Is AM Radio Legislating When It Should Be Innovating?


(By Randy Michaels) A number of lawmakers want to make it illegal for auto manufacturers to eliminate AM radio in cars. Here is another approach: put more on AM that consumers want to hear.

Long ago we realized that AM stations would do better with spoken word formats that are not dependant on fidelity. The Rush Limbaugh Show launched in 1984 and went national in 1988, opening the door for conservative talk to become a format. Jeff Smulyan debuted all sports on WFAN on July 1, 1987, opening the door to hundreds of imitators. It’s been 35 years since the last transformative spoken word format. There are hundreds of successful talk shows that aren’t political or sports-oriented, but most of them aren’t on the radio.  They are on TV or podcasts. Why?

The industry often acts like AM doesn’t matter. The FCC decided that the best way to revitalize AM was to give many AM stations a translator limited to 1/24th the power of a Class A FM. Calling adding an FM translator “AM Revitalization” is Orwellian thinking. An FM translator may help some broadcasters but it certainly doesn’t help the AM band or create a reason to keep AM in cars. How many of the AM stations awarded a translator to “revitalize AM” promote ONLY the translator frequency? A lot of them.

KNX in Los Angeles added an FM simulcast in December 2021. Ratings and revenue have stayed about the same.  In the July 23 trend, KNX AM and FM have a 2.8. AM only KFI has 4.2. If AM matters, but news belongs on FM, why doesn’t KNX AM do something else? Like sports, conservative talk, or SOMETHING ELSE. Highly levered broadcasters would often rather sell the AM transmitter land than develop the AM asserts. 850 AM in Boston has a 50,000-watt directional signal with intense coverage of the Boston urbanized area. The kind of coverage required to overcome noise and interference. Rumor has it that the array is about to be dismantled. This is the story of AM almost everywhere.

Formerly great AM stations are killing themselves with outrageously high commercial loads. Morning shows that used to fight for the most relevant guests, now interview those who will pay for the privilege. Weekends and nights are filled with paid programs selling quack medicines and questionable financial advice. This is radio cancer. A station you can’t trust 24 hours a day is a station you can’t trust.

People turn to AM during bad weather and for breaking news. This requires someone competent to be available to provide the relevant coverage. This is not always the case.

If broadcasters want to keep AM in cars they should maintain the band. Many AM stations are operating at low power, with distorted low modulation, serving only to feed their translator. Most AM transmitter sites are poorly maintained. Many don’t operate within their licensed parameters. Many get attention only when they fail completely, if then. AM stations require attention to stay at full power, high modulation, and maximum coverage.

Stations like WLW, KFI, WGN, WBEN, and many others prove that people will listen to AM if you give them a reason; imagine what might happen if broadcasters took some risks and developed some new spoken word formats.

If the industry doesn’t care about AM, why should car makers care? We can ask Congress to mandate AM. Even better, give listeners a reason to demand it.

Randy Michaels has been attributable to more US broadcast licenses than any other broadcaster in the country. As CEO of Jacor Communications, he led one of the nation’s most successful radio groups, both in ratings and revenue, selling the company to ClearChannel in 1999 where he remained as CEO for several years. He is currently the sole proprietor of Radioactive, LLC; a holding company for radio broadcast licenses.



    It doesn’t take a proponent of AM, nor a detractor of AM, to understand that highly-desired content is what drives the marketplace.

    NOT legislation.

    In global, not just literal terms, “radio” is not just a “technology,” but also the experience we CREATE.

    Instead of pushing for more legislation (that WE also dislike in-general as an industry), create a unique content experience that people need – and want.

    Caution to those who view this through the same prism of simply hiring younger people to do radio the same way it was done way in the past, pretending to be in the music-streaming playlist business, or solely acting as a distribution point for syndication.

    Create a highly-desired, relevant and differentiated product and experience.

    Because we devalue the radio experience and the great success advertisers achieve through it by using the same commodity-based metrics used by other platforms (which place more emphasis on likes, subscribers and page views versus advertiser outcomes) to price and sell advertising, that’s WHY radio has such heavy spot loads. Oh, and because companies overpaid for assets and over-leveraged to do so.

    So what’s been the answer? Cut out the very reason people listened to radio!

    In what world would anyone listen to a radio station for a 300 song “playlist utility” served-up with 20+ minutes of commercials when one can easily get the SAME THING elsewhere without 20+ minutes of spots?

    Why would anyone listen to a local music radio station for music and content, when the most compelling thing you’ll hear is “Today is Carrie Underwood’s birthday” or “Here are the Top Ten TikTok videos this week” – especially when the local pro team just won the big game, there’s a blizzard or just the basic things happening in a local market? Might as well just hit a music utility elsewhere.

    CREATE a CONTENT-DRIVEN model, whether in talk or music. Use a “content-driven model” versus a “radio model.”

    That goes for both AM and FM.

    “Radio Is Fundamentally a Local Business” TM

  2. I once took a largely forgotten AM daytime station, put alternative music on it, and got ratings for the first time that anyone could remember. X15. I created a campus AM to go along with the FM (at Marist) – I got thank you emails from the faculty for the great programming on the AM-side – one student interviewed Thom Hartman and Noam Chomsky on the same day! Another interviewed Michelle Branch and Hanson the next! We ran free programs from world public radio during the day and went to sports radio on the weekends. It is possible to be creative on the AM band. Would love to see more folks taking risks on the AM band!

  3. The BEST line in this article is a mantra for broadcasters, podcasters and anyone who’s trying to gain an audience. “A station you can’t trust 24 hours a day is a station you can’t trust.”

    AM radio is where many of us started, and those days when we pulled great stations out of the ether like WABC, WLS, WCFL, WSAI, WMEX, WCKY, KRLA, XERB, XERF and others at night are long distant memories. Now even WLW has syndication overnights where it once had “The Truckin’ Bozo” -who did things like utilize that big signal by helping solve crimes being committed several states away.

    Randy and I had many discussions over the years about potential “tools” for broadcasters-like digital delivery systems and voice-tracking. His ideas were right on, but as many “tools” being created for many industries, others have found a way to use them for “evil” – like reducing staff and making stations generic.

    “Compelling” content is more varied today than ever, and yet we can still find ways to appeal to a mass audience. Is it difficult? Yes. Impossible? No.

    The population of “broadcasters”, however is shrinking almost as much as the audience is. Digital could be deemed an addition to broadcasters but it seems many see it as a replacement. It’s up to those smarter folks (like Randy) -to learn from the past, and secure a future for “mass appeal” media.

  4. WECK-AM Buffalo, NY has a 3.5 share 12 plus, making it a solid #9 in the entire market. We have 3 FM metro translators. We are top 4 55 plus. Not to mention, WECK is a 1KW AM station! WECK is an Oldies station. The #1 rated rated oldies station in America, and the only 1KW independently owned AM in the top 10 in the entire country.

    WECK beats many 50KW stations in the market owned by the so called “genius companies” that actually are killing off the industry.

    I say this because if I would have let a consultant run this station, it would have been in ruins like it was before I took over.

    The key is having a great team. Exclusive content and to market yourself.

    I just bide my time here in Buffalo waiting for the bankrupty judge to assign me the other stations in the market

  5. Randy, there’s a lot of opportunity in the programming of AM’s distant past, which was far more innovative than say, Ai-generated talk personalities, which is probably the actual next step … though every time I think about that I recall that cassette of “Gay Paul Harvey” I once heard in Cincinnati … 😂

  6. Though, in the real world, AM still has a news and information role to play, especially during emergencies, it is not the go to medium for the young whose ears can easily decern the quality loss of AM when compared to even the crappiest MP3 stream. Add the huge increase in RF noise from our modern gadgets and ancient modulation is a big loser. I can think of two routes to modernize medium wave broadcasting. One option is to continue to let the AM band thin out and with greater space across the dial, widen the frequency response to at least 10 kHz if not a full 15 kHz. The other option is to drop-in new simulcast signals using all digital transmitters using either HD digital carriers for compatibility with existing FM/AM HD equipped vehicles or start fresh with DRM. Digital can deliver the bone shaking bass notes that analog AM cannot provide along with the musical partials AM has never been able to deliver. The MW band does not have to be limited to talk radio if you apply new technology to it. But it will need radio receiver re-design, something easy to accomplish with the SDR receiver topology in use in most modern dashboards.

    As for real estate pressure, with some creativity and flexibility on the part of the FCC, AM many towers could be replaced with horizontal wire antennas across rooftops similar to what broadcasters used in the early days of radio instead of the large acreage hogging ground plane verticals of today.

    Going full digital can entice younger listeners to buy into an updated technology that has pizazz. But it won’t get them to stay unless we give them worthwhile entertaining content when they get there. And that will require deep pockets, patience and investing for the long term. Reinvent by reinvesting! Yes, it’s a gamble.

  7. Randy! Great comments and you are dead on! The bigger problem for radio is flash forward 10 years and we could use your article and just replace AM with FM. The point is. If radio is going to thrive, we need to be pioneers of new , creative and exciting content. Unfortunately, radio lives in the space of copying what seems to be successful and expecting similar results in their region and day parts. Where are the real pioneers of creative content…the answer is Tik Tok, Instagram and social media.. primarily because social media allows creative content a chance to survive and thus thrive. Try to break a new artist on radio…while it’s never been easy, even the record labels have given up and it’s all based on social media and their numbers.
    I salute the few stations like 101.9 the Mix in Chicago that have new music hours and work to create their own research and support for music. For years radio has been giving away their power and when social media started up radio basically gave in. Fresh, different thought provoking content is the only answer to reviving radio. Until the heads of programming for the major media companies understand and reverse this trend and radio will continue to edge down and eventually as audiences leave the demo and die off so will the power of radio. Such a great immediate medium clogging their own arteries. Thanks Randy!

  8. While I agree with many of these points, one still has to face the reality that the AM band transmissions are flawed next to FM, streaming, and other digital forms of audio delivery. I have also said that an AM station is only as good as its night signal. The stations listed in this article all have night signals as good as their daytime signals. When an listener’s AM station disappears at 4:30 pm driving home from work in December with no explanation because of some highly directional low power night operation, people aren’t going to put up with this for very long. My only other small comment is that to say an FM translator is only 1/24th the power of a class A FM is not entirely true. While limited to 250 watts ERP, as “fill-in” translators they are not limited in HAAT. A translator running 250 watts ERP at 480 meters HAAT is equivalent to a full 6 KW ERP Class A FM. Higher than 480 meters HAAT would be in the class C3 power levels.

    • Vic, obviously you’ve done your homework. Many AM directional stations were built in the days before the suburban population expansion in many metro areas -and the stations never caught up. It goes back to what Randy said in his article “A station you can’t trust 24 hours a day is a station you can’t trust.” The fix isn’t always an FM translator. Here in San Diego, there’s a 25k FM signal out of Tijuana on 99.3. Up the road apiece there’s a 250 watt translator-same frequency. KRUZ from Santa Barbara screams across the ocean with 125k, and is blotted out in areas of San Diego by THREE FM translators for local stations. One is 15 watts. Worst part is the switching that occurs on these frequencies when driving.

      However, the whole issue of broadcasting (and for this purpose AM) has become the elephant in the room. We have to eat this elephant one forkful at a time. Randy brings up several -and the content is a big, big issue. I contend that if it’s great, you could deliver it on a toaster and people would listen. If that part could be fixed you’d see things start to improve. Then the receivers, and their abhorrent quality. Fix that, along with the noise floor. Then the signal disparity. Differing power levels need to be closely examined. Will broadcasters start appealing to the audience or continue to feed Wall Street? Ask the “Big Three” how that’s going.

  9. Exactly! People have shown they will listen to compelling content regardless of the delivery medium.

    Broadcasters were walking away from AM using translators and in some cases, turning off the station and handing back licenses until the car makers noticed and wanted to stop putting AM in cars. Then all of a sudden AM was important again.

  10. Excellent opinion and insights from one of the pioneers of what was the revitalization of AM Radio. The AMs that continue to win have great content and have a connection to their communities. Pushing an App and widening a station’s distribution is critical. However, Randy is so very right in What he’s written here. Improve the product and improve the listening environment … and improve the audio quality.

  11. The average age of AM listeners today is 70+. Young people are NOT listening to the AM band. Stations need to create the desire for consumers to listen. Not just spoken word, but other formats as well. Something out of the ordinary. Let high-schoolers do oldies shows on AM. What have you got to lose? AM was a kids medium till the 1970’s. They’re schools will be crazy listening to friends on the radio. Spreads lots of word-of-mouth, while increasing TSP & Cume. The only people really listening to AM radio are people who grew up with it. Time to change that scenario.


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