Is there a bigger buzzkill blog topic than AM radio?
In a an era where digital has transformed radio broadcasting's content and revenue focus, the last thing anyone wants to talk about in 2023 is lowly AM radio. But like that old drunk uncle who shows up at the reunion, AM is still part of the radio family.
In its heyday, AM ruled the radio roost. It wasn't until the late 70's when FM surpassed AM in total listening, and later profitability. Before then, AM was the behemoth. And the biggest and best in class could be magically heard in dozens of states each night. Weather, atmospherics, and bodies of water all factored into AM reception.
Many Baby Boomers vividly recall laying in bed at night, precariously tuning in a faraway AM station carrying a ballgame or even broadcasting progressive music. Or grabbing a portable transistor radio – like the one sitting in our junk drawer – taking it to a sporting event and having a great audio soundtrack from legends like Vin Scully, Ernie Harwell, or Jack Buck.
And hey, streamies, those AM play-by-play broadcasts weren't delayed, instead providing commentary in real time. By the way, none of the aforementioned sports heavyweights ever dropped an “F-bomb.”
In recent years, AM has fallen on tough times. Most competitive AM stations still left find themselves pretty much alone in a radio neighborhood that has gone to seed. And the best programmers know that competition is essential to maintaining a level of quality and a reason for consumers to punch “AM” on their car radios, seeking out content.
Talk on AM has been of the conservative persuasion since the 1990's, also limiting mass cume interest. And the quality of AM sound has deteriorated because of what engineer Joe Geerling (more on him in a bit) refers to these stations as having been “narrowbanded for decades.”
AM is no longer an 800 pound gorilla. That ship has sailed. But it is, in fact, part of the family. And now, spurred on by Elon Musk and other EV makers, AM is in the crosshairs, fighting for its very survival. Once great stations like KABC are now fighting to show up in the Nielsen ratings, and more and more AM stations are actually being shuttered (more on that, too).
FOJM (Friend of Jacobs Media), the irrepressible Tom Leykis took a swipe at the station that once led the L.A. market in the ratings:
Drew Hayes, who specifically called me to say, “Don't attack Trump” before my very last radio hosting appearance, finally brings @790KABC to the very bottom of the LA ratings with 0.0 % of the audience. KABC: LAST IN LA!!!
— Tom Leykis (he/hee/hee) (@tomleykis) February 22, 2023
At a time when perhaps we'd rather be talking about AI DJs and podcast revenue, AM is a part of radio's history, and it is rapidly becoming an endangered species – especially in new cars.
We need to talk about it, because as Radio World's editor-in-chief Paul McLane warns us, “I don't think FM broadcasters should be feeling too secure right now either.”
Gulp. Onto the junk drawer….
Item #1: This land is my land – In many cases, the real estate where an AM station and/or tower are located may be worth more – a LOT more – than the station itself. That was Audacy's calculation when they acquired AM-er KDWN, and then proceeded to shut it down, along with fellow amplitude modulator KXST.
Why? Because while both stations carried leading syndicated programming, it was the tower property that held the real value – $40 million to be exact.
In spite of rising interest rates, real estate commands a lot more value on the open market than AM radio stations. Expect to see more and more property assessors running around fields that now occupy AM radio buildings and tower arrays.
Selling off land in Nevada…or Texas or South Carolina or Michigan may not be romantic or represent recurring revenue. But by shutting down these financial black holes, broadcasters have discovered a simple way to plump up those all-important bottom lines with windfalls from selling off property.
BTW you can check out the Tower Site of the Week, thanks to Scott Fybush here.
Item #2: There's a bear in the air – Yes, you'll recognize that phrase as CB radio – or Citizen's Band – which had its big moment in the mid-1970s. That's when country artist C.W. McCall released “Convoy,” a rap song for truckers in 1976. It went to #1 on Billboard was took honors as the Country Music Association's single of the year. (It's hard to believe it was the same year and the same chart as “Hotel California.”)
What on earth does any of this have to do with AM radio? While CB radios went the way of the pet rock and mood ring, they are still in use (apparently). And last week, Cobra Electronics rolled out its all-new “clearer sounding AM/FM CB radio” (pictured).
Believe it or not, Cobra says it recently came out on the good side of an altercation with the FCC, banning the FM mode in CB radios manufactured in the U.S. The Commission finally caved in 2021, giving Cobra the green light to make CBs with FM radio like you see pictured here.
While AM radio was not part of the marketing (you can't blame them for that), it's along for the ride with its younger brother in these new Cobra gadgets.
And to that we say “Breaker breaker 1-9.”
(A “bear in the air” means a law enforcement in a helicopter was spotted patrolling a highway” in CB radio lingo.)
Item #3: Mr. McLane goes to Washington – Well, not quite. But you may remember, Senator Ed Markey (D-MA) wrote a pointed letter to a group of 20 key auto manufacturers last December. He bluntly asked them their intention about AM's future in their vehicles, demanding to know their plans for including free AM and/or FM radio in their cars and trucks.
Finally, a response, thanks in no small part to McLane's pushing and prodding. The Alliance for Automotive Innovation was the organization that spoke out. And as Randy Stine wrote in Radio World yesterday, it was “a resounding non-endorsement of AM radio.”
Markey's logic leaned heavily on broadcast AM's coverage during emergencies, but the Alliance shot down that argument:
“The public is moving away from radio and broadcast/cable television as the primary channels for news and information.”
The NAB's SVP of communications, Alex Siciliano, explained his organization and the Alliance are having “an ongoing and productive dialogue.”
Paul McLane's take? “AM broadcasters won't find good news in this letter; Sen. Markey had given carmakers an open invite to write encouraging words about the role of AM and they entirely declined. I don't find this surprising; and I don't think FM broadcasters should be feeling too secure right now either. ‘
“But I think it's notable that the alliance devotes almost all of its response to answering Markey's comments about the role of broadcast in emergency alerting. The NAB and others have leaned on that argument hard over the years to protect aspects of broadcasting's unique regulatory standing and role in society. Here we see how the efficacy of that argument may be eroding.
“The carmakers even quote FEMA officials as saying that the public is moving away from radio and broadcast/cable TV as primary channels of news and information. That's the media environment radio plays in now, and radio's business strategies have to recognize that.”
That's a tough way to end a long week, but for AM radio broadcasters, it's the world in which they live. Maybe they could send a convoy to Congress.
Where's C.W. McCall when you really need him?
Point of clarification: I mistakenly assumed the Cobra CB radio received AM and FM stations. But as I number of you schooled me, both here and in social media, these are transmission modes, not reception modes.
Caleb Gordon explained it this way: “It’s a CB radio that can transmit and receive using frequency modulation in the citizen’s band, but it’s not an FM radio, nor is it an AM radio. Ham radio has used dual mode for years.”
Which all proves once again that I'm not an engineer – I'm a program director. Apologies for not getting this right. – FJ
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