Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Saving AM broadcasting by killing it?

by Don Keith
I am on record as predicting that the AM commercial broadcast band will soon be scrapped and given to Amateur Radio operators.  The reason is simple: listenership to AM radio--and especially among that desireable young demographic--has dwindled to almost nothing.

There are reasons for that:

1) AM fidelity is simply not competitive with FM, CDs, MP3s, online and other means of listening to audio.

2) AM, by its nature, is prone to electrical interference, ranging from lightning to LED lighting to your neighbor's leaf blower.

3) AM waves propagate great distances when the sun goes down. This meant that from the beginning, and to crowbar in as many radio stations as possible, regulators made many stations use directional antenna arrays to protect each other as well as Canadian and Mexican stations.

4) Back then (mostly in the early 1950s), those directional stations with their bunches of towers (to get a directional signal) were built in places so their signals would cover the geography where most of their listeners lived.  Guess what.  Cities have grown in the past sixty years, suburbs have been built in areas where those stations can no longer be heard, and especially at night.  I just saw some stats that say that in many cities there is not a single AM station that covers its entire current city of license 24 hours a day.

5) Because of these factors, AM station owners have gone to mostly cheap (as well as bad and boring) nationally-syndicated programming or even cheaper ethnic formats serving small niches.  Those moves have chased most listeners to FM...or to the internet, Pandora, or phone apps.

Well, the Federal Communications Commission, the government agency that regulates broadcasting in the USA, has been studying the problem for more than two years.  Finally last week they issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on what they believe will be the savior of AM radio.

Most of the things they have come up with are technical, relaxing some of the onerous restrictions on daytime-only and directional AMs to give them a bit more coverage.  One would be less restrictive on towers, which are the antennas for AM stations, because it has become so difficult to find real estate or zoning ordinances or willing neighbors that will allow those six or eight ugly old towers and the many acres on which they stand.  (As a programming consultant I once had to tell a station owner that the land on which his towers stood was worth far more than his AM station was or ever would be.  It was true.  Now, many AM stations are simply turning in their licenses and selling all that prime development land.)

All well and good, I say, but far too little far too late.  Most AM operators simply can't afford to move their transmitting facilities to some other place that will give them a tad more coverage.  And none of these things are going to send listeners gleefully swarming back to listen to AM radio. I fear that window of opportunity has long since passed.

The really big proposal in the FCC's rulemaking, and the one that has AM station owners dancing a jig, is that the FCC will make it easier for them to apply for FM translators and put their AM programming on a spot on the FM band.  Translators are very low-powered FM transmitters that use antennas at relatively low heights.  They were originally designed to allow FM broadcasters to fill in "holes" in areas in the markets to which they were licensed that might have weaker signals.  Those "holes" were typically caused by mountains or big buildings.

Things related to translators have gotten pretty confused.  People who don't even own a station have been able to apply for licenses for them and they promptly turn around and sell them for big bucks to existing licensees.  Why would they want them?  A translator allows those who already have a big FM station to put a different format on one of their alternate channels (FMs have the ability to transmit several more channels but only listeners equipped with so-called "HD radios" can hear them...unless that programming is also being re-transmitted on a translator.).  Those big operators also have some AMs, too, and they can put a music format, for example, on an AM but count on the rebroadcast of that format on the translator to make them money or block a competitor from adapting that format.  

You may have noticed that the FM dial in your town has filled up with new stations that you really can't get on your radio very well.  And they seem to be mostly music with the occasional disembodied voice and some commercials.  And when they do the station identification at the top of the hour it sounds like someone reading the contents of their bowl of vegetable soup: "W261FQ Nowheresville WAAA-AM Big Town, WFFM-FM HD2 Big Town," or similar.

So, the move that will save AM radio is to allow more AM operators to have a presence on the the FM dial.  Oh, that means they will have to keep that AM station on the air in order to allow them to keep the translator happily filled with stellar programming and information...and commercials for which they can charge more because they will be on FM, too!  But then where's the incentive for the AM owner to spend all the money to move the AM towers and transmitter so the station can be heard where people actually live in the 21st century?  

Actually, in smaller markets the answer might be, "Yes."  Daytime AM stations...and there are almost a thousand of those that have to go away when the sun goes down...that truly want to serve the needs of their city can do shows, play music, carry local high school football and the like on that sparkling new translator.  And so long as the town is not all that big or the area full of mountains and valleys they may be able to cover most of the people they need to reach.

On the other hand, it seems to me that allowing bigger market AMs to get a translator or two or three to give them an FM signal only assures that nobody will be left to listen to that AM programming.  Then, at what point does the FCC say, "Well, we tried but it didn't work.  So, Ham Radio, enjoy that wonderful new extension to the 160-meter Amateur Radio band."

By trying to save AM, they will have killed it.

Monday, October 19, 2015

Broadcasters see nothing but sweetness and light when it comes to the "digital dashboard"


By Don Keith N4KC

No, I don't think traditional broadcasting is going away anytime soon.  No, I am not convinced that the huge video display in the middle of most new car dashboards is going to cause the imminent demise of Rock 107 or Classic Hits 92.3.  But if broadcasters want to continue to put their heads in the sand and ignore the impact on their business of this rapidly changing technology, then they will only hasten the aforementioned fate for the medium I love so much.

Latest example of using questionable statistics to convince themselves the sky is not falling: an article in INSIDE RADIO, a publication/e-mail newsletter that does little else but find glimmers of hope wherever they can for the people who subscribe to and advertise in their products.  If you don't want to read the article, here are the key points it makes:

  • Even though the "connected car" is here already and will only increase penetration among auto buyers in the future, recent surveys show that potential new car buyers still insist on the AM/FM radio in the dash.
  • One of those stats says 72% of new car buyers "insist on" having an AM/FM radio.
  • Half the respondents also want a CD player or access for a portable MP3 player, too.  
  • Close to a third also want "apps," satellite radio, and "Internet radio."
  • 20% want HD radio.
As usual, I must mention that the article does not give us any idea of who was surveyed other than they were "potential vehicle buyers."  Nor do they tell us how many respondents were in the sample, how the demos were broken out, or--most important of all--how the questions were worded.  Anybody familiar with research can confirm those are huge factors in the results, and especially in a research project conducted for a known audience and used to bolster that audience's own agenda.  There is no link in the article to the survey or to the entity that conducted it.

Okay, to the first result above: when was the last time a new car was sold in this country that did not have an AM/FM radio in it?  So why would anybody have to "insist on" having one?  Does the question simply show a list of add-ons and ask respondents to choose the ones they would "insist on" when purchasing that vehicle?  I'd say near 100% of buyers would expect to have an AM/FM radio and would, if asked, choose it from a list in a survey as something they would insist on.

If so, should it not be extremely discouraging for broadcasters that less than 75% of buyers "insist on" something so basic and ubiquitous--something so ingrained in American culture--as an AM/FM radio in the car?  Who are those 28% who don't care to have one at all?

Boy, I sure would like to see how that breaks out among different age groups, too.  If old folks who cannot even imagine a car without an AM/FM radio are skewing that number upward, and if a couple of generations of younger folks are not all that crazy about having the device cluttering up their dashboard, then what does that portend for the future of the broadcasting business?  "Well, if it comes with the car and doesn't cost me anything, I guess it's okay to have one.  But I'm not insisting on it.  It ain't a deal-breaker.  But I have to have..."

Should it not also be scary as hell that half the respondents said they would "insist on" a CD player and MP3 player?  That is half the potential listeners to terrestrial radio who want the capability to listen to something else.  How are stations going to ask the dollars they need for commercial advertising if half their potential audience is listening to their favorite CD or iPad instead of Mickey and Mushmouth-in-the-Morning?

Of course, there is another third who want "apps" so they can check traffic, weather, news, and the like on their dash screen instead of waiting for their local radio station to get around to giving them that info.  I see no mention of Bluetooth technology that integrates the mobile phone into the dash, but I have to assume that is what they mean by "apps."  Or at least what the respondents assume they mean.  And if they are using an app to get desired and important info instead of listening to radio to eventually deliver what they need when they need it then what does that do to the stations' audiences?  Oh, and how much time are they spending on the phone as they drive, using hands-free technology?  And if they are yakking on the phone, they ain't listening to Country 107.9.

That final number--20% "insist on" HD radio--stuns me.  First, I can't believe 20% of any random sample of potential car buyers even know what HD radio is, let alone would not buy a car without such a device.  Ask the next ten people you meet if they would have to have HD radio on any new car they wanted to buy.  See if you can find even two who know what the heck you are talking about.  I suspect that 20% saw something on the list that looked like it might be cool and checked that box.

Bottom line: traditional broadcasters will not stave off the threat of the connected car with its digital dashboard with self-serving surveys and self-convincing "analysis."  As in-dash technology and connectivity become more user friendly and effective, auto buyers will insist on a full array of capabilities in the cars they purchase.  Most of those capabilities will drag listeners away from old-fashioned, always-there AM/FM radio in droves.  That will eventually kill broadcasting as a business and a lifestyle.  If nothing changes, such an outcome is inevitable.

We have solid examples that it is so.  Ask newspapers and magazines what happened when subscribers went away, lured by technology that made the content they traditionally got from print easier to access, more powerful, and more ubiquitous.  What happened to the ad rates print media were able to demand?  Have you looked at the classified section of your daily paper lately?  If you even have a daily paper anymore!

So what should radio do instead of commission surveys and play more of the biggest hits of yesterday and today?  Give listeners a reason to keep listening.  Give them content they can't find via Bluetooth, apps, or an MP3 player.  Give up on "broadcasting" and learn to make a profit on a niche audience that can be worthwhile to particular advertisers at a reasonable price.  Learn something about "marketing" instead of relying on the hope that the AM/FM radio always has been there in the dashboard so it always will.  (Newspapers were around long before radio and where are they going now?  Longevity is not a factor in survival as technology changes.  The technical evolution of media is brutal.)

Oh, and I wonder what that percentage of "insists on" would have been if the surveyors had separated AM and FM radios in the list of dash must-haves.  

How many would have "insisted on" an AM radio in that sparkling new vehicle?