A Prescription For AM Radio: Oldies Care

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(By Curt Krafft) AM radio is in dire need of a boost. Yes, it is still the home for political talk, news, and sports. But not every AM station in every market, big or small, can have those formats. So what are those other AM stations broadcasting?

Without getting specific, a lot of them are doing formats that are pretty bad, not just in content but also execution. I would go so far as to say that some of these stations have absolutely no listeners whatsoever. NONE! This is the primary reason AM radio is suffering. It’s not because of the static, it’s not because of the weak signal. It’s because if you put aside the talk, the news, and the sports there’s nothing on the AM dial that anyone wants to listen to. All your successful ethnic and religious stations are now on FM. So what does that leave you with? Yeah, exactly.

Of course, there are some pseudo-intellectuals who feel that if an AM station isn’t making money it should just go off the air, period. Not be sold, just vanish. As a matter of fact if they had it their way the entire AM band would disappear. That’s how they deal with situations for which they have no answer to. Just get rid of it. Now that’s what I call sound business thinking.

So just what is a solution to AM’s problems? How about asking the listeners? What would they like to hear on the AM dial? One answer you will get is oldies. 50s, 60s, and 70s oldies. I am always amazed at how some people respond to this format idea. Some of them get terribly angry and outright snotty. They usually are not even in broadcasting. So I dismiss them for what they are, non-entities. When I do hear plausible arguments, they usually focus on the demo factor. The demos are too old. Advertising agencies don’t want any part of them. My response is this: Studies show — and you can look them up on the Internet — that seniors have money and they do spend it. But you have to approach them the right way in order to get it. By that I mean not just effective copywriting but also the overall presentation of your station. If you’re going to have a limited playlist, if you’re going to be strictly satellite and have no live, local air personalities, if you’re not going to get involved with the seniors and their needs and problems, then you will fail. And you will fail not because your demos are too old but because you sound like a dull, repetitious radio station that no one, especially seniors, will listen to.

It is the overall presentation of the oldies format that counts. It’s the songs you play, a BIG variety plus live air personalities who talk to the listeners, saying hello to them and giving out information that they, the seniors, can use. And when I say hello, I mean on a first-name basis, especially to a senior who may live alone. Adopt the attitude that we will be an oldies station that will always be there for them. They will NEVER be alone.

I must also add that seniors are now living longer and there are more of them around than ever before. Obviously, this format won’t work in every market. But there are many where it will. And not just Florida. You would be amazed at how many other sections of the U.S. have large senior populations, including Maine, Pennsylvania, Arizona, and New Jersey. Many seniors prefer to remain where they are rather than heading south.

If you put together a professional-sounding Oldies format, that includes good air personalities and good salespeople, you will win, even on the AM dial. Yes, if you can acquire an FM translator, do so. That will definitely help. I believe that when it comes to success in radio, image is important. How you treat your listeners is important. And if you do it right then this is what you present to the local advertisers and the advertising agencies. And you will make money. Saving AM radio is not rocket science. And a 50s, 60s, and 70s Oldies format, done right, is one way to do it. Just turn on the mike and deliver.

21 COMMENTS

  1. You may want to look into the competition in LA between KRTH and KCBS-FM. KRTH had a small playlist and KCBS-FM had a larger one. KRTH beat KCBS in the ratings. KCBS had to change their format to ARROW. More of a classic hits format.

  2. My wife owns a LPFM (WZML-LP) and we program music from the 1960s to 2010 on it. 98% hits. about 3000 songs. We call it: “The Soundtrack of YOUR Life”. Yes, the similarity to an older format is completely intentional. Our target age is 59 – the median age of the super rich area we serve known as: “The Main Line”, and we are skewing from 30-70. We are not Neilsen encoded yet (any day now) but believe that once we are we will show in the Philly book (two of our listeners have emailed us that they have PPMs).
    We do not yet have an online presence though we are on Facebook and that does quite well for us. Every day we get over a dozen emails from people who have discovered our 5 watt FM by accident -and love it. Here is a typical one: “On 422 on 6/28/17 at 4:55pm and i change the dial on my car radio and it stops on 92.9….and i hear the beginning chords for I Had Too Much To Dream Last Night by the Electric Prunes!! Ever since, my station dial does not move!” We also stream for people who can’t pick us up and there are always at least a half dozen listeners on the stream no matter what time of day or night it is.
    We are in the process of adding an 84 watt FM translator that will more than double our coverage – and expect our listenership to increase markedly. Will this station ever be a factor in Philadelphia. Nope – but we believe that it will be able to support itself and even throw off a few bucks that we will put back into the community. The reality is that oldies done properly CAN do well, and in an affluent area, VERY well!

  3. On one hand I agree with Fred Smith, that few under 60 are paying any attention to am radio anymore. The world has changed so much, with many more choices now available, and also, a lot of damage was done to am through the years. Todays young folks have no idea. But on the other hand, I keep hearing how the oldies format is gaining popularity in some cities where there was none, I think thats a start, a plus, and maybe more am station owners would be willing to try it. I attended a radio party in Detroit in July, where some 200+ people came out to show their love and appreciation for a music station, CKLW, that ended its Big 8 days long ago. Looked like a pretty affluent bunch to me, and there has to be many more of us out there. But one writer here says its gotta be done professionally and planned out and I agree with that. I dont know, AM radio owners out there[any city] give this some thought, it just might work for you! From a long time radio guy in Toledo

    • And Dennis is one of the first 5 people aI’d hire as he talked to his listeners, answered the phone, had live spots, etc. Letting an AM license lapse and turning it back-in just churns my stomach when the conglomerate owners get an STA 10x and spend zero dollars and say the FCC killed it.

  4. The article is a little insulting. The demographic you are after is not just a bunch of folks living alone growing old. Many are retiring or retired, have pensions, 401Ks and Social Security. We are a large economic force. We travel. We go to concerts (even on weeknights and there is lots of gray in the audience). We still buy music. We may not drive as much, but when we buy cars, we buy nice ones. We consume lots of services… health (of course), home repair and maintenance. We are on the Internet. We are frugal, so the transition from cable TV to Internet services interests us. We still buy cameras, and take plenty of pictures and we get them printed. We buy a fair amount of beer and wine.

    WGH-AM made this transition 10 days ago. They’ve done a great job. They listened to older fans of the WGH of the 50s, 60s and 70s. Owners of the station now include DJs who were there back then. They have the luck of having access to long abandoned jingles. It is a great sound full of nostalgia and built around a huge and growing playlist that includes the local hits that their aging listeners haven’t heard in years anywhere else. Great job of research.

    Will they find the advertisers needed to continue to support the station? I hope so. But, until this morning, the only age specific ad I’ve heard has been for hearing aids and Kindred rehab. Yuck. Advertisers will need to catch on. Perhaps there is hope. It is Monday, 10 days in. A commercial break included three spots to the demographic. One was for Kindred rehab hospitals (Aww.) But, two were for travel. Yay sales force for getting it.

    • No insult intended, Bob. I’m a senior myself. And you’re absolutely right. We do go to concerts, we do buy cars and we do travel. But I want my station to appeal to all seniors including those who don’t have it so good. Or who do live alone. I want them to know there is a radio station that cares about them as well. I want the DJ’s to say things like, “I wanna say hi to Mary Ann listening to us at the ABC nursing home. We haven’t heard from you in a couple of days, Mary Ann. Give us a call and let us know you’re all right.” That kind of thing. The personal touch. Plus we’ll be playing great music from the 50’s, 60’s & 70’s. And we’ll be inviting everyone who loves that music to tune in. There is life after 55. I want to start a radio station that not only makes money but can also put a smile on a senior’s face. That makes it all worth while.

  5. There is a big issue with noise and signal loss in buildings with metal framing. Calculators, computers, telephones, and other electronic devices make it impossible for AM stations with 5kW or less can’t compete with those who still listen to radio. AM still has a competitive chance in cars. In order to create an attractive sound/format broadcasters need capital and it appears that not many advertisers are interested in buying local radio time. AM DA’s contribute to the problem. Some patterns are so narrow that they are difficult to hear when traveling and often these patterns were designed for a population that has since moved away. Talk and sports work not because of audio quality but because of interest. Talk and sports are making inroads into FM for the same reason. The days of the WABC DJ’s are gone. ABC could pay these jocks to be entertaining and gain an audience that they could sell. The growth of WABC and similar stations came at a time when there was limited competition from other entertainment sources (mp3 players, Ipods, the internet, etc.) I don’t think that era could be replicated.

  6. Larry has a great idea there, but any AM station that opts for a music format like that should consider something else that’s a tad retro… AM stereo. Yes, there are still radios out there that can get it, and with more stations adding C-Quam to their transmitters, more radio manufacturers would consider adding the format back into their receivers. I was a believer in the idea that any receiver that could get FM stereo should be AM stereo, too. If the format is something people want to listen to, they’ll tune in, regardless of band. Look at the success of sports stations. People want to hear that, and the format succeeds. Proper promotion helps, too. I’m of the demographic a station like Larry describes would be aimed at. I’d listen!

  7. No one under 60 is listening to AM radio.
    There’s no local business in America so there’s no need for local radio. I-Heart is about to find out there’s no call for National radio. 25 years ago, there was hope that 50s, 60s music would attract audience in the same way as “Music of Your Life”. It never happened! America is a youth culture, once you turn 55, you don’t fit in that culture. AM radio is alot of work and no one’s listening.
    Now let me get back on my smartphone where everyone lives in 2017.

    • Hi, Fred. I think it’s great that you have a smartphone. BTW, not all of us can afford one. I am well aware that we live in a youth culture. But, speaking in radio terms how many times can you divide that youth pie before all that is left is crumbs? Ever try paying the bills with crumbs? When you have too many stations in any given market all going after that same lucrative demo, someone is going to lose. I prefer going after an audience that no one else wants. This way I have them all to myself. And, believe it or not they have money. Sometimes lots of money. And they spend it. I’ve come up with a format that will cater to that demo and play what they want to hear. And in between the songs my live air personalities will give these older people information they can use. Info on things like social security, Medicare, Medicaid, health and safety tips, etc. We’ll have special news for senior vets as well. And we won’t just be playing good music. We’ll also do remotes and get involved in our local community. If a senior who lives alone and calls the station because they have a problem, we’ll try and help them solve it. If they just need their rug cleaned I’ll come over and vacuum it. We’ll build up such a reputation in our listening range that we will have no problem getting local advertising. And I have a plan to go after the national accounts too. I know that money is the bottom line. I believe a radio station can bring in good revenue from older demos. But to get started you have to roll up your sleeves.

  8. Show me…anywhere in a competitive market….where a deep playlist has EVER worked. You can execute the format properly…jingles…knowledgeable jocks…even entertaining personalities. But, without ratings and the advertisers to support them, this idea is DOA. We have a guy with a translator in our town who has tried to rotate libraries in the THOUSANDS of titles on 2 different stations. Time spent listening is about five minutes a WEEK. On the oldies format, there are about 1,500 “playable” titles. No one wants to hear B-sides and songs that peaked at #60. And all the guys with their basement internet radio stations that get a few hundred listeners think they the “shiznizzle”. I can agree that some stations cut too far. But going way off in the other direction is a recipe for disaster. Been there. Done it. Got the bad ratings to prove it. Right now, many sales operations amount to people getting a constant beatdown from advertisers. Their answer? “Thank you. sir…may I have another”. Before this could possibly have a chance to work, a lot in this industry, including things this article has not talked about, has to change.

    • You’re using a guy with a translator as an example? Could he even afford to be in the ratings book? If he didn’t pay for one then he wouldn’t be in it no matter how well or bad he did. In which case there is no official evidence to back up your claim that he had no listeners. Also, did I say I was playing B Sides? As far as songs peaking at #60, how do you know no one wants to hear them? There were some pretty good songs that came out during the 50’s & 60’s. Not every one could make the top ten. But just because they didn’t doesn’t mean they’re not any good or that no one wants to hear them. It’s obvious you don’t know the music, period. You’d be surprised at how many songs that people “DO” remember. And many of them were not big hits. I have yet to see any example of a market that had two real actual oldies stations competing against each other, one with a short playlist and the other with a large one. And I’m not talking about a major FM oldies station whose only competition is a weak signal AM oldies station out in the suburbs that can barely be heard in the city. That’s not real competition. The truth is there has only been one oldies station in your average large or medium market. And if they had a short playlist and still got good ratings it’s because they won by default. They had no competition. If a station of comparable size but with a much larger playlist went up against them and presented their format in a professional manner, that station would win. My point is that a larger oldies playlist has NEVER been tested in any major or medium sized market because no one tried it. We don’t know if it would have worked or not. I do know this much. People are SICK AND TIRED of hearing the same oldies over and over and over again. A much larger playlist helps to alleviate that problem. As far as what people are doing in their basement is concerned? That’s their business. I’m not going to use them as an example of why or why not my idea will work. To succeed you need to know who your audience is and what they want. In the case of the oldies format, that audience wants more. Remember, the 5th Dimension had other hits besides “Aquarius.” Play them. Play them all.

  9. For it to work, there has to be a deep playlist. On Sirrus I hear the same ones every day and even some that weren’t hits. There are many that were hits Sirrus never plays.

  10. This is being done in West Michigan right now. RealOldies 1480/850. Realoldies1480.org. It’s been on for 8 or 9 years. Mid 50’s through mid 70’s.

      • They’ve been at it since 2009 and continue to thrive. Remember, they too, have to earn income like everyone else. Listeners can offer or withhold their donations. When they are withheld, the station must find another direction.

  11. I have an oldies show on almost 20 stations around the country. The show contains 15-18 songs per hour plus some dialog about each song and artist. I have nothing but great reports about the show from station programmers, owners and even listeners. Nothing But Old 45s aims at the 60’s and 70’s with a dose of the “greats” from the late 50’s who changed our music world for decades to come. I’m seeing several AM stations flipping from sports and other formats to well-programmed oldies with those great Pam jingles in some cases. In all cases, these stations are making radio exciting to listen to again.

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