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AMs, Don’t Be Passive About Your Fate

Embrace all available new technologies and strategies

Pete Buttigieg, the U.S. secretary of transportation, recently received notice from former administrators of the Federal Emergency Management Agency that many electric vehicle manufacturers won’t include AM radios in future models. These FEMA veterans worry that drivers and passengers will not be informed in emergencies.

The disappearance of AM from dashboards — in EVs and otherwise — is a concern. Is it too late for AM?

Such conversations have focused on what carmakers are doing; but it seems to me that a central problem is that, in recent years, many AM stations have failed in providing a local service to their cities of license. Some are 100% network-programmed and mostly unstaffed. Large broadcasting companies are running stations from regional network operations centers.

For many readers these are well-known problems. Yet they seem to be getting worse.

While AM has numerous challenges, one big problem is that radio salespeople no longer know enough about AM even to sell it. I recall having to sit down as a chief engineer with the sales staff of an FM station to explain the coverage map. Today many AM stations have FM translators that service only a fraction of the AM coverage area, yet this is where the sales and promotion people focus.

I find it disheartening that employees of a given station may not understand its coverage area. I find it very sad that large broadcasters are simulcasting or shutting down high-power stations that once covered large parts of this country because they cannot sell and promote them.

The end of AM may be a foregone conclusion; listeners may be turning away from the band for many reasons. But AM broadcasters should not accept all this passively.

Beyond training their salespeople, many broadcasters seem to have forgotten that they are in the content business. But guess what — nobody says you can’t promote a migration to streaming. Why not promote your stream to coexist with your over-the-air product?

[Read more stories about the future of AM radio in cars]

Successful stations are doing so. They’re promoting how to access the station with Alexa-enabled devices and stream aggregators like TuneIn. We all must embrace these new technologies.

Nobody knows how long AM broadcasting will be viable — nobody knows how long FM broadcasting will be viable either — but we can all see that cell service is being advertised constantly. Carmakers are always pushing the many ways to integrate your phone with the car.

So AM broadcasters should embrace that. Stream reception is one of the fastest adopted technologies in our lifetime. Aggressively promote the multiple ways to stream your stations. With enough adoption this could be a financial savior.

You might argue that streaming does introduce costs for royalties. Yes, but it also gives you a larger coverage area. Or you might say that U.S. cellular infrastructure won’t support all mobile listeners; but it’s always improving, and the automotive manufacturers know it. Look no farther than Ford, which plans to remove AM from most future models.

So take your frequency out of your station’s promotion lead. Yes, leave the frequency equal to the stream URL. The public understands a dot-com reference. Your web page is critical to lead the listener to the content. Let people know that your brand is the source and that there are many destinations where you can find that brand, whether website, stream aggregator or a smart speaker command.

Television broadcasters have been in a similar fight, by the way. Not only are TV stations fighting between over-the-air reception and cable, but for more than a decade they’ve had to contend with over-the-top or OTT streaming. Yes, this is streaming, and it is now a huge part of the television industry landscape.

And since we’re talking about TV: The new ATSC3 standard is very interesting. There will be no difference between over-the-air and OTT. The key thing is that ATSC3 treats the TV signal as a giant over-the-air IP pipe.

Why should the radio broadcaster care about this? Because that TV broadcaster can also deliver audio streams wirelessly! Sinclair Broadcasting is exploring this, and there’s a session about it scheduled at the engineering conference of the NAB Show. Yes, television broadcasters may be the next provider a radio station will work with.

Technology is always changing. Why wait on the side of the road to passed? The radio broadcaster must now think of themselves as content providers — no matter how the content is distributed.

Read more radio musings from David Bialik. Or comment on this or any article by emailing [email protected].

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