Radio's Late Adopters

Did you ever think about how long it took the radio business to fully utilize the FM band?

Some AM radios had FM back in the day, but nobody listened. There was nothing to listen to.

That is until these events occurred: automakers started including FM as an option for new car buyers and then as standard equipment.

And content was created.

Oh yes, and there was the overload of commercials and clutter on the AM dial making FM worth a listen. Previously, you’d never find a top 40 station on the FM band – maybe classical (in stereo) or elevator music (we called it beautiful music when I worked for Phil Stout and Marlin Taylor at Jerry Lee’s WDVR – now WBEB – Philadelphia).

FM programming moved to AM when radios were mass manufactured and when there was a programming reason for listeners to own one.

FM had stereophonic sound, but improved fidelity alone was not enough to give traction to the band. Many industry people thought fidelity was the potential of FM but not so. Listeners wanted to listen to AM because it had top 40 stations and all the popular formats. I can recall program directors who would rather have programmed an AM than an FM station because all the listeners -- including young listeners -- were on the AM dial.

That didn’t stop me from doing it at WIFI (that’s right WiFi 92) in Philadelphia with the likes of Mike Anderson, Bill Figenshu, Joe Benson and others. Still, it wasn’t a straight top 40 sound – it was more like play-the-music and back sell the records.

All that changed and top 40 moved to FM with all the hype, screaming jocks, jingles and what not that AM listeners wanted to escape.

In a few short years, few listeners could tell the difference between formats previously heard on AM radio.

Then AM went out and got stereo because its brain trust thought listeners defected to FM for better fidelity. AM became the news/talk/sports band until...

Until FM stations started carrying these staples as well.

Lesson: it didn’t matter. No one listens to AM for stereo. Soon no one will listen to AM for anything unless it is broadcast in heaven. AM has old listeners and the ones who moved to FM are not exactly spring chickens, either.

Remember, it wasn't but a few years ago that Joel Hollander blew up WCBS-FM because he thought the format appealed to an older demographic. After all CBS-FM was making less profit every year. It couldn't have been due to incompetence, could it?

Today, in its first real ratings since the switch back, WCBS-FM went from the 20th listened to station in New York to the eighth. And old listeners? Dan Mason and his crew gently (and I mean gently) added some younger oldies (I'm speaking about the playlist, not the audience although by doing one he has accomplished the other).

You program to the audience you have, not the audience you want. The next generation is listening to Internet streams, downloading music, sharing music and walking around with portable listening devices that in past generations were called radios.

Some news stations have long ago moved their formats from AM to FM. And what's with all the heat Emmis took for moving WIBC, Indianapolis to FM after 69 years on AM. What else could they do? Program to no one. That would be the definition of HD radio, wouldn’t it.

And speaking of HD radio, proponents could argue that I’ve just made the case for HD being the next thing. First AM. Then FM. (Then XM – that’s for you Lee Abrams). And now HD. Right?


HD has none of the requirements for westward expansion. No programming needs because owners can barely program their terrestrial signals. Not technology: fidelity belongs in marriage not in radios. Most listeners don’t care. Widespread manufacturing of a device that would bring all this good stuff to listeners --- priceless. Unfortunately, it isn’t priceless. It costs consumers a lot to buy even the cheapest (and poorest sounding) HD radio.

HD was just a ploy for radio owners to create more channels they eventually did not want to pay to program.

CBS’ KYW-AM is now also available on one of WYSP-FM’s digital sub-channels. What’s that about? Arguably the greatest all-news radio station in a hell hole like WYSP’s sub-channel. Put it on FM for now and come up with a strategy to understand and take advantage of the future of Internet and mobile delivery.

Inside Radio reported consultant Walt Sabo as saying there are “very bad” stations on both bands. He would be correct. He adds, “if the station is good, it will do better on the FM band because about 80% of all radio listeners spend all of their time (there)”. (Sabo consults WXKW, Trenton, NJ that bills a reported $30 million through a 900,000 cume).

Soon the money demos will be spending their time on portable digital devices. Dismiss the next generation all you want -- at your own peril. They are growing each year into your next money demo and you don't have their attention.

And the radio industry has no plan – no understanding – and no desire to start learning what is real and what will be a waste of their money to win younger demos.

For example, 24/7 streaming is going to be a disappointment online because the next generation is used to clicking on and off and shuffling through their options. Broadcasters delude themselves by thinking that streaming their terrestrial signals online will be the future just because they are getting some listening online today.

This would be a mistake.

Terrestrial radio's brand listeners are finding them where they are listening – in the cubicle, working at home online – wherever. The next generation will not be so easy to win over to online streaming because you didn’t have them at hello. You never had them, really. Young people listen (in decreasing numbers), but they prefer just about everything else but radio.

Future listening will be online in shorter programs and on digital devices and from the way it looks today the radio industry is not going to go where tomorrow's listeners live.

It’s almost as if consolidation, age, ignorance and time has caught up with radio.

You can almost hear some of the most talented people in audio entertainment say,
“I just want to hold on for a few more years until I put my kids through college (or retire)”.

Pity. What a waste of talent.

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