Commentary: AM Will Compete in an HD-R World

The Band Has Created Its Own Programming and Niche, and in Most Markets Is Insanely Successful
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The Band Has Created Its Own Programming and Niche, and in Most Markets Is Insanely Successful

The excitement leaving May's SCMS seminar about HD Radio was palpable.

There he was, Ibiquity Digital's Scott Stull, vice president of broadcast business development, beaming about the number of HD Radio stations going live and how many were planning on being launched in the next year.

The equipment guys had their display booths decked out with the latest technology that would allow you to multicast, stream messages and broadcast in digital. Heck, there was even a company that would finance it all.

During lunch, the engineers discussed when their stations were going to begin the process of transitioning their signal to digital. The programming guys, well, the programming guys were acting like kids at Christmas who just got all these new toys but had no earthly idea what to do with them.

HD Radio is coming; and while there aren't a whole lot, or virtually any, radios in the country right now, this technology is too good not to be mainstream sometime soon.

And as I was leaving Charlotte that day with my bag full of catalogs, brochures, charts, graphs and even some weird light/screwdriver/pen thing I got from a equipment presenter, a thought crossed my mind.

What does all this HD Radio stuff mean for those of us on the AM dial?

AM (I) ready?

There are those who think HD Radio could be the worst thing that happens to the AM band. They say its inability to multicast coupled with the onset of more choices on the FM dial will make it obsolete.

I don't believe a word of that.

The advent of HD Radio will have an immediate effect on those of us on the AM side of the dial. From everything I've gleaned from those who seem like they're in the know, mainly Scott, the affable Ibiquity guy, when our stations are ready to invest in the technology, we too will be able to broadcast in digital. That means our AM signal will sound the same as FM currently does.

This is a good thing. Actually, it's a great thing. While it's pretty easy these days to tell the difference between the fidelity on AM and FM, can you honestly tell me there's a ton of difference between music on FM and music from your CD? I can't, and I feel like I have a pretty good ear when it comes to such things. So AM stations will immediately be back in the fidelity game. Who-wah.

Let's get a couple of things straight up front about AM radio. It is a viable, successful and very capable medium right now.

Think about what AM has done in the last 10 years. With very little help of music, it has created its own programming and its own niche and in most markets has been insanely successful with it.

News/talk, sports talk, all-business, all-news, all-traffic and weather, these are formats that wouldn't be in our vernacular if it were not for AM.

Do three or four stations dominate the ratings of each market? Well, no, but that makes very little difference to those of us who are actually in the business of selling and programming AM radio; and believe it or not, there are a lot of us, more than 5,000 stations at last count.

If anyone thinks AM won't continue to reinvent itself, once again he or she will underestimate the capabilities of the band that has been an enormous part of radio since its inception.

AM evolution

It's been written that digitizing AM radio is like trying to cram 10 pounds of potatoes in an 8-pound sack. I don't buy that a bit. In fact, I bet that's the sentiment of most major-market, major radio group engineers who have five FM stations to take care of.

Who can blame them? If you have five FMs to transition to digital, I can't imagine turning your AM adult standards stick to HD-R seems to make much sense.

But for those local owners AM stations, the "mom and poppers" who don't have to call New York to check with corporate and whose technology budget has to do with this month's billing, HD Radio is an opportunity to improve what you're providing your listeners, and, if you're not careful, attract more to your dial.

Think about it. In 15 years, all the FMs are in HD-R, and let's say they all have an HD1 and an HD2 signal. If there are 30 FM stations in your market, that means there will be 60 different formats to choose from. So, how many preset buttons do these new FM radios plan on having on their faceplates?

My point is that I imagine there's going to be more to it than just having your favorite six presets. If you've got a signal that covers your metro population, and you're broadcasting in digital, I think the days of people forsaking AM because of the fidelity or the inconvenience of pushing the "AM" button on a receiver will be over.

Local on the 8s, 9s, 10s and ...

Over the last four or five years AM has slowly seen some of its great programs move to the FM side of the dial, and there's nothing indicating that's stopping anytime soon. Rush giveth in the '90s, but he's somewhat taking away in the new millennium.

And while with some syndicators this might happen later than sooner, with satellite radio and FM's multicasting abilities, if AM radio thinks that it can continue to lean on its syndicators to fill its airwaves, AMs will be left in not only satellite radio's wake but in HD Radio's dust.

So what is this piping hot technology called HD Radio going to do to AM? In the long run, HD Radio is going to force AM to do things better on a local level during more of its dayparts. News/talk, sports talk, news anchors, traffic reporters; they are all going to have to be better than their competition, not only on satellite but on whatever HD3 station an FM station tries to dabble in.

The old axiom of "doing one thing better than everyone else" will be even more valid in an HD-R world. While a radio group with five FM stations will have 10-15 formats to coordinate and program, AM radio can focus on what it does best.

Listeners will find the best programming, they will listen to it and they will buy the products advertised on it. AM radio must make certain that such programming is broadcast in high definition on their frequency, not some HD3 band.

RW welcomes other points of view to radioworld@imaspub.com.

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