The State of AM Radio

The State of AM Radio
Gary Begin/Sound Advantage Media

Here’s a well-known fact: NOBODY & I mean NOBODY is dial scanning AM radio. Those days are over! Commercial FMs for the most part, are seen as the most lucrative broadcast entity; further, their owners hope to profit by placing FM signals in cell phones, smartphones and other portable media devices. The FCC acknowledges that many AM licensees are in a struggle for sheer survival.

The once-leading system of broadcasters is fighting to remain viable in the 21st century. When the FCC adopted a rulemaking allowing AM broadcasters to use FM translators, it clearly stated in its report that “the combination of higher-fidelity alternatives to AM radio and increased interference have caused an erosion of the AM audience and loss of younger listeners to other programming means.”

According to data from the FCC, there are 4790 AM stations as of December 31st, 2009. There is almost zero growth in the number of AM radio stations from a decade earlier. Until 1978, AM maintained more than half of all hours spent listening to radio, according to the FCC. AM’s share of listening hours has dropped to 17 percent, due to difficulties in channel congestion, interference and low-fidelity.

According to data from BIA Financial Network indicate a downward spiral on revenue at AM radio stations. Revenue for commercial AMs in rated markets was nearly $2.9 billion in 2004 although it dropped to $2.4 billion in 2008, the latest figures available. Most of that revenue is generated by the large AM stations in major markets.

AM radio can use every advantage it can get its hands on, just to survive. The FCC allowing FM translators is the very least it can do. Sentiments regarding the future of AM radio in the U.S. It seems as though technical and operating challenges will continue and additional station erosion is very likely. There’s a large drop in market value for many AM stations. If the market continues to spiral downward, more licensees will go dark, take down their towers, and sell their land to developers. AM arrays tend to take a lot of real estate.

AM can solve many of its problems with creative programming, being live and local. Create programming not heard on commercial FMs. AM radio doesn’t have to be all sports or all talk. Music can be played on AM. Create a “different” format, not heard in your market. As a consultant, I’ve helped many AM stations get on their feet with creative, original, fresh programming with live ‘personalities.’ That’s a wonderful way to distance you from corporate FMs programmed from far away.

Promote, promote, promote! Get a station van with your logo splashed on either side. Have a part-timer or intern drive the van around town for a couple of hours. Load it with station goodies; pens, coffee cups, sun visors, all with your station logo on them. Have the driver call in several times an hour, stating where their located and how long they’ll be there giving out great promotional items. Your station van becomes a rolling billboard. Don’t just park it in the station lot!
If it were “my” AM station, I’d be at the opening of an envelope! Develop business relationships by joining your local Chamber of Commerce. Volunteer your best air personality to be at a business grand opening. Personal appearances at restaurants and bars are always a crowd pleaser. This is a great way to become visible in the market without spending any money.

AM radio stations have a unique opportunity to serve their local communities that commercial FMs don’t take advantage of. FM radio has, for the most part, become homogenized and nothing more than a “music-box.” If you play the same game with satellite or automation all day, you’re no better than the FM doing the same thing. If all you’re going to do is be a music-box, your listeners can do that much better than you can, without the bad commercial interruptions.

I say ‘bad’ because most commercials or station promos are really poorly produced. Invest in some good production voices that can crank out those promos and commercials that “stand-out.” If you’re a listener with an I-Pod loaded with 1,000 songs, you’re already your own programmer. Why in the world would you need a radio station, let alone an AM station millennials won’t listen too?

AM radio develops a personal connection with its audience, its localism, and its diversity. AM stations have the ability, to become a locally focused radio station. With the lack of red tape and bureaucracy, AM owners are swift to meet the needs of their local community. If insightful enough, AM radio can become the epicenter of everything important in that local community, while still possessing a foothold on independence.

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