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5 Ways to Turn AM Radio Around

"Challenge assumptions and question every tactic," says Gary Begin

The author of this guest commentary is the founder and president of Sound Advantage Media, a radio/podcasting consulting firm. Comment on this or any article. Email [email protected].

Gary Begin

In 1970, the FM band only reached 10 percent of Americans. By 1978, 50 percent of all radio listening was to FM. In 1983, FM became the standard issue in all U.S.-built automobiles. How the FM band rapidly grew its appeal reveals a strategy that could work to recharge interest in AM band listening.

FM radio grew because the band offered compelling, subversive programming. By 1970, AM stations had stopped experimenting and stopped questioning their own methods because they were minting money. Don’t risk that bottom line, buddy.

FM stations, in 1970, were losing money and had little audience — there was nothing to risk. Owners of AM/FM suffer from an arrogance regarding FM. They believed that FM didn’t really count; FM wasn’t really radio. The National Association of Broadcasters didn’t recognize FM.

Corporate FM owners let kids like Allen Shaw at ABC, Randy Michaels at Taft, Jerry Lyman at RKO and B Mitchel Reed at Metromedia do what they wanted. They asked forgiveness (sometimes) but not permission. The toughest challenge: convincing AM radio talent to come to the FM band.

Other owners took an odder route. They “solved” the FM problem by selling them off in the ’80s. Group W for example sold WBZ(FM), now MAGIC, for $4 million and KDKA(FM) for pennies. RKO sold KFRC(FM) and WHBQ(FM) in the early ’70s for — pennies.

Today, AM stations are losing money, have diminishing audiences and have nothing to risk except by doing nothing. Doing nothing is a significant risk.

How to Jumpstart an AM Radio Turnaround:

1. Take Advantage of Sport Broadcasts and Create Compelling Events

The key word in that phrase is not “sport” but rather, “event.”

The AM Band can grow cume today. Every time a major league team plays baseball on an AM station, the cume increases. This phenomenon has been incorrectly interpreted as “sports play-by-play is the AM answer.” [But] it is just one answer. Compelling events, like an MLB game, are key strategic elements to AM success.

The AM opportunity for growth comes from broadening the definition of “compelling events.” Mirror what the audience does: high school reunions, weddings, proms, intramural sports, bowling tournaments, beach parties and block parties.

2. Continue to Starve AM Financially

Money is not going to grow an AM station. Initially, successful FM radio shows were produced in church basements, house trailers and storage rooms. All that matters is what’s on the air. AM will grow from creative, passion-filled content. When a station is “dead,” life does not spring from the poison that killed it.

Put this challenge to your staff: do whatever you want with the AM.

3. Enlist Cume Makers

In our society there are consumers labelled “innovators” and “early adopters.” These groups of people try new radio programs first. They are opinion leaders. After you identify the people who are first-wave listeners, get them involved with your station. Put them on the air, give them shows and build promotions for them. Put them to “work” to talk about your station.

It is noteworthy that early, major FM format innovation — progressive free form rock — was created by AM stars such as Tom Donahue, B.Mitchel Reed, Murray the K and Jerry Stevens. At the time they were all over 40 years of age and at the top of their earnings. They knew how to make the radio and which rules to break; they had put in their 10,000 hours. Those radio legends combined their skills with the open mindedness of fresh-out-of-school talent to produce stunning, disruptive, fun radio.

The formula for AM success is proven radio stars, plus fresh radio rookies, minus rules. But if that doesn’t work, try something else.

Hint: Top 40 radio was built by high school students’ requests and dedications. Early Top 40’s featured high school reporters on the air every night sharing news from local-area schools. Those stations were the talk of the school every day.

4. Reverse the Day

The best daypart for sampling and experimentation is over-night. You may be surprised that many FM stations invested in over-nights first, morning drive, last. Dick Summer was the first radio star hired by WYNY(FM) New York in 1978; he was the overnight host.

Fabled talk show host Alex Bennett was a very early hire on WPLJ New York — he did over nights. Morning drive listening is the most habitual and therefore the hardest from which to share cume. Rather than voice-track, create something innovative. Bring in live talent!

As company after company has relegated their FM overnight programming to sterile automated nothingness, AMs have been handed an opportunity to offer live, subversive, dangerous, interesting and unpredictable programming that will win attention and cume.

5. Utilize Pop-Up Programming

Nielson’s Portable People Meter allows radio to be measured electronically in real time. The diary ratings method necessitates that programming be consistent 24/7 in order for listeners to remember the station. That is not so in a PPM market.

In PPM, short-term programming and special events coverage can be measured and sold for guaranteed rates. Disrupting the “format” is not destructive, it may be essential.

Warning: Innovation requires embracing change at all levels. Challenge assumptions and question every tactic. Do not question the need for innovation. Innovation is needed right now — just look at the current ratings trends of almost every single AM in the U.S. Let’s innovate before it’s too late.

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