Print Columns   |   Web Chats   |   Blog Archives   |  

The Last Days of AM Radio?

This week's Listener column.

The newest radio station in town launched this month with a lineup consisting mainly of shows that have already been soundly rejected by Washington listeners.

When 3WT, the talk station replacing Washington Post Radio on 1500 AM and 107.7 FM, announced plans to feature syndicated talk show hosts Bill O'Reilly, Glenn Beck, Stephanie Miller and Randi Rhodes, the only novelty was the mix of conservative and liberal shows on the same station. All four of those programs have aired on other Washington stations, and all failed to attract an appreciable audience.

There aren't many new ideas on Washington's ailing AM dial, where audiences are growing older and smaller and more and more stations are renting out their airtime to foreign-language broadcasters, religious groups or the infomercial industry.

AM radio, the birthplace of the medium, was the core of the business until FM radio became standard equipment in cars in the late 1970s. Since then, the superior sound quality of FM and the dominance of music as the primary entertainment format in commercial radio have steadily diminished AM's attraction.

In coming years, with digital radio offering the promise of much-improved sound quality, AM may become more attractive -- if Americans start buying the new HD radios that the industry is pushing. But for now, AM is in a pickle, especially in Washington.

Unlike most big cities, this market never had any of the booming, 50,000-watt stations whose signals could be heard for hundreds of miles around. And while listeners in most cities continued to keep buttons on their car radios set to AM stations if only to listen to baseball and football games, Washington for many years had no baseball team, and its football broadcasts were on the FM dial.

Sports, all-news and talk programming continue to draw large audiences to the AM band in most big cities, but not in Washington, where even the most popular AM station, WMAL, draws fewer than 4 percent of all listeners, according to Arbitron ratings. Like a shopping mall whose department store tenant leaves, Washington's AM band took a hit when all-news WTOP moved its programming over to FM last year.

"That whole audience had no reason to go to AM anymore," says Jim Farley, WTOP vice president of news and programming. "Strong competition is what makes for healthy AM stations."

That's why WMAL, the talk station that is the only Washington AM outlet to show up regularly in the Top 10 of Arbitron's ratings, wanted Washington Post Radio to succeed, according to station President Chris Berry. And Berry now wishes the new 3WT well "because the more people are sampling on the AM dial, the better it is for those of us who own real estate there."

WMAL (630 AM), once the station with the strongest local programming, now airs local shows only in the morning; the rest of the day is filled with syndicated conservative talkers such as Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity.

But though WMAL has cornered the market on conservative talk, other AM formats that do well in other cities struggle here. Sports talk WTEM (980) hasn't been able to break into the top ranks of local stations, the Redskins' trio of weak-signaled AM and FM stations have made almost no impact in the ratings, all-news is on FM now and political talk stations other than WMAL routinely fail to win listeners.

Clear Channel's two political talk stations, conservative WTNT (570 AM) and liberal WWRC (1260 AM), suffer from weak signals and near-flatline ratings. Bill Hess, who runs the company's AM properties, including WTEM, believes local programming is important to a sports station, but not necessarily for a political talk format. "It comes down to having entertaining personalities," he says. "Any talk show on either the right or the left that is too stridently ideological without being entertaining is a problem."

O'Reilly and Beck, who are most widely known for their cable TV talk shows, may win larger audiences now that their shows will be on a station with a strong signal and a long history of presenting political fare. Bonneville, which owns 3WT, plans to seek O'Reilly and Beck's TV fans by advertising the new radio programs on the hosts' TV shows on Fox and CNN Headline News, respectively. (The station also has a local morning show with David Burd and Jessica Doyle, who are holdovers from Washington Post Radio.)

But AM radio's future may well be in a different kind of information programming, a far more specialized approach. Bonneville is making money from its Federal News Radio (1050 AM), which features programs aimed at federal workers. Several low-powered local stations are paying the bills by renting out airtime to people who want to reach Korean, Vietnamese, Latino, Ethiopian and other immigrants.

"The future of AM may be one of specialized niches," says Farley, who sees inspiration in a new channel that XM satellite radio is launching that is devoted entirely to presidential politics. In its home town of Salt Lake City, Bonneville, which is owned by the Mormon Church, is experimenting with a format devoted entirely to Mormon news and Christian music.

By Marc Fisher |  September 29, 2007; 9:06 AM ET
Previous: Jettisoning Virginia's "Jihad Way" Doctor | Next: Where Cho Got Help, Trouble Looms


Please email us to report offensive comments.

When WMAL had only local programming, it was an excellent station. Harden and Weaver were, by far, the most entertaining duet in town. Bill Trumbull was one of the best and brightest personalities on local radio. When Core joined him, Trumbull tempered Core's sometime nutty behavior. Without Bill, Core is now a rambling idiot.

What the station now passes off as "local programming" is just a small town version of the national conservative shows aired later in the day, and not very well done. I quit listening to the station a number of years ago.

I don't know if AM is going to die completely but I really don't care if WMAL survives. WTOP gives me all I need in, relatively, unbiased news, WETA gives me classical music and 100.3 supplies my daily requirment of classic rock.

I don't need WMAL.

Posted by: WMAL, Who Cares? | September 29, 2007 12:54 PM

"Unlike most big cities, this market never had any of the booming, 50,000-watt stations whose signals could be heard for hundreds of miles around."

Really? Although I don't live in DC anymore, I can remember being able to pick up WTOP-AM - a 50,000 watt clear channel station -- for great distances, even when traveling to south Florida. It was like KMOX in St. Louis, WBZ in Boston, or WHAM in Rochester, to name three examples (not sure if those stations are still around with those call letters) -- all clear channel stations with 50K watts.

Posted by: PN | September 29, 2007 2:13 PM

Serious talk radio is migrating to the internet where listeners can pick their "poison" without offending government regulators or the easily offended. As with the print media, the stranglehold that a small select group exercised on the main stream media has effectively been broken. Oh happy day.

Posted by: Jim | September 29, 2007 2:49 PM

"political talk stations other than WMAL routinely fail to win listeners."
I guess that is one way to disguise Air America's and other regresssive talk stations abject failure in the District.

Posted by: JerryB | September 29, 2007 4:19 PM

"political talk stations other than WMAL routinely fail to win listeners."
I guess that is one way to disguise Air America's and other regresssive talk stations abject failure in the District.

Posted by: JerryB | September 29, 2007 4:29 PM

Air America strangled on a diet of gibberish, offered up by buffoons.

Washingtonpost radio was little better.

What works - and works well are the conservative talk shows.

Saying am is dead because liberal radio sucks only illustrates why liberal radio - stripped of tax dollars - will never, ever work.

You can only serve up so many lies and garbage before the dial gets turned.

Ask Al Franken.

Posted by: Anonymous | September 29, 2007 4:51 PM

It would be nice to hear or see some hometown creative radio come back to the am dial.

Posted by: Billy Ray Edwards | September 29, 2007 5:26 PM

With WTOP news now on FM, there is no need for me to ever listen to AM again. AM has got crap sound. There's nothing you can do to get around that.

Posted by: Fred | September 29, 2007 6:52 PM

I love Stephanie Miller and I am glad she is moving to a high power station. It was maddening to try and get her show on 1260. I find WMAL nauseating. It is a broken record of whining racist, conservative, White males kissing Bush's butt.

Posted by: C-dog | September 29, 2007 7:31 PM

C-dog, you are mostly correct but I'm sure that Clarence Thomas listens to WMAL too. WMAL was relevant when this was a smaller area with local personalities. Petey Green wouldn't survive in today's atmosphere.

Posted by: AM is Crap | September 29, 2007 7:38 PM

Considering the quality of programming on AM, I would recommend Clear Channel and the other radio station aggregators save electricity and turn all the stations off. What dreck!

Posted by: Barbara Wells | September 29, 2007 8:01 PM

Fisher seems to go out of his way to grasp at straws to make his arguments stronger. He talkes about the fact that Washington didn't have many 50,000 watt stations. So what? Washingtonians don't need a 50,000 watt station to listen to AM radio within the metro area. He also says that football games were on the FM dial for "many years". Wrong. Just recently the Redskins switched to very weak FM stations and lost most of their radio audience. I challenge anyone to find a Redskin game on the radio without looking up the frequence first. It used to be a Washington tradition to listen to Sonny, Sam, and Frank Herzog on the radio with the sound turned off on tv. The decline of AM radio is just another sign of the dumning down of America and Fisher contributes to it by suggesting that Washingtonians prefer music instead of news. If World War III began on Monday morning most Washingtonians wouldn't know it until they got home.

Posted by: Jay | September 29, 2007 8:09 PM

When you said DC never had any of the 50-kilowatt "blowtorch" stations, did you realize that WTOP-AM is a 44-kilowatt station? In practical terms, the difference in range between a 44,000-watt and a 50,000-watt station isn't very large.

Posted by: Phil | September 29, 2007 9:21 PM

The biggest problem with AM radio in Washington is that programmers don't understand that what plays in fly-over country doesn't work here. This is a sophisticated media market that has its local radio soul ripped from it by carpetbaggers who contiue to try to make their "one-size-fits-all" programming work here.

Washington radio no longer has the legendary personalities that enticed listeners. The AM band is so homogenized that one station's babble sounds just like another's. I wouldn't be surprised if this area has one of the nation's highest concentration of satrad subscribers because the AM band is so unlistenable.

Posted by: leetee1955 | September 29, 2007 9:24 PM

No one has even mentioned the demise today of the area's only Easy Listening music AM radio station --- WTRI in Brunswick, Maryland ---which could be heard only in the Frederick area and in some parts of northern Virginia.

As far as I know, there is now no AM or FM Easy Listening music radio anywhere in our area. It all seems to be Country or Urban music (plus WETA's return to the Classics).

How sad for those of us who now have to
turn off our car radios and listen to CDs
or cassettes to hear our kind of music.

Posted by: Halburton | September 30, 2007 1:02 PM

It's a shame nobody wants to go to the trouble to produce local-interest AM (or even FM) talk radio. Liberal or conservative, syndicated talk show hosts don't care about what happens here. Neither does Bonneville.

Posted by: BethesdaGuy | September 30, 2007 7:50 PM

Re first post about old WMAL programming: Hard to believe, but WMAL also had one of the nation's finest jazz shows hosted by the amazingly knowledgeable and dulcet-toned Felix Grant. If I was driving around DC on a summer night, I always had the windows down and Grant on the dial. Yes, the sound quality wasn't as good as FM, but Felix more than made up for it.

Posted by: Jack | October 1, 2007 9:05 AM

Can someone please put WTOP back on 1500 AM so that people traveling from Balto down through DC can get some early warning about traffic? We can barely get the signal until we get to Laurel!

Lisa Baden, help us!!!

Posted by: Fallston, MD | October 1, 2007 11:51 AM

Fallston, MD, check out the website for updated frequencies! It is on 107.7 FM I think, and gets good reception all the up to the Baltimore/Harford County Line. It sounds better than the old 1500AM did.

Posted by: Harford Co. MD | October 1, 2007 2:15 PM

BethesdaGuy has it right. Terrestrial stations are local; satradio, webradio, and syndicated shows are not. All earth-radio stations should hang a copy of their transmitter maps in every studio, office, hallway, meeting room and restroom. That is their one big advantage and they ignore this at their peril.

Posted by: Mike Licht | October 1, 2007 5:36 PM

With the deminse of easy-listening radio on WTRI Brunswick, one alternative I know of that remains, albeit out of range of most of the DC area, is WJEJ (1240 kc) in Hagerstown, MD. Afternoon drive announcer Jim Titus plays a delightful mix of pop standards and big band music. On weekends the station carries the syndicated "Big Band Jump" program. I live in Frederick (aka Fredneck) County and can pick up the signal in daytime, but it fades out after the sun goes down. Also, during the daytime WJEJ's signal carries down I-270 about as far as Clarksburg

Posted by: Mike Arrrh | October 16, 2007 2:18 PM

3 If when he seeth the sword come upon the land, he blow the trumpet, and warn the people;
4 Then whosoever heareth the sound of the trumpet, and taketh not warning; if the sword come, and take him away, his blood shall be upon his own head.
5 He heard the sound of the trumpet, and took not warning; his blood shall be upon him. But he that taketh warning shall deliver his soul.
6 But if the watchman see the sword come, and blow not the trumpet, and the people be not warned; if the sword come, and take any person from among them, he is taken away in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at the watchman's hand.
7 So thou, O son of man, I have set thee a watchman unto the house of Israel; therefore thou shalt hear the word at my mouth, and warn them from me.
8 When I say unto the wicked, O wicked man, thou shalt surely die; if thou dost not speak to warn the wicked from his way, that wicked man shall die in his iniquity; but his blood will I require at thine hand.
9 Nevertheless, if thou warn the wicked of his way to turn from it; if he do not turn from his way, he shall die in his iniquity; but thou hast delivered thy soul.

Posted by: CECIL | October 27, 2007 9:00 AM

The comments to this entry are closed.


© 2010 The Washington Post Company