AM Radio: Welcome to the Cesspool

AM Radio: Welcome the Cesspool

Next week’s NAB convention will include a panel on AM radio “revitalization,” exploring methods for “sustaining and enhancing AM radio as a unique entertainment medium.”

To which one might say, “Staring into a cesspool, what’s to enhance – or sustain?”

Radio is often viewed as the bastard cousin at NAB, the medium that doesn’t garner much attention alongside TV and new technologies. Yet its descent into ethical gray areas – particularly vis-a-vis advertising, which is frequently indistinguishable from the content – offers a warning of the path higher-profile media could follow as the desperation fueled by an ad-avoiding world takes its toll.

Now to be fair, this comes through the prism of surfing the AM dial in Los Angeles, where there are a surplus of stations, many broadcasting in a language (Spanish) I don’t speak with any fluency. Nevertheless, the trends here – from the glut of nationally syndicated programming carried to the diminution of the newsradio outlets, both now owned by CBS – appear to represent an exaggerated take on what’s happening nationwide, as terrestrial radio claws to survive amid satellite and smartphone alternatives.

AM’s most obvious excess would be its contribution to political polarization, in the form of talk hosts (most conservative, a la Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity, but with a few high-profile liberals as well) who have helped foster the current endless-campaign environment. As Los Angeles Times theatre critic Charles McNulty summed it up recently, talkradio is a “boisterous realm in which innuendo substitutes for evidence and fear-mongering replaces analysis.” Moreover, the financial attractiveness of that model – requiring little more than a loud voice and amplifying megaphone – has become dominant in cable news.

Much more insidious, though, is the relationship between stations and advertisers, where talent seamlessly segues from chatting about the NCAA tournament on sportstalk (every bit as shrill in its own way as politics) or President Obama to the merits of local lending institutions, owning gold, or the triumvirate of hair restoration, vision-correction surgery and health/dietary aids. (Listen to enough AM radio, and the prevailing image is of an audience that’s balding, obese, needs to refinance its mortgage and might be facing a drunk-driving conviction.)

There’s no direct equivalent on TV, even in the murky realm of product-placement, since the dulcet voice listeners hear all the time begins pitching a product – without any visual cue to signal the shift. Just try to imagine CNN’s Anderson Cooper or Wolf Blitzer saying, “The North Korean border is certainly a gray area. And speaking of gray, while I’ve gotten used to my hair color, if you’d like to look younger, consider the good folks at Grecian Formula.”

Even that, however, is less insidious than the poorly labeled infomercials that fill stations primarily on weekend mornings, often for questionable medical supplements or cures. Aside from a “host” who keeps mentioning the toll-free number, many of these ads feature “callers” who phone in with a question and, incidentally, testimonials about how well the magical stuff works for them.

Despite Federal Trade Commission and Federal Communications Commission guidelines governing such disclosures, it’s clear advertisers have become adept at sidling up to the lines to disguise their messages. Ditto for “live read” endorsements, which can leave you guessing why the hosts are talking about that institution right up until they give out the number.

According to the Radio Advertising Bureau, overall radio revenue grew slightly in 2012 – buoyed in part by the digital sector – to roughly $16.5 billion. Moreover, spending has been relatively flat the last three years, reflecting some stability after a steep decline in 2009 corresponding with the economic downturn.

Everyone in media is under pressure, and it’s hard to completely blame beleaguered station owners and managers for grasping at lifelines, especially when the government appears so lax regarding enforcement measures.

By the way, FCC commissioner Ajit V. Pai — a Republican appointee with a stated commitment to “a regulatory environment in which competition and innovation will flourish” — will conduct the aforementioned revitalization session. While that doesn’t sound like a prescription for asking tough questions, it would surely be poetic justice if somebody interrupts the discussion to deliver a non sequitur about the merits of buying gold.

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  1. Art Sutton says:

    I’ve been in the radio business for 36 years. The big difference now vs past … there were some really great radio stations serving their community and listeners in the largest markets. KMOX, KFI, WJR, WSB, KGO to name just a few. Every major city had at least three or four really great radio stations. Each was programmed to reflect the area they served..did it well, huge ratings and huge revenue. WGN in Chicago is about the last one of those left and had the newspaper division not gone broke distracting the powers to be, it would have likely been screwed up too. Nowadays, most large market radio stations all sound the same and the owners, deeply in debt, are forced to run them as cheaply as possible. The radio stations closest to their audiences and communities are now found in the smaller markets but budgets there are limited so there is little innovation for the medium at a time when it faces a world of new options. However, it’s a cheap distribution system and even in the worst of times, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to make money in the business if you don’t overload the debt. Radio in the future won’t be like radio in the past. While not as bad off as the newspaper industry, it is interesting to note that Warren Buffett is buying newspapers nowadays but he only buys in certain places….smaller cities where still is a sense of community….where the content is locally focused….where the content has not been given away on the internet to the extent it has in other places. And, most of the markets are not the fastest growing or in the most desirable areas of the country. This is occuring in the radio business, too.

  2. Tom Fricke says:

    Lowry, the TV critic, writes this truth: “Radio is often viewed as the bastard cousin at NAB, the medium that doesn’t garner much attention alongside TV and new technologies.” Yet, being a TV critic, Lowry hops aboard the NAB train with their agenda of continuing to bastardize radio. Lowry obviously doesn’t get it, or more likely jealous of the huge audience still garnered by radio; both AM & FM…in spite of the NAB, which will always favor “TV and new technologies.”

  3. Lars Larson says:

    pretty obvious this liberal writer doesn’t know much about the radio business.
    38 years in radio
    16 years in talk
    10 years in national syndication

  4. Victor says:

    And yet today, AM Radio has more listeners than Variety has readers. Heck, AM Radio has more listeners than most TV networks have viewers! If you want to talk cesspool, look at all the bad infomercials and shows TV runs everyday.

  5. Tom says:

    TV critics should stick to TV. Radio is a whole different animal.

  6. Mark Heller says:

    Ever heard of carrier synchronization? How about Pre-Sunrise Authority? Ever wonder why the sodium vapor lights at the home improvement center interfere with AM radio reception? And, where would foreign broadcasters go, in LA? You’re the city that translates the men’s room signs! This NAB discussion should not be about Rush Limbaugh, and probably will not touch those vitamin shows, either. And, don’t worry…the FM band is getting just a junked up, as the AM band is.

  7. willcate says:

    This is hardly anything new. Air-talent on radio has interspersed live ads with non-ad content ever since the 1940s and 50s.

  8. P Hut Hater of People Who Don't get It says:

    ” “Staring into a cesspool, what’s to enhance – or sustain?””

    Niche formats like foreign , oldies, and local community radio stations that you can listen to without data plans?

  9. Ford Michaels says:

    And, using “cesspool” in a headline is taking the highground? But let’s not get tangential on the state of the written word!

    • JackieV says:

      Lamestream media? Let’s remember who OWNS the alleged “lamestream media” – News Corp, Clear Channel, Comcast, Cumulus… Hardly the bastion of liberal politics. You can’t have it both ways.

      • Laurence Glavin says:

        Newscorp and Comcast do not own any radio stations. Newscorp offers some talk shows, and newscasts at-the-top-of-the-hour, but has very little part if any in Fox
        Sports Network for radio.

    • P Hut Hater of People Who Don't get It says:

      Right because its all Rush Limbaugh. Ignore the few remaining locally run radio stations that give a ($%^ about the local community.

      Its all Rush Limbaugh.

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