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AM Radio: Welcome to 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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