an AM radio is very important in their next dashboard.
Techsurvey 2019 was fielded exactly one year ago, and the newest version of the world's largest radio research study is in the field right now. A betting woman would predict the desire for having AM radio in a new car dashboard is continuing to erode.
But forget about what consumers say. Listen to what radio's ownership his saying. Late last year, I moderated an FCC symposium about the state of broadcast radio. The panel was populated with a number of senior executives, representing large, medium, and small market broadcasters. And when the subject of AM radio came up, they were all on the same page.
Citing a subpar listening experience, declining ratings, and nearly zero interest in the purchase or sale of AM stations in the brokerage community, our expert panel pretty much scoffed at the prospects of a bright future – or any future – for AM radio stations in the current listening and regulatory environment. Still, there were opinions on both sides of the AM radio fence.
Reporting on the panel in Radio World, Randy L. Stine quoted both Hartley Adkins (iHeart) and Alfred Liggins (Urban One).
Adkins expressed concern about AM's future, but noted his company is still heavily invested in the medium through its stations, as well as franchise syndicated talk personalities:
And yet, while watching yet other round of football games last weekend (sorry to my friends in Wisconsin and Texas), I couldn't help but notice this new Jeep commercial – where both those iconic 4×4 vehicles and AM radio are the stars:
Channeling both radio school closing reports and traffic updates, the spot is a reminder to both Jeep and AM radio fans about what gets America through its toughest winters. I have no clue who Jeep's target driver is (and it probably varies by model), but the fact radio – much less AM radio – is at the center of a highly visible national ad campaign says something.
I went back to the same Techurvey quoted earlier in this post. We also ask our sample of (mostly) core radio listeners their primary source of traffic information. While Google Maps and other tools have become more important these past several years, accessing this information on the radio is still the primary way our North American sample finds out about road conditions:
As you might expect, the older the respondent, the greater propensity to use the radio as their primary traffic source. Gen Xers, Boomers, and members of the Silent (Greatest) Generation are progressively more apt to rely on AM and FM radio stations for traffic information.
Slowly but surely, automakers – especially using the excuse of the difficulty of properly grounding AM radio in electric cars – are quietly gravitating away from an amplitude modulation option in their vehicles.
Tesla has been the most visible example of this. After all, they are the company that owns the position for combining innovative technology with transportation. And somehow, they want us to believe they are able to engineer a self-driving Autopilot feature, built-in smartphone charging docks, digital vent controls, and on-demand farting sound effects (I kid you not). But somehow, they cannot make AM radio work in their electric cars.
This topic came up on a Tesla forum (on their website) where (mostly) disgruntled owners lamented the absence of AM radio, while discussing workarounds that included HD2 stations, streaming, and even bringing a portable AM radio into the cockpit).
There are a lot of moving parts here. AM's signal and sound shortcomings, added to the growing lack of competitive stations, make the platform increasingly difficult for broadcasters to support. And of course, millions of consumers have abandoned AM radio for other options, while young people – as Alfred Liggins asserts – have no idea what it is or where to find it.
But on the other hand , some well-heeled Tesla owners are wondering why they can't hear a sporting event, a favorite talk show host, or a still-relevant AM radio station (like KNX, WFAN, etc.). while driving one of the coolest vehicles on the road.
There are no simple solutions to the AM conundrum, as we poignantly heard from broadcast executives at the FCC symposium, many of whom own several of these stations.
Old habits die hard. And you wonder how that Jeep creative concept – leveraged on AM radio traffic reports – made it out of the storyboard stage, ostensibly in a room full of Millennials agency pros.
Maybe the creative director listens to WCBS, NewsRadio 880.
You can watch the entire FCC panel here.
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