Honestly, when was the last time you tuned into an AM radio station? If you answer “recently” or “today” you can count yourself as part of the ten-percent of all radio listeners who listen to AM radio for any length of time. If you live in a large, metropolitan area, you can adjust that percentage downward.
Even the other terrestrial radio source, FM, has experienced a drop in listenership lately. This is due to the advent of satellite radio, Internet streaming, and pre-recorded music on phones or personal players.
AM radio came to mind, when I was dusting an old NAB (National Association of Broadcasters) promotional “RADIO” radio the other day. I took it off the shelf, inserted a nine-volt battery, and slapped it to get the old circuit to operate. Then, I twiddled the tuner wheel in search of something good to hear. I found a scattering of talk radio (I call it gripe radio), a few religious stations, one hockey game, and several country music stations.
There wasn’t anything that appealed to me. Finally, I tuned in to the station I used to work at and listened to a political rant for a few minutes. I clicked the radio off and placed it back onto the shelf. This was a reminder that AM radio, in my opinion, is a quaint relic from the past. It is the 8-Track tape of the broadcasting world.
I realize there are still fans of AM radio, but they are a shrinking demographic. Most of the audience consists of people my age and older. Those who do listen, often do so out of a sense of loyalty or habit.
I come to this topic as a former radio station employee. My last employer was one of my town’s long time broadcasters. When I worked at WJAG, they broadcast FM, AM, and an FM repeater link from their AM station. The AM station is one of the oldest radio stations in the country.
Sadly, it is hampered by the fact that it can only broadcast during daylight hours. The AM station shares its bandwidth with a major station in Chicago, Illinois. When the Sun hides below the horizon, conditions in Earth’s Ionosphere shift to allow the
Chicago station to overwhelm the Norfolk, Nebraska signals. The lower powered Norfolk AM station is required to sign off at that time and not return to the air until dawn of the next day. You can understand that this situation puts the Norfolk station at a severe technical disadvantage. Hence the need for the stopgap measure of a repeater FM link.
Among my fond memories includes duties as music director of WJAG. Of course, I did more than determine which songs got played when, I became, more or less, a “jack of all trades”, out of necessity. Most programmers (DJs) at small market radio stations do much more than announce music and weather. There are newscasts to read, telephones to answer, and technical matters to keep track of. Weekend shifts mean no structured lunch or coffee breaks, especially during sports broadcasts or severe weather coverage.
There is a lot to do, but at the end of the day, radio work is very satisfying. I was thankful to have the privilege of doing what I enjoyed as a livelihood. I sometimes reminisce about those “good ol’ days”.
After I finished placing my old radio back onto the shelf the other day, I pondered the fate of AM radio stations. One of the usual reasons given to keep AM radio is that they can be used to broadcast weather and safety reports to people in the towns they are located. That’s a weak argument because lightning storms render the signal quality of AM virtually useless. The crackling and popping noises only serve to chase listeners to
an FM station or an Internet source. I don’t know anybody who purposely tunes to an AM station instead of an FM station during severe thunderstorm warnings.
What usually happened at our station was simulcasting with the FM station. That is, all the reporting took place from the FM studio and newsroom. The AM just tapped into that audio, and simultaneously broadcast it for the benefit of anybody who might still be listening to AM with its annoying, noisy, crackling signal.
Then there is the situation of program content, or its lack of diversity. To cut labor costs, most small-town AM radio stations utilize satellite program providers. In many instances that is a music service with DJs. The “networked” music shows originate in a large city and are uploaded to subscriber stations. The stations then localize the broadcasts with canned announcements used before and after commercial breaks and top of the hour station identification notifications.
Long ago, many stations began relying upon syndicated talk shows. Talk radio satellite services program radical or controversial political pundits and slanted “news” commentary. The remainder of the programing consists of sports and sports talk. All of these services tend to homogenize AM radio to a great extent, making it even less appealing.
The stations that don’t use a satellite service, have fallen back on automation. These days, automation is basically a revved up type of iPod player. Music, news, sports reports, commercials, and other pre-recorded audio is “inserted” into the list in a technique called “voice-tracking”. A DJ can prepare a show well in advance of actual airtime, then walk away. The software plays the voice-tracked show automatically, later on. Any actual “live” radio programming is broadcast during peak morning and late afternoon “drive times”.
To legally justify their continued existence, radio stations must provide a certain percentage of their programming to serve the local communities. Most AM stations reluctantly do this out of a sense of obligation. The few exceptions are those stations that retain motivated, interesting people who enjoy producing local, public service focused material. However, most stations do just enough to satisfy minimum federal requirements.
Since advertising revenue is absolutely necessary to pay the bills, advertisers must be convinced to stay on the air. The end result of the combination of technical obsolescence, and lackluster programming is that advertisers continue to lose interest in AM radio.
I picked up the old radio again, opened the battery door, then disconnected the battery. I remembered that I don’t listen to AM radio much anymore. I’ve moved on with the rest of the world. Who knows, maybe somebody will discover a new use for the AM radio band. Perhaps it won’t even be used for broadcasting purposes. Or maybe so, in a round about way.