Making AM Radio Relevant — and Successful — Once More
As a longtime cheerleader of AM radio, much as I hate to say it, AM is dead. It’s not even on life support here in Los Angeles any more, it’s dead.
In the most recent monthly ratings released in mid September by Nielsen, there were only nine AM stations that made the list at all out of 41 stations total, accounting for a grand total of 10.1 percent of the listening audience. The highest-rated AM station, KNX (1070 AM) earned a 2.9 percent share of the audience aged six and over; KNX and KFI (640 AM) account for over half of the listenership of the entire AM band with a total of 5.5.
By comparison, the top-two FM stations, KOST (103.5 FM) and KIIS-FM (102.7) earned a combined 10.5 share … meaning that two FM stations beat out the entire AM band’s total ratings. That’s sad.
Obviously current programming is not attracting an audience. Not young, not old. Not at all. Reliance on political talk, infomercials, and sports just doesn’t cut it when it comes to attracting listeners. In order for AM to become relevant — suggesting it should “stay” relevant would mean it “is” relevant, and it most certainly is not — it needs to reinvent itself once more. Or perhaps more accurately, look to formats that would attract an audience if they were offered.
Industry observers and insiders don’t like to admit this, since the sorry state of radio in general and AM radio in particular is their fault. But many of the stations that lack ratings once did. At least they did when they played music. 570, 690, 930, 1110, 1150, 1190, 1580 … all had good, or at least acceptable ratings until they lost focus and either programmed canned junk or dropped music altogether. Even KFI, the second-highest-rated AM station in town had similar and often higher ratings as top-40 than they do now.
My opinion is that AM can still compete, as long as stations offer a format that either can’t be found elsewhere or is just done better. What formats? Glad you asked. The following are just a few that could help revitalize America’s first broadcast band.
Heavy Metal. Pure Rock KNAC (now KBUA, 105.5 FM) proved not only that there is a substantial audience for metal, but that they are among the most dedicated (read: rabid) listeners anywhere. And our area has numerous talented, up and coming metal or related bands that could use the airplay; indeed, such bands as Odyssey Dawn, Divine Intervention, Soulera and reggae/punk band LAW all play to packed venues throughout the South Bay, Long Beach and Hollywood. Play these and classic metal and you’d bring listeners to the AM band who never even knew there even was an AM band.
Fifties Oldies. A format that can’t be found anywhere. Once a mainstay of oldies stations — some purists feel that the ‘50s are the only real oldies — the format done right can attract an audience spanning generations. Art Laboe has known that for years.
Sixties Oldies. Another format that does not exist here. Much of the material that was played on stations such as KHJ (930 AM) from 1965-1970 hasn’t ridden the airwaves since then. You’d be surprised how many old airchecks feature songs you may not remember; give them a place and you again will find listeners.
Seventies oldies. See a trend here? Since KRTH (101.1 FM) and KOLA (99.9 FM) abandoned most music prior to 1980, there is a huge void waiting to be filled. And numerous programmers and DJs willing to play those hits.
Get a station that plays the best of all the rock decades with a focus on Doo-Wop and the East Los Angeles music scene (think War, El Chicano, Tierra, and more) that propelled the original KRLA (now KDIS, 1110 AM) to the top of the oldies list years ago, and I guarantee a winner.
Rap. Real rap such as heard when played by such DJs as JJ Johnson on the original late, great KDAY (now KBLA, 1580 AM). Most rap on the radio now is whitewashed; KDAY was real. Bring it back.
Big Band. MIA since the old KGRB (now KALI, 900 AM) left the air 20 years ago. Yes it skews old, but not as old as you might think. Besides, old is better than nothing. And believe it or not, “seasoned citizens” listen to ads and buy things.
Adult top-40. Music that appeals to the over-25 crowd but consists of current bands seasoned with oldies and classic rock. With a high-energy, fun but uncluttered presentation that rivals that of the best top-40 stations of the past. Think KHJ, Ten-Q or KFI all grown up.
Would these stations dominate? No. But they would be a force to be reckoned with, and would accomplish two things: bring new and old listeners back to a band that programmers long ago abandoned, and keep the FMs an their toes … in much the same way that early FM formats made AM stronger, for a while at least. Besides, as with early FM when AM dominated, today’s AM stations truly have nothing to lose.
Then perhaps some of the AM stations in Los Angeles would have something to show for themselves.