Monday, September 9, 2013

A Quest to Save AM Before It’s Lost in the Static

The digital age is killing AM radio, an American institution that brought the nation fireside chats, Casey Kasem’s Top 40 and scratchy broadcasts of the World Series. Long surpassed by FM and more recently cast aside by satellite radio and Pandora, AM is now under siege from a new threat: rising interference from smartphones and consumer electronics that reduce many AM stations to little more than static. Its audience has sunk to historical lows.

But at least one man in Washington is tuning in.

Ajit Pai, the lone Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, is on a personal if quixotic quest to save AM. After a little more than a year in the job, he is urging the F.C.C. to undertake an overhaul of AM radio, which he calls “the audible core of our national culture.” He sees AM — largely the realm of local news, sports, conservative talk and religious broadcasters — as vital in emergencies and in rural areas.

“AM radio is localism, it is community,” Mr. Pai, 40, said in an interview.

AM’s longer wavelength means it can be heard at far greater distances and so in crises, he said, “AM radio is always going to be there.” As an example, he cited Fort Yukon, Alaska, where the AM station KZPA broadcasts inquiries about missing hunters and transmits flood alerts during the annual spring ice breakup.

“When the power goes out, when you can’t get a good cell signal, when the Internet goes down, people turn to battery-powered AM radios to get the information they need,” Mr. Pai said.

He admits to feelings of nostalgia. As the son of Indian immigrants growing up in small-town Parsons, Kan., he listened to his high school basketball team win a 1987 championship, he said. “I sat in my bedroom with my radio tuned into KLKC 1540,” he recalled. On boyhood family road trips across the wide Kansas plains, he said, AM radio “was a constant companion.”

But that was then. In 1978, when Mr. Pai was 5, half of all radio listening was on the AM dial. By 2011 AM listenership had fallen to 15 percent, or an average of 3.1 million people, according to a survey by Veronis Suhler Stevenson, a private investment firm. While the number of FM listeners has declined, too, they still averaged 18 million in 2011. (The figures are averages based on measuring listeners every 15 minutes.)

Although five of the top 10 radio stations in the country, as measured by advertising dollars, are AM — among them WCBS in New York and KFI in Los Angeles — the wealth drops rapidly after that. In 1970 AM accounted for 63 percent of broadcast radio stations, but now it accounts for 21 percent, or 4,900 outlets, according to Arbitron. FM accounts for 44 percent, or 10,200 stations. About 35 percent of stations stream content online.

“With the audience goes the advertising revenues,” said Milford Smith, vice president for radio engineering at Greater Media, which owns 21 stations, three of them AM. “That makes for a double whammy.”

Nearly all English-language AM stations have given up playing music, and even a third of the 30 Major League Baseball teams now broadcast on FM. AM, however, remains the realm of conservative talk radio, including roughly 80 percent of the 600 radio stations that carry Rush Limbaugh. Talk radio has helped keep AM alive.

“If it had to rely on music,” said Michael Harrison, editor and publisher of Talkers magazine, “AM radio would be dead.”

But why try to salvage AM? Critics say its decline is simply natural selection at work, and many now support converting the frequency for use by other wireless technologies. A big sign of AM’s weakness is that one hope for many of its stations may be channeling their broadcasts onto FM.

Not so fast, said Mr. Pai, who has been pushing the F.C.C.’s interim chairwoman, Mignon Clyburn, to put the revitalization of AM high on the agency’s agenda.

“I’m obviously bullish on next-generation technology,” Mr. Pai said. “But I certainly think there continues to be a place for broadcasting and for AM radio.”

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