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AM, Losing Its Grip on Reality

Commentary: Here in the field, the outlook for small stations is troubling

The handwriting appears to be on the wall regarding the slow but steady decline of terrestrial radio as it now exists, and this appears to be especially true for small-market AM radio.

With all the new technologies, especially those from the Internet, mom-and-pop operators are bombarded with challenges and competition that in many cases are becoming insurmountable. Many of these stations have been limping along for years; and because the owners have so much of their life and assets invested and limited transferable skills to another occupation, they plod along keeping their stations together with baling wire, spare parts, outdated equipment, limited funds and a whole lot of wishing and hoping that things will improve.

I work for a contract engineer and have had a close-up look at many small-market AM facilities. The outlook is bleak.

On a recent visit to a small station, I found the owner/operator walking around the transmitter site with a scrap metal dealer, evaluating how much money he could get for the tower, ground radials and feed lines. To me, this was unnerving.

Over a recent three-month period I had conversations with three owner/operators who were seriously considering letting their licenses expire or just handing them in because the properties were worth more as real estate.

Outdated and worn-out equipment is a serious issue at many of these facilities. I am no longer surprised at how many small AMs continue to use old Gates Yard boards, Realistic/Radio Shack audio mixers and DJ equipment, cassette recorder/players, very old turntables and, yes, reel-to-reel equipment … and of course old cart machines. New digital technologies, automation and even the thought of HD Radio appear to be only “pipe dreams” to some owners.

Shack radio

Awhile back, I went to a small community AM station to evaluate a problem. What I saw would not have been believed had I not seen it myself.

The owner stated that he had lost ownership of the tower and studio building a few years back to the FM operator on the same stick, to get money to pay off his house before foreclosure. The day I arrived at the FM studio I was directed around back to a plywood outbuilding — a shack — measuring about 12 by 16 feet. This was the AM station.

Inside I met the owner, sitting at a makeshift plywood table supported by 2-by-4 legs. On the table was a three-channel Radio Shack audio mixer. The owner was using a Radio Shack microphone and a portable Sony handheld CD player (“top-of-the-line $50 unit,” I recall him saying) as the audio feed of his “oldies show.” From the mixer, a line ran to a dbx compressor/limiter that sat on a piece of plywood placed across the open top of a galvanized trash can. The output fed an old BE transmitter.

The owner said other engineers had told him the situation was bordering on hopeless or required serious updating and lots of money. He wanted another opinion.

As tactfully as I could, I had to say I agreed and that although his station was in fact functioning and on the air, the situation was dire. Except for a few small immediate improvements and suggestions, I could not offer much.

While there I asked the owner how much he thought he could get for his station if he were ever to sell. With a straight face he said, “Four hundred to five hundred thousand, for sure.”

As I walked toward my car, I could not help but feel that the station’s days were numbered.

Terrestrial AM radio clearly is losing its grip on reality. The downward spiral is picking up as the “big boys” continue to liquidate and sell off unprofitable operations, as mom and pops give way to apartment and townhome complexes and a way of life passes on. Lean and mean is now the order of the day. Long-term continuous employment in today’s radio is questionable at best as more and more pink slips are being handed out. Unless immediate changes are made and action taken quickly to counter the onslaught of new and fierce competition, it’s going to be “game over” for a good number of small-market AMs.

As I sat in my car and prepared to drive away from that station, I thought about the owner’s estimate of the value of his station. I could think of only one word for him and similar small-market AM operators: Delusional.

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