AM proves to be a hard sell, even for news radio
In Columbus, Ohio, WOSU is moving its full-time news service to 89.7 FM after its all-news AM station failed to attract pubradio listeners.
The station at Ohio State University hasn’t given up on having separate channels for news and classical music,
however. It’s expanding on the FM dial with the $5.7 million purchase of a commercial station — adult alternative outlet WWCD, 101.1 MHz — to carry its classical service starting this fall. The other, more powerful FM signal — WOSU-FM, at 89.7 MHz — will switch from hybrid news/music to all-news.
The AM station, which launched Ohio State’s broadcast service in 1922, will simulcast the FM news service.
Decisions about audience service priorities have never been easy for public radio stations that broadcast both news and music programming, but they’re especially confounding for those with AM stations. AM’s low audio fidelity and interference problems make the frequencies more suitable for news/talk than music, but listeners’ habits of scanning the left end of the FM dial for public radio are so deeply ingrained that building a loyal audience on AM would be a Sisyphean labor.
“It is a challenge to get public radio listeners to move to AM,” confirmed Sean Nethery, programming v.p. for Colorado Public Radio, which invested in AM stations to create an all-news service in 2001 while dedicating its Denver FM channel to classical music. Seven years later, CPR bought another FM channel and performed a channel swap that put news back on its legacy channel, 90.1 FM. Classical moved to the new frequency, 88.1 FM. CPR was unable to sell its AM stations, which remain part of its news network.
“It’s true that AM compromises the ability of listeners to tune in,” Nethery said. “The signal is not as strong as FM, and it’s subject to interference.”
Nationally, AM signals attracted only 2.4 percent of all public radio listening in fall 2009, according to NPR Research. They include a dozen AM stations, some with very long histories, that are full NPR members — from New York’s WNYC to WHA in Madison, Wis., and WYUK in Bethel, Alaska — and seven have AM stations as associate members of NPR.
WOSU’s decision to expand on FM follows two success stories in other markets: explosive audience growth for the Colorado Public Radio news service since it moved back to its original 90.1 FM channel, and the resurgence of music listening in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., New York and Boston, where public radio licensees became the only local stations broadcasting classical music full-time.
WOSU isn’t taking over a commercial classical station, as pubcasters in D.C., L.A., New York and Boston have done, but it’s acquiring an FM channel as the Colorado network did.
CPR’s audience gains with FM highlight the disparity between the two radio bands. When the Denver-based network put news and classical onto separate AM and FM channels in 2001, the total audience for both services grew by nearly 100,000 listeners in one year. But when CPR’s news service returned to FM, its statewide cume for both its news and classical services grew by 100,000 listeners in a single quarter. The fall 2008 Arbitron ratings book “clearly showed how AM was a compromised signal,” Nethery said.
“We invest a lot in local news”
WOSU first tried to expand its news footprint by introducing a new local midday show All Sides with Ann Fisher, while previously all-classical WOSU-FM picked up NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered. But this dual-service strategy didn’t build enough audience.
“We invest a lot in our local news,” said Tom Rieland, g.m. of WOSU Public Media. “It’s been a struggle for us, getting people to the AM dial to listen to us in this community.” The move back to FM will bring a much bigger audience to WOSU’s local news programs, he predicted.
The new dual-service plan for Columbus will require classical listeners to tune to another FM channel — 101.1MHz — but they’ll get all-music, and more of it will be locally programmed. Many will likely appreciate a new companion website dedicated to the performing arts and built for social-media interaction.
The new FM signal isn’t as strong as WOSU’s 40,000-watt voice at 89.7 MHz, so the station will use a repeater in Marion, north of Columbus, and other regional translators to simulcast the full-time classical service.
The old gray WOSU-AM will remain in harness, simulcasting the news/talk format. “We’re not putting that on the market,” Rieland said. “We’re laying back and waiting to see what the potential is.”
The AM station launched 88 years ago with the call letters WEAO, an abbreviation for the state slogan, “Willing, Energetic, Athletic Ohio.” It switched to the WOSU call letters 11 years later; WEAO now identifies the Western Reserve PBS station that serves Cleveland and Akron.
When WOSU expanded onto the FM band in 1950, 89.7 was a simulcast of the AM signal. The duplication decreased over the years until 1968, when the WOSU radio stations began airing completely separate schedules. FM was devoted largely to music.
With the return of simulcasting, the AM station is now in decline, reversing the path taken by FM since it arrived at Ohio State. (WOSU's website has more about the station's history.)
Licensee Ohio State University is backing WOSU’s latest channel expansion with a three-year loan of $2.25 million in cash that’s due at closing on the WWCD sale. The remainder is financed through a 20-year loan from the seller, Fun with Radio LLC owner Roger Vaughan, a OSU alumnus who’s moving his commercial Triple-A station to a stronger signal at 102.5 FM. “To be able to pay this off over time was really key to this deal,” Rieland said.
WOSU will launch a capital campaign and expects that the audience to be gained from expansion will boost its membership and underwriting revenues. Public Radio Capital, the Colorado-based station consultancy and brokerage, repped WOSU in the transaction.
It’s an open question whether AM stations can regain their value as viable broadcast properties. Their future may depend on whether enough consumers adopt HD Radio, which includes digital channels for both AM and FM stations, over the next several years.
“We had hoped five or ten years ago with the advent of digital AM radio, this would correct itself,” said Jim Paluzzi, g.m. of KJZZ in Phoenix and former v.p. of new media and technology at Colorado Public Radio. “If you listen to an AM station on digital, it sounds good. The question is, how long can a station wait for AM digital to become ubiquitous?”
The problems with the analog AM band began some 70 years ago, when the FCC authorized so many AM stations that signal interference became a problem across the dial, Paluzzi said. To reduce interference on car radios, manufacturers added filters that narrowed the received signal, and audio fidelity declined even further. “There’s nothing wrong with AM, per se,” Paluzzi said, “but there’s something wrong with how it was executed in this country and others. There are too many stations.”
Even with the degradation of AM signals, it took 20 years for FM stations to become competitive with them, Paluzzi said. If broadcasters are to revive AM by going digital, HD Radio will have only about five years to establish a user base, Paluzzi said. “HD Radio is viable if we can achieve penetration in the car radio market quickly — the key word is quickly.”
“With the advent of the Internet, it’s a matter of time before we see broadband to the car,” Paluzzi predicted. Consumers will then have access to any station, anywhere in the world, as well as streaming Internet radio services.
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Web page posted Aug. 10, 2010, with subtle corrections Aug. 11
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