Friday, February 15, 2013


The discussion over the AM band's viability gains more publicity each month. Manufacturers are reducing the quality of the AM sections in their radios, home receivers, and in-dash stereos.  Broadcasters are apathetic about  improving AM's quality without some hope of investment in improved equipment by manufacturers (broadcast and consumer) and, there's the ever-looming discussions about moving AM broadcasters to another band. It's been called the “Chicken and the Egg” question on many a radio internet discussion board as broadcasters point fingers at the manufacturers...and vice-versa, with the FCC empanelling discussion groups on the matter.  We, the (smaller) AM broadcasters are then left
to wonder, “Who makes THEM the expert on AM, and are they really qualified to discuss our future if they're not working in the trenches of AM today?”

If, on the other hand I was the one who was asked if AM can be revitalized, my answer would be a definite "yes!" And the how and why?   "With careful attention to detail, and... Because you can!"

What happened to the day in which we, as broadcasters  performed our respective jobs to the best of our abilities because it brought pride in our product and  work?   Add some good talent to the overwhelming availability of quality used  (secondary-market) broadcast equipment;  and there's no reason even small stations with small budgets can't sound their best 100 percent of the time!

Our AM, (the first of 3 stations I now own) is a prime example of “it can be done!” It's also a great example of AM's still being a viable entertainment and information source. Our station was revived from the dead. Off the air from the death of the former owner. Two weeks to go before license revocation. Tired transmitter, pathetic processing, and the worst wiring of audio, ever!  But...we dug it up the corpse. Got it breathing. Told our town it was alive, and that we were here!

There was no client list. No clients at all. No accounts receivable, no web presence, no logo, no listeners, and...for the most part, no faith in our survival. I'm sure there was many an office-pool against our lasting very long, but we did survive, and now we're going on 9-years of AM!  Yes, as some of you may know, we have an FM translator, but we've only had it for 3 of those years.  Stay with me, and I'll tell you how this little station came to be a shining example of local AM broadcasting, and with great sound, to boot!

Part of the job of AM station owners is educating the audience. Educating them that we exist!  This job can be both time-consuming and difficult.  In our case, we had to re-educate our town to the fact that AM can sound great.  Since operating the station was a full-time job for me and the same was planned for my business partner in the future,  we naturally wanted the best sound we could create on a limited start-up budget.  We asked our engineers to find the best older processing possible,  since the budget wouldn't afford newer equipment.   We chose classic CRL from the 1980's and 90's, and never looked back. From our sign-on in 2004  until today, we've kept our AM sounding bright, clear, crisp, clean,  yet warm and inviting!  Because of carefully choosing our used processing, while we were new in town listeners to the "new" WION often remarked,  “I'm hearing things in the music I've never heard before!” and yet this was long before we turned on CQUAM Stereo!

More recently, those CRL and other analog processing boxes from the 1980's and 1990's have been reworked with new components, and refurbished for more years of use, and they're working their hearts-out for us like brand new, providing a nice smooth yet strong sound for our AM signal and our newly-added internet stream.

A couple years into owning and operating WION, we investigated the possibility of correcting an historic error in judgment by both the original ownership and the FCC regarding the station's coverage, and returned our daytime signal to Non-Directional, bringing in a larger daytime audience and more coverage on a major interstate. Yes it took investment on our part,  along with good engineering and legal representation. Those are two areas in which an owner should never cut corners. A few years after that, came the work of acquiring an FM translator, moving it from south of town to our own property, and upping its power.  For us it was  a two-step process, and not inexpensive for a small operator, but we did it! (Again with the patient help of great engineering and legal representation.)

I will not say the FM saved our station. I will, however state for the record that in its first year, it brought in 17 new clients from a nearby town which is under-served by our AM due to today's noise on the AM band,  yet the town is still in our primary coverage area. The Translator's main purpose was to satisfy those people who would NOT tune-in AM because of it's “stigma” as a talk-only band with horrible sound quality. Which brings me to what AM really needs: (after owners who care) An awareness campaign at least as large as the recent digital TV conversion campaign, one that is backed and pushed by the FCC, the NAB,  state broadcasters' associations and AM station owners. 

AM, believe it or not is new to some people!   We've had youngsters of our clients ask their parents, “what is AM, anyway?” And that is one thing which tells me there is a need to educate our country about AM's existence and potential. (Probably for the first time, since the AM band never needed this before.)  But, we won't win people over with badly processed and ignored AM signals feeding into web streams.

Anyone who has visited the internet stream of WION-AM in Ionia, Michigan has been amazed at the sound. Most most people would never know it's AM.  Full AM stereo.  With attention to detail in its delivery.  We tell  people it's AM for the purpose of public education to AM,  and to help  create a positive spin on AM stations like ours.   We've had NO complaints from any listener, and no comments from the public such as, “I don't like listening to AM.” or, “I'd listen on the stream  if it wasn't AM.”  On the contrary! Our AM stereo signal on the web is proving to today's modern digital-era listeners that analog AM can sound spectacular.

So, if the FCC is going to have a panel of “experts” discussing the future of the AM band,  my question to them would be, “Why doesn't the FCC start helping AM broadcasters win the public's ears with a public-awareness campaign of at least the size and impact that was given to the digital TV conversion?   We don't need to move to another band! We need people to know that many small and large towns turn to AM for emergencies, information, and general entertainment. Many areas of our country have ONLY an AM station for their radio service. Some residents rely heavily on it. Others still need to be told it exists. Either way, public education to AM's existence and potential will help!

As far as sound quality goes, you're welcome to laugh if you want,  but I'll risk saying it: Many a “digital” station doesn't sound as good as our little 'ol analog AM 1430! (which, at night, by the way still uses feed cables for two towers from the 1960's, and an equally old matching network connecting to our three towers and still sounds great!)

Our recipe? Attention to detail, combined with pride in our work all the way  from the studio to the towers. This means that first of all,  we are owners that care about our station.  We have to be. We're not part of a corporate monster that can toss stations and people aside to save money. We invested our LIVES in our station. Electronically, it all starts with owners' knowledge of the potentially excellent quality of sound that  AM broadcasters can produce for the public. Then, add the deployment of quality equipment (well maintained used will work fine) and, excellent legal and engineering backup. The result is excellence in radio "sound" and programming quality.

From a business standpoint we've also witnessed  that when a quality product is on the air, it attracts quality people to the door who want to be part of our team!  That's why both our salespeople came to with us, how our team of engineers came to us, and how we've grown for nearly nine years. People enjoy being part of a “winning” business team.

The one thing I've not addressed in our own “recipe” for being a success with listeners is the programming.  It's "that word" that gets thrown around all too loosely anymore. We have to be local.  We can't be what every other station on the dial is being today. If we, as station owners only give our towns the same syndicated programming that the next town has,  our stations are doomed to be forgotten.

 We could have programmed typical AM fare consisting of talk shows; (mixing up times and sprinkling in network news)  but we didn't. We operate a local morning and afternoon show, all locally programmed music with a music scheduler and local music director, then we add-in  network news of our choice for top-of-the-hour updates, and carefully selected feature programs for weekends.  Parts of the day have "information blocks” that keep our listeners tuned to us.   Some features are even locally produced. It's compelling programming that brings our listeners back day after day.  We verify this by maintaining a “listening business list” of  offices, stores, restaurants, auto service establishments and others who regularly interact with our station by phone, fax, and e-mail.  That list proves we're getting our station heard by business owners, their employees and their businesses' clients.  It's also a great sales tool, given that we're not a rated market.   None of our clients ask, “where are you in the ratings?" but they DO ask, "who listens to you?" 

What we have created in our station is exactly what used to exist in the 1970's and 1980's. A GREAT sounding AM station broadcasting in CQUAM AM stereo because we CAN.  A station with a good following locally, a solid list of clients, and never a complaint on the street to our staff.

Now that were streaming actual AM stereo on the web, not a single complaint has been received of it being AM.  In fact, it gets compliments on the sound, originating in my office from an ordinary consumer AM stereo receiver.

So you see, it can be done. Yes it's a good idea to augment your AM with an FM translator.  Yes, you augment your AM with streaming so you're available 24/7 to your local and long-distance audience, but it all starts-with a good quality AM station.

And what do we as AM operators need from the FCC and Congress?
  1. Help with Public Relations. Why NOT start an AM awareness campaign in the U.S.?
  2. Less regulations on AM stations hopping FM translators to be used as fill-ins.  Make it easier for AM's to buy translators from farther away so we can get them IN to our primary coverage area, and deploy them without the the rules on intermediate hops.
  3. Protect our Translators. If proper engineering was studied when adding a translator, (as was the case with ours)  frequencies are well chosen. Give protection to our FM translators such that we don't live in fear of having to eventually change frequencies or lose the service.
  4. Stop allowing stations to be “spun off” into trusts by big corporations  doing big deals, only to hear the new "cluster"crying that nobody will buy the spinoff from them,  or that nobody will  deal with buying from the "biggies." This practice has  contributed to the corporate attitude of "Small AM's aren't worth running or saving” which seems to be the view of some big broadcasters  after mergers.  How about working with small broadcasters (or those waiting for licenses) to help them acquire the "spin-off" stations so they're operated by people who WANT them? 
  5. When a government mandate comes down that costs the small broadcaster money, how about helping us with financing?  The Federal Government mandated the new EAS system, then offered NO help to broadcasters for the purchase or implementation of the new system.  Many a broadcaster, including we, had to literally beg at our bank to finance the new E.A.S.  Yet, when it came to television, the same government offered to buy converter boxes for everyone from the rich, to those on welfare.
  6. Stop thinking “Digital is the Answer” to everything.  (stop acting like changing to a digital MEDIUM is the answer to AM's issues. it's not.) and let us broadcast the best damn signals, sound and programming we can by removing the fear of our method of broadcasting being thrown-away by “expert panelists” who are likely not working in the trenches of every day AM radio. 

    Oh, and one last thing. If we're truly a “green thinking” country, then nobody should be considering moving our broadcasting off of the current AM band if for no other reason than to NOT fill our landfills with millions and millions of (AM) radios sold since the 1920's. (like what's happening now with TV's.)

    Visit our station website to learn about our station, listen via the pop-out player, or go to the "listen" page for better options in 'net listening. WION turned 60 years old on February 1st, 2013 with a huge on-air celebration as we marked 60 years of the same call letters in the same town all that time!


  1. Wow! What an excellent commentary on AM radio. I recall fondly my days as a DJ at a couple of small, suburban AMs in Massachusetts. If more broadcasters can have the same forward-thinking attitude that you have, I think that AM has a chance.
    On another note, I really enjoy listening to your 'AM Stereo' broadcasts via the internet. The sound quality is fantastic and your mix of music is better than any of the major market stations here in Greater Boston.
    Keep up the great work!!

  2. Manufacturers are reducing the quality of the AM sections in their radios, home receivers, and in-dash stereos. Broadcasters are apathetic ...