Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Can AM Radio Survive Serving Niche Markets?

From Aaron Barnhart, The Kansas City Star:
Scanning the amplitude modulation band, it is easy to conclude that radio’s senior circuit has devolved into a staticky mess of weak signals aimed at micro-sized constituencies. Spanish-language stations. Religious broadcasters. Timeshares. And way to the right of the dial, KXTR (1660), the classical station that won’t die.

But there is another way to look at AM’s future, and it is seen through the other three “heritage signals” that chose not to follow KMBZ to FM-land.

For a generation or longer, the AM frequencies of 610, 710 and 810 ruled the Kansas City scene. But as it became clear that radio was changing, management refashioned these broadcasters into narrowcasters, filled with specialty content and dependent not so much on quarterly ratings as on their ability to deliver devoted listeners to longtime advertisers.

“You have to be a destination for people,” said Chad Boeger, general manager of Union Broadcasting, which owns WHB (810) and KCTE (1510).

Two years ago, Arbitron, the ratings company, hiked its prices. Union, owned locally by Boeger and other partners, said no thanks, and the station has gone ratings-free since. It has other metrics, like the success of its 810 the Zone sports bars and its new mobile app, which it says is regularly used by an estimated 22,000 listeners.

“People want to know what’s going on in Kansas City (sports), and we feel we do a phenomenal job of that,” Boeger said.

Likewise, Donna Baker, who oversees the Kansas City market for Cumulus, considers her news-talker, KCMO-AM (710), a destination and has no plans to gut one of her popular FM stations to simulcast it.

“You can hear Tom Petty on a variety of stations in the marketplace, but there’s only one place you can get Dave Ramsey,” Baker said. Ramsey, the personal-finance guru whose show airs middays on KCMO-AM, recently packed 10,000 paying customers into Kemper Arena for a seminar.

But how much longer can this go on?

As Jerry Del Colliano, a longtime radio industry observer and new-media adviser to broadcasters, put it recently: “If you’re Generation Y, you have an iPhone and an iPod and you want an iPad. If you’re older, really older, you listen to radio.”

Those of us with fond memories of radio will still tune in, for a while anyhow. But how much longer until even WHB, with its mighty signal, throws in the towel and starts looking for an FM tower to buy?
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