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Letter: AM’s Downfall Is Poor Programming, Not Audio Quality

"It was the music without the spots, that made FM," says a reader

In this letter to the editor, the author comments on Dave Bialik’s recent article “AMs, Don’t Be Passive About Your Fate.” Comment on this or any article. Email [email protected].

The comments written by Dave Bialik in the latest Radio World hits the nail right on the head. The average person, which is about 95% of the population, couldn’t care less about audio fidelity. The days of “audiophiles” are gone. The downturn of AM listenership is almost exclusively due to poor programming, poor content. Yes, FM in its early days was mostly easy listening, beautiful music and classical music. It catered to the audiophiles, and had a very limited audience even though it sounded great and in 1963 by offering multiplex stereo.

Once a few of the FM guys realized people were fed up with the 45 minute commercial breaks on AM stations with popular music, the format was adopted on FM, but with none or few commercials (because no one wanted to advertise on FM). Once people found out they could get the rock and pop music on FM without all the talk, the band switch started taking place. It had nothing to do with audio — remember at this time people were buying 8-track tapes by the millions and they were technically several steps below AM radio. It was the music without the spots, that made FM. Once that happened, most of the large and middle market stations threw all of their eggs into the FM basket and put something on the AM just to hold the license.

I once worked for an AM station owned by one of the large groups. In its heyday, in the 50’s–70’s, it was THE top 40 station. In a market of 40 stations, it had a 60 share. Once the group owners bought a big FM signal, they blew the AM away and loaded it with satellite talk. After a few years, that 60 share was .5 — yes point 5. After a few years of this, and it becoming unsellable, one of the staff suggested to management that they should go back to a music format playing the hits of the 50’s and 60’s (this was in 2002).

So, within a few weeks it became an oldies station with a few live announcers doing what the station did in 1960. Two rating books later, the station had gone up to a 5 share, yes, a far cry from 60 but also a far cry from .5. Considering the top FM in the market only had an 11 share, not too bad for an AM brought back from the dead.  A few months later, a new corporate head was hired and was touring all the stations. I clearly remember him walking into the AM control room and wanting to know why the station was playing music.

It was all explained to him and his answer was “We don’t play music on AM we run talk on AM,” After several attempts to explain to him, it was mandated to go back to satellite talk. Well, since then, the station had transmitter and phasor issues, took down 2 of the 5 towers, reduced from 5kw to 1kw and then was sold for next to nothing. Its really nice to travel around and hear AM stations that still serve their communities and do what AM radio did in its winning days.

At our AM station, we sell the AM signal. The FM translator with its limited coverage is just a tag along. We tell the client that you get the local FM signal when you buy the AM station for free. It isn’t a case as with some stations where we program the FM and the AM is just there because it has to be — we earnestly run an AM station with a puny FM translator. Fortunately, here in the Midwest where the farmers and ranchers really rely on AM, we do have a lot of quality AM radio.

– Ron Schacht


Redfield, South Dakota 

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