Your browser is out-of-date!

Update your browser to view this website correctly. Update my browser now


Why Is Radio So Hard to Listen to?

Good God, is there no one in the building actually listening to the station?

I want to enjoy radio, I really do.

But when did it become acceptable for an FM music station to run seven minutes of commercials in a row? Now that some ads are just 15 seconds long the spot sets seem even more cluttered. 

Of course this practice is now quite common so that a station can brag about its upcoming 30-minute music sweep or 10-in-a-row! But dropping this many commercials into one break is unfair to the advertiser who put up good money only to end up as the eighth spot out of 10. It doesn’t do much for the listener either. 

This idea of cramming a dozen commercials into a spot set is one reason that more people are turning to online stations with low or zero spot loads, according to a program director friend of mine who requested anonymity. 

“I attribute a lot of the long spot sets to corporate owners who, even though they have reduced operating costs by eliminating bodies, must still service their debt and satisfy stockholders,” he said.

And let us turn now to those horrendous digitally sped-up disclaimers, especially at the end of car dealer or payday loan spots. They sound like gibberish and become almost unbearable when heard multiple times an hour. 

Our nameless but knowledgeable PD told me that most of these “disclaimers on speed” originate at ad agencies and are simply delivered to radio stations. 

“When I hear one (at the front of a commercial) it signals that whatever I will hear in the next 55 seconds is going to be garbage,” our source said. 

“The ones I really hate are those recorded at about 10 percent of the normal volume so it sounds like dead air before main part of the spot starts.” 

I know that automation and voice-tracking are often necessary because of the economics of our industry, but there is no excuse for two audio elements running concurrently. The corollary to this is dead air, which seems to happen most often at network rejoins. 

There are many safeguards program directors can employ to make sure these don’t happen, yet happen they do, far too often. Good God, is there no one in the building actually listening to the station?

List of laments

Then there are those annoyances that are outside of the control of local stations. 

On FM the biggest crime is over-the-top compression of songs, usually done at the mastering stage by the artist’s producer and recording studio. Yes, everyone wants to be loud, but when I put a typical album of today into my editing software, the waveform looks like a straight line, with all the audio pinned up against the ceiling. 

We need some dynamic range because that is part of what brings emotion to the music. With rap it doesn’t make any difference, but for other musical genres, heavy compression ruins the songs. It’s very hard on the ears over time. 

Our program director source added that even if a song is mixed with a little bit of dynamic range, the station’s own compression will probably bring the audio right back up. He sees no end in sight to the loudness wars on the radio dial.  

On AM the biggest turn-off is self-inflicted. By rolling off all frequencies in the air signal over 5 kHz and also many of the lower frequencies, audio now sounds like it’s coming over a phone. This is bad enough on talk programming but with music it is a real deal killer. 

I know that not many stations play music on AM, but they all play some in the form of commercials and bumpers into and out of news. Apparently this is not a problem for young people who listen to music and even watch TV shows on their cell phones. 

High fidelity is something audio engineers strove mightily to maximize beginning in the 1950s prior to the advent of stereo, but apparently audio quality is no longer a priority for many people. And don’t even get me started on stations that air MP3s instead of WAV files! 

A disappointed radio fan

As I’m an audiophile and definitely in the minority, I’m probably out of line here. But over the last few years my radio listening time has dwindled to almost nothing as radio continues to disappoint me.  

“Blame any AM receiver produced in the last 10 or 15 years,” said our anonymous PD. “One of the major group owners decided years ago to limit the frequency response of its stations, but our station did not follow along. I have a wideband Superadio in my office at work and we sound great there, but I also have two cars.

“One is a 2010 and the other is a 2019 model. The AM radio in the former is okay, but the 2019 AM radio is horrible. This car manufacturer must have spent about 39 cents on it, even though the stereo sounds great on FM, especially Sirius XM.”

But wait, there’s more, as it says in the infomercials. This program director said that radio, and in particular AM stations, have even more problems, as Radio World readers know well.

“AM radio is in a sorry state,” he said. “Besides lackluster receivers there’s so much interference from fluorescent lights and other electrical sources. I pass an all-electric city bus on my way to work and if I’m listening to an AM radio all I hear is static. The saving graces for many AM stations are FM translators and audio streams.”

He pointed out that streaming radio sounds much better than many terrestrial AMs, with excellent music quality and processing, good song selection, tight segues, and often no commercials. 

“There are thousands of them out there that put the local broadcast stations to shame, and many of them are run out of some guy’s spare bedroom!”

I want to enjoy radio, especially in my car, but I’m thwarted at every turn. 

[Sign Up for Radio World’s SmartBrief Newsletter]