Radio Waves: December 17, 2021

KNX-FM Returns (but not the way you thought)

As you read in this paper — or heard for yourself if you tuned in on your radio — KNX (1070 AM) is now on FM. The all-news station began an AM-FM simulcast at 3 p.m. on Monday, December 6th, over the airwaves of KNOU (97.1 FM). I do expect that the KNX-FM call-letters will return soon.

The loss of top-40 on what was called 97.1 Now was hardly noticed, as the station was barely into the top-30 stations — a distant competitor to KIIS-FM (102.7) which itself is not performing as well as it once did. In fact, Now signed off the air at 3:00 with little fanfare — no goodbyes, no announcement. Just the hourly ID and the first song of the hour, cut short by a quick history of KNX as the beginning of the simulcast. It was as if the DJ didn’t know.

And then it hit me – the DJ didn’t know – the station wasn’t really real anyway. Every shift except evenings was piped in from out of town, and the music was programmed nationally. I doubt the DJs on the air knew or even cared that Now was going away.

Odd that a station programmed nationally, with DJs in another city and a morning show that is mostly fake bits and scripted dialog would not do well, but I digress.

What is surprising is that the new station identifies itself as KNX News 97.1 FM — not even mentioning the 1070 AM position, the location it has held throughout most of its 100 year history. It’s as if AM doesn’t exist, something owner Audacy does not do on its KCBS in San Francisco … both frequencies are mentioned there.  Is Audacy killing off KNX 1070 on its Centennial?

That could be. Longterm, Audacy could be looking to shift all-news to FM in an attempt to attract younger listeners to the format. What they eventually do with the AM — if anything  — is currently unknown. But the move to FM isn’t necessarily a bad idea. As Dave Beasing, former programmer of The Sound, told me, “Younger people for the most part don’t listen to AM radio at all, putting it on FM might help the format grow.”

And it does appear to work in San Francisco, where the AM and FM signals each contribute about half of the ratings earned by the station, which is currently in second place overall ratings-wise. 

The move also takes care of two issues that can cause problems: indoor office reception on the AM band is almost impossible due to interference and building designs that often block AM radio waves, so at-work listening is difficult. As well, the designers of some electric cars leave AM out of the in-car entertainment systems due to interference from the car’s electronics … though apps can mitigate the issue.

My take on the move is mixed. KNX is already a top-10 station in the Nielsens, and covers the city with 50,000 watts of clear channel power. You can hear KNX almost everywhere, and the transmitter site in Torrance is superb. Apps already take care of areas in which reception is troublesome, and apps are how young(er) people are listening. So I just don’t see a ratings increase for the station on FM, nor do I see the audience skewing any younger. 

I am bothered by the fact that the station doesn’t promote the AM frequency at all. This makes me think that long-term, the AM signal will be sold or Audacy will change the format to something that puts another nail in the AM coffin. As it is, KFI (640 AM) and KNX are the only stations attracting sizable audiences on the band; losing KNX would be akin, as Beasing told me, to a mall losing an anchor tenant … the remaining stores lose customers too.

And that may be one reason Audacy is doing it … to try to hurt KFI. The fewer listeners on AM overall, the greater the chance to take down KFI. But there is a problem: KFI and KNX actually don’t share a lot of listeners, and all KFI owner iHeart has to do is put KFI own FM as well. Of course unlike Audacy, iHeart doesn’t have as any truly unsuccessful FM stations as does Audacy. 

In the 1950s and ‘60s, simulcasting actually made some sense. Most people didn’t have FM radios, but if you did, you could tune in and hear a station without interference and perhaps better fidelity. Today, especially when you are using a full-power FM signal, if you can hear it on FM, why bother with AM? AM, in my opinion, truly should be used for programming you can’t find on FM. Something clever. Something interesting. Something special, even if limited in total audience.

But listening habits can be hard to break. Here’s what I think will happen: Audacy will try to shift all KNX listening to the FM band. There won’t be a substantial long-term increase in total listening, but if successful in moving them over, Audacy will either sell 1070 AM or use it for brokered programming: low-rated but paid programming bringing in a steady stream of money. Or they may use it for another format, such as the CBS SportsRadio format.

If listeners don’t make the move to FM and a substantial number still tune through the AM, the simulcast will continue, ironically proving that AM is not as dead as many think.

What are your thoughts? If you are currently a listener, will you switch to the FM? If you have never listened before, will you try it now? I’d love to hear from you.