The Thrill is Gone

Like many readers of this blog, I grew up listening to AM radio. It created for me the passion and desire to pursue a radio career while I was still in grade school. As a young child, I remember my parents having a least one radio with the FM band, but scanning that band produced not a single radio station to be heard.

FCC Broadcast Station Totals

Looking through the FCC database, I found that the commission’s Broadcast Station Totals reports begin with December 1968, the same year that my professional radio career began. In America, that report listed 4,236 AM Commercial radio stations on the air with only 1,944 FM Commercial radio stations, and even adding the 362 Education FM radio stations only gets you to about half the number of AM stations.

On March 31, 1994, FM Commercial radio stations outnumbered AM Commercial radio stations 5,001 to 4,933; plus, there were now 1,674 FM Educational stations on the air.

To put things in perspective, when the number of America’s FM signals equaled the number of AM signals, 75% of all radio listening was estimated to be occurring on the FM band.

Today’s AM/FM Radio Landscape

The FCC just issued its March 31, 2021 Broadcast Station Totals report and it shows the number of AM Commercial radio stations is down from 27 years ago by 387 stations; now just 4,546 stations, and FM Commercial radio stations are up 1,681, for a total of 6,682 stations. In addition to the commercial stations, there are now another 4,213 FM Educational radio stations and 8,521 FM Translators & Boosters along with 2,114 Lower Power FM radio stations. That’s a grand total of 21,730 FM signals on the air in America compared to 4,546 AM signals.

What percentage of listening would you estimate is now taking place to AM versus FM in the 21st Century? I’m thinking it’s probably north of 99%.

All Digital AM Authorized

October 27, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) authorized ALL-DIGITAL AM RADIO in America. The commission’s ruling says that all “AM broadcasters will be able to voluntarily choose whether and when to convert to all-digital operation from their current analog, or hybrid analog/digital signals.”

A quick check of the FCC database shows only 245 AM radio stations currently broadcasting in hybrid analog/digital; six of which either had their license cancelled or were silent.

The issue for the consumer will be having to buy new AM Digital radios, since all their existing AM radios will not be able to receive an all-digital AM signal.

No to Digital AM

Frank Karkota wrote a guest column for Radio World titled “No to Digital AM” in which he listed six reason why he was opposed to the digitization of the AM band. Let me summarize them for you:

  1. Building an AM Digital radio is too complicated
  2. The technology is becoming too complex
  3. Because of the remarkable advancements in analog AM receiver technology, there’s no need to digitize the AM band
  4. The poor recovered audio quality of digital radio
  5. The listening audience will lose some listening options
  6. Most car radios will need to be replaced to permit digital reception

I’m not an engineer, so I’ll leave it up to technical readers to weigh in here, but as a non-engineering radio guy, why would I go through all those hoops when I can simply click on an aggregator like TuneIn.com and stream any radio station I want to listen, to via my smartphone?

The biggest reason why this is a bad idea is that people are not going to spend money buying a single use device to listen to a radio station when there are so many ways to listen to virtually any radio station in the world today on so many other multi-use devices.

Radio’s Biggest Problem

Back in August 2017, I wrote an article titled “Coal Ain’t Coming Back & Neither is AM Radio” which had hundreds of people commenting.

This month Bloomberg reported “Coal Is Getting Even Closer to the End of Its Line” saying that the United States is on track to use less coal than at any point since the 19th century. This graph paints the picture:

Now look at the change in the number of AM radio stations in America over the past thirty years:

Whether we’re talking about coal or AM radio stations, the trendline is spiraling downward.

Radio’s biggest problem, AM and FM, is that it suffers from a deficit of imagining the lives of its listeners. Radio broadcasters are in the communications business, and yet, they are too focused on saving the past instead of focusing on the future of communications.

“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

-Henry Ford

“You can’t just ask customers what they want and then try to give that to them.”

-Steve Jobs

Both Ford and Jobs understood that to win the heart of the customer, you needed to create a future they never even knew they wanted.

The future for radio is creating great audio programming that has people wanting to receive it no matter what platform it is delivered on.

Stop Your Air Talent from Multi-Tasking

It saddens me, that today the radio industry is asking their air talent to multi-task on multiple radio stations. Could you imagine the NFL deciding that their quarterback could also act as the team’s coach at the same time? Never!

The short answer to whether people can really multitask is no. … The human brain cannot perform two tasks that require high-level brain function at once. Low-level functions like breathing and pumping blood aren’t considered in multitasking.

-Chris Adams, ThoughtCo.com

Listen to what a difference it makes when an air personality can focus on one station, one market and communicate one-on-one with the listener, as KHJ Midday Personality Charlie Tuna does in this air check (Courtesy of the Charlie Ritenburg aircheck collection). Click HERE

This is not a morning show air check, but a midday one for Charlie Tuna. Notice how integral he is to the pace and flow of the radio station. He provides a link to the Los Angeles community and companionship to the listener. The on-air production is tight and smooth. It’s a style of radio so hard to hear anywhere today.

It’s the style of radio that launched my 50 year radio career.

Memo to the Radio Industry

 It’s time to bring back the thrill

of listening to Great Radio.

21 Comments

Filed under Education, Mentor, Radio

21 responses to “The Thrill is Gone

  1. Bob Hoenig

    Can’t really argue with this. The radio I loved and worked in no longer exists.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Howie Reimer

    Will the advertising revenues follow?
    Howie Reimer
    News talk Morning Show Host
    Program Director
    Bottle Washer

    Liked by 1 person

    • According to eMarketer.com research, the total amount spent on digital advertising in 2019 was predicted to grow 19% to $129.34 billion, which is 54.2% of estimated total US ad spending. If you’re wondering where are all the digital dollars are coming from? Directories take the first place, such as Yellow Pages, that is going to be the biggest hit with 19% this year. The traditional print will take second place with around 18%. Generally speaking, traditional ad spending in the US will reduce to 45.8% this year, from 51.4% of the previous year.

      By 2023, digital will surpass two-thirds of total media spending.
      -DT

      Like

  3. RJ McAllister

    Blather. Blubber. Bluster. And Jesus. That’s AM radio today. You might find a few rural stations doing it the traditional way, but AM in larger cities is intubated. And just about as dead.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think those “few rural stations” that you mention, have hooked up to an FM translator and are now doing some form of syndicated music or simply playing music out of a computer hard drive, mentioning their AM dial position in the legal ID but nowhere else.

      This only serves to run a stake through heart of AM radio, not save it IMHO.
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

  4. AM radio is not only dead, it’s beginning to smell.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. It seems like “broadcasting” has lost its way. Technology has evolved to the point where we can get our entertainment from a lot of sources and the “big” companies have tried to invade those other platforms-to the detriment of its main purpose. Simple solution? Remember what made you famous. AM’s problems are many and may be insurmountable but the underlying content and intent (from one to many) still has its benefits. We should have learned by now that broadcasting isn’t “big business” – it’s a creative platform that needs to have innovation and creativity return to the mainstream as opposed to putting 90% to the bottom line. The rest of the available entertainment sources can devote all they want to being “on demand”. Broadcasting is still one of the simplest ways to entertain and if the bean counters will get out of the way the medium can get back to its original intent, reimagined for 2021. That’s my 2 cents.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I’ve been a Beatles fan since I was 12, and over the years, I’ve observed that there are two kinds of people: people who define their times, and people who reflect their times. The Beatles defined their times,and their many imitators reflected the world the Beatles had defined.
    Most radio people strive to reflect the current trends, but as you point out, research only tells you what HAS happened, not what could happen. This is probably just as well, because most of us don’t have the courage or vision to blaze new trails. You have to be really desperate, with nothing to lose, to try something new that your gut tells you will be amazing.
    For example. if Lin Manuel Miranda had done a focus group of Broadway ticket buyers and asked, “Would you like to see a rap musical about Alexander Hamilton with black actors playing the founding fathers?” Well, you can guess what the answer would have been.

    Liked by 2 people

  7. aaronread1

    All of those reasons against digital AM radio are either completely or significantly incorrect.

    1. Building an HD Radio receiver is literally nothing more than adding one chip and a few lines of code in the software for the receiver’s user interface. In fact, many, many receivers ALREADY have the chip inside because it was combined with the DSP chip the radio already needed.

    2. The “technology is too complex” is a rich argument to be making when you’re typing it on a laptop, submitting it over the internet, to be read on an iPhone. Conversely, there’s still no content delivery system that rivals…much less surpasses…the elegant simplicity (see John Maeda’s book) of radio. Nothing comes close to: “push button, turn knob, get content.”

    3. This is arrant nonsense and easily disproven. If anything we’ve seen enormous self-inflicted wounds as receiver manufacturers deal with the ever-growing problem of rising noise floors by tightening and tightening the audio bandwidth of the AM side. God knows how hard it is to find a car AM receiver that isn’t already throttled to about 3 kHz bandwidth (worse than a telephone!) or will do so at the slightest hint of interference. I don’t claim HD Radio is a true solution here, but at least the HD audio is a hell of a lot higher fidelity on most receivers.

    4. Compared to a nice 10 kHz CQUAM AM stereo signal? Ok, maaaaaybe that’s true. But what receiver actually delivers that anymore? Far fewer than there are HD receivers out there. For most analog AM receivers the audio fidelity isn’t even equivalent to the low data bandwidth hybrid mode AM…never mind the significantly improved all digital mode for AM.

    5. Yeah. So what? Listeners have no fewer than a half dozen ways to readily and reasonably easily consume audio content these days. What’s better: serve a wider audience badly or a narrower audience better? Hint: there’s gobs of studies demonstrating the former is not better.

    6. This is a patent falsehood and prime FUD-spreading (fear, uncertainty, doubt). Yes, if you don’t have an HD Radio you can’t hear an all digital AM station. Guess what? If you don’t have a SiriusXM receiver, you can’t listen to SiriusXM either. And if you don’t have a computer of some kind with an internet connection, you can’t listen to Spotify. Or to your AM station’s webcast for that matter. Anyone who thinks any audio content delivery business can survive using only one method of delivery is wildly behind the times already. Yes, you might be depriving some listeners of a means to listen. That’s why you have alternative delivery mechanisms: a webcast, an FM simulcast, etc. It’s also while you need to know who your audience is (hint: it’s not “umm, everyone in town, I guess”) so you can make an intelligent decision about whether going all digital will serve them better or worse.

    And the HD haters always like to think there’s no receivers out there. Just because you don’t have one doesn’t mean they’re not out there: most cars with premium sound system options have HD Radio included and have done so for at least four or five years. The receiver penetration is pretty big in autos, it’s getting bigger every year, and it’s largest among the listeners with the most money (who’re buying the high-end versions of each make/model that have the premium sound systems).

    Finally, Karkota conveniently overlooks the benefits: vastly improved range, better audio fidelity (and in stereo!), better resistance to interference, etc.

    Now that all said, do I think all digital AM is going to save AM radio? Of course not! That’s stupid. It might help, perhaps. But the core of what’ll “save” AM Radio is better content that’s more relevant to the communities they serve. And, most likely, the shutdown of about two thirds of the existing AM band to get rid of the huge number of useless, spectrum-clogging, dittoheads just crapping out some worthless all-satellite feed.

    Aaron Read

    Liked by 1 person

    • You brought it home Aaron in the last paragraph. It’s also the one thing most consolidated broadcasters have abandoned.

      Thank You for sharing your perspective.
      -DT

      Liked by 1 person

    • I appreciate your passion for the tech side of the equation, but you have to come to grips with the fact that almost no one cares about finding a better way to listen to radio. We spent years running pointless hourly promos for HD radio. Today, roughly NO ONE uses it. We ran a contest on KEARTH HD1, as an experiment. No one called. I think you hit the nail on the head when you wrote about the elimination of conservative talk radio. That’s definitely part of the mix in this scheme to eliminate AM.

      Liked by 1 person

      • aaronread1

        I’m sorry Gary but the plural of “anecdote” is not “data”. I have hard data showing that people in my area are in fact listening to WNPN-HD2 (and with near-zero promotion about it, no less). I know my counterpart at WBUR gets a lot of calls whenever their HD signal is off on 90.9FM and they don’t even multicast: it’s just the marked increase in multipath interference that most analog FM’s suffer from in Boston (that HD does not) that tips them off. Vermont Public Radio has an extensive network of HD2 channels on their news and classical FM networks so listeners with HD Radios can easily listen to either; and they put a lot of time and effort into promotion and giveaways to make sure of it, too. Now they reap the benefits handily.

        Also if you ran an experiment on KRTH-HD1 that by definition means you ran it on your FM as well. Methinks that speaks more to how many listeners you have to your station overall. (shrugs)

        You’re correct that listeners do not generally go out of their way to find a better way to listen to radio. Absent a concerned education effort like VPR’s, what happens is that listeners end up listening on an HD Radio receiver without even realizing it. They might be pleasantly surprised one day to hear better audio fidelity or something, but even that’s not common. What IS common is that they’ll notice when things get worse if, for some reason, the HD goes away.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Another excellent article, yet again. Prior to 2017, there were four stations on the AM dial in Albany, Georgia. Now there are three, with no FM translators waiting in the wings. If that wasn’t enough, AM stations have long since left the airwaves in larger markets like Macon, Savannah, and Tallahassee, just to name a few. It appears that at this point, even a few well-placed FM translators might not be enough to save most of these AM stations, even if such signals are strong enough to at least cover the city of license. As always, thanks for sharing and posting.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Curt Krafft

    As usual, Dick an excellent article. One thing I like to do is turn on the AM band and listen to the stations on it. There is some pretty awful programming out there in AM land. Dull, boring formats that absolutely no one is listening to. Yes, I’m aware of the still successful all news and sports talk stations that occupy the AM band. But they are in the minority. The fact of the matter remains AM radio has become a bastion of banality. If you can’t come up with a format that has at least some kind of a following then do us a favor and get out of the business. IMMEDIATELY, if not sooner.

    Like

  10. Pingback: The Thrill is Gone — DickTaylorBlog – wirelesswaffle

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