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.
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