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AM stations try to seduce FM listeners via simulcasts

What — to paraphrase Dan Rather — are the frequencies (Kenneth)?

Bizarro pop-culture catchphrase courtesy of the legendary newsman notwithstanding, it’s a fair question for local radio stations riding a national (air)wave.

"There are more listeners on FM than AM," says Paul Heine, senior editor of trade magazine Inside Radio. "It’s like opening a new store in a mall where more people shop."

So explains those new Las Vegas shops, radiowise, as several AM stations here joined others nationwide — from midsize markets such as Albany, N.Y., and Grand Rapids, Mich., to large markets such as Seattle, San Francisco, Atlanta and Washington, D.C. — to simulcast their signals on the FM band.

"It’s a move designed to draw a younger audience to an aging AM brand."

Last August brought a local spasm of across-the-band expansion: CBS Radio, which owns news/talk station KXNT-AM, 840, scrapped the "Jack" music format on its FM frequency at 100.5 FM, which had gone by KKJJ, and turned it into a weekday KXNT simulcast, now known as KXNT-FM. Being a separate signal, it also enabled CBS to program sports talk and play-by-play coverage, including the NFL and NCAA, on KXNT-FM on the weekends.

"Ninety-three percent of the listening audience is on the FM dial in this market," says KXNT program director Bob Agnew. "There are people who are traditional AM users, but the nice thing for us is that with our AM programming on an FM signal, it’s stronger quality but not to the detriment of the AM."

Two other local AM stations employ FM "translators" that are not separate signals and strictly repeat the signal of the originating stations, a use that had been banned by the Federal Communications Commission for AM until it was lifted in 2009 to revitalize the struggling band. Prior to that, only FM stations could use FM translators.

Here, KWWN-AM, 1100, which carries ESPN Radio, is now also heard at 98.9 FM. "For us, the reason behind it is coverage," says Tony Bonnici, vice president and general manager of Lotus Broadcasting, KWWN’s owner. "AM signals have to power down in the evening to protect other signals coming in from all over and FM signals do not. If you have a signal that could be impaired when the sun goes down, it allows you to have a strong, powerful signal 24 hours."

Ex-talker KDOX-AM, 1280 put a megaphone on its signal at 102.3 FM, then abandoned talk for a ’50s-’70s oldies format in December, where it remains on both frequencies, rebranded as KQLL.

"The hardest part was finding an FM frequency in a market this size, it’s so congested with FM frequencies, but we found one," says Scott Gentry, president and general manager of Summit Media, which owns KQLL, as well as KJUL-FM, 104.7.

"We originally did it as talk because we felt a lot of markets were introducing talk on the FM bands to get into a larger pool of young listeners. Since then we changed our minds (and went oldies) because we felt there wasn’t a large talk market in Las Vegas."

Results? Radio ratings service Arbitron gauges listenership differently between the two remaining spoken-word stations now on both bands. Not a complete simulcast because it goes sports on the weekends, KXNT receives separate ratings for the AM and FM sides, while KWWN earns one number because it’s completely simulcast.

Measuring all listeners ages 6 and older from October-December found that KWWN improved from a 1.5 in October to a 1.8 in December. (KWWN is the top-rated AM station and 19th out of 42 overall.) "We’ve seen slight improvement but I can’t say it’s gigantic because we were doing pretty well anyway," Bonnici says. "Word of mouth is more scientific to me than actual ratings."

Over at KXNT, the AM side barely budged, dipping from 1.0 to 0.9, while the FM side remained steady at around 0.7. (KXNT was the third-ranked AM station behind KWWN and fellow Lotus sports station KBAD-AM, 920, and 25th overall, while KXNT’s FM companion placed 28th overall.)

"It didn’t explode, but it’s a process," Agnew says. "News/talk formats are strong things that don’t turn over quickly, it takes time to build. We’re going to maintain an aggressive position by being out there."

(Ratings for KDOX barely shifted as a talk station in the fall, ranking 33rd, and numbers for it as KQLL are not yet in.)

Grabbing younger listeners on the FM band, Heine says, is a vital factor for spoken-word stations, which, in the thinly sliced descriptions of radio formats, includes all-news, all-talk and the KXNT-style hybrid, news/talk. "More than half of the average audiences (for those formats) have aged out of the 25-to-54 demo — which is the money demo — and are (now) 55-plus, not as attractive to advertisers," Heine says.

Yet Agnew says KXNT is well-positioned, demographically, claiming that "our bread-and-butter is 35-plus," with a healthy chunk of their listeners still falling in the advertiser-friendly hot zone.

Carving up the demo pie, however, does not concern Bonnici of Lotus. "Sports is a 12-to-death format," he says. "You’ll have 25-year-olds and 75-year-olds calling in. Once you’re into sports, you’re into it."

While stations using translators can pitch airtime to advertisers by emphasizing that they now reach more listeners, the separate signals of KXNT create a mixed scenario. They can still promote stronger signal strength Monday-Friday for advertisers targeting talk listeners. On weekends, however, while they can still offer two days to advertisers to reach an additional audience of sports fans on their FM station, the Jack music format formerly on that signal was an entirely different pool of potentially younger customers listening seven days a week.

A boomerang effect is also conceivable for AM overall. Though individual stations could benefit from FM simulcasts, it will cut back the number of listeners who, as long as they’re already on the AM band, will explore what else is on it.

"Yes, it could devalue the AM brand," Heine says. "We talked to one of the VPs of programming for CBS (for an Inside Radio story) and he predicted that AM stations will rely more on niche, self-help and ethnic content to play to listener passions."

Future vision for once-dominant, now often-ignored AM radio? "I don’t know how much longer AM will be around," says Gentry of KQLL. "You’re going to see a lot of changes over the next five to 10 years and I don’t know how many stations will still be on the AM dial."

Slow down, Heine suggests. "It’s definitely a trend," he says about AM/FM simulcasting, "but I would caution not to write AM radio’s obituary just yet. There’s numerous successful news and news/talk brands on AM in many markets."

Indicators, though, are strong that AM listeners searching for FM sound quality for their happy-yappy talk jocks will increasingly ask, "What are the (new) frequencies (Kenneth)?"

Begging a legal query: Will they owe royalties to Dan Rather?

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@review journal.com or 702-383-0256.

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