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Digital AM: FCC Decision Sets Stage for Some to Move From Analog

New York talker to become all-digital offering after April announcement.

Chrissy Paradis

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Image Courtesy: WFAS-AM/Cumulus Media

As the ever present need for adaptability and growing investment in the revitalization of AM radio, there has been a new option for AM stations that have been working to navigate their way through some of the unavoidable programming challenges and difficulties.

Following a late 2020 decision made by the FCC allowing for authorization for AM stations to choose for themselves what the future holds. This choice allows the decision of if and when the broadcaster chooses to make the change at all and how it will be executed in the marketplace; leaving the call to opt for a transfer of an AM station’s operations, essentially leaning on the advancements, streamlined efficiency and promising data acquired from studying the digital space. This would leave the broadcaster with the choice to forego broadcasting on the AM frequency or choosing to adapt a hybrid of the digital and AM analog station model.

The decision made in October 2020, was designed with the goal of embracing advancement and allowing stations to thrive in the face of the media marketplace landscape. “All-digital broadcasting offers AM listeners significantly improved audio quality and more reliable coverage over a wider listenable area than analog or hybrid digital broadcasts. It also allows broadcasters to provide additional services to the public, such as song title and artist information.”

As the measure was developed, the intention was never hidden from the public, as the description of the decision was publicly provided on the FCC’s website reading, “Action Will Improve Listening Experience and Provide Consumers with Enhanced Services.”

The form FCC-335 AM or ‘Digital Notification’ has been part of the continued efforts made by the FCC and its chair to continue to revitalize AM radio, was approved unanimously in 2020 and the final ruling and announcement of effective date were included on the Federal Register last week on April 29, 2021 (Vol 86, No 81).

“Conversion to all-digital AM transmission (and then, consequent compliance with the rules governing all- digital operation) is completely voluntary and therefore flexible, based on an AM broadcaster’s assessment of its individual financial and technical circumstances, including size.”

The 31st point of the synopsis continues, “AM broadcasters overwhelmingly support the proposal to allow all-digital AM broadcasting, as do broadcast engineers, technology companies, and individual listeners.”

Efforts to assemble accurate data and analysis have been ongoing from the FCC, as Hubbard’s WWFD “The Gamut” operated on experimental authorization from the FCC beginning in July 2018, becoming effectively known as the first all-digital AM station.

Additional efforts include nine all-digital field tests between 2012-2014 and subsequent interference lab tests in 2015-2016 with an emphasis on incorporating the various formats and geographic regions. The data recovered from the study has been condensed into the table below:
https://nabpilot.org/work/projects/all-digital-am-radio-testing/

Opting for an all-digital operation has often been associated with claims of providing signal stability and strength, which would thereby impact the audience development and engagement for the station. WMGG in Tampa made the call to go in the digital direction in January. The most recent station to announce an all-digital operation model comes from just outside the largest market in the country, dubbing the new WFAS as “Digital AM 1230 HD: New Talk For New York” and including the following statement regarding the station’s operations:
https://twitter.com/1230Digital/status/1383158842222071810?s=20

The Cumulus station of White Plains, a station whose initial license was first obtained in 1926, has been sure to follow the guidelines of the FCC’s Form 335-AM filing procedure (https://transition.fcc.gov/Forms/Form335/335am.pdf), with one of the requirements being that the filing station must provide a minimum of 30 days notice of the decision for the analog listeners before the change can occur. Other requirements include bandwidth and EAS compliance.

The opportunity to make the transition to digital or hybrid digital station is undoubtedly going to impact the sports and news talk AM radio landscape—and it begs the question of will turning off the AM analog signal be what revitalizes the medium or is it simply about finding a way of riding the wave of innovation? With the jury still out, the court of public opinion will certainly provide a variety of analyses and hot takes regarding the impact on the medium and the BSM / BNM team will continue to share the subsequent developments.

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BNM Writers

The Lost Radio Art of Building a Community Around Your On-Air Product

Your media outlet needs to develop a closer bond with your audience and make them (and you) part of a shared community.

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A photo of a crowd

How well do you know your radio audience? Wait, that goes the other way, too: How well does your audience know you? And are they your audience, or something more than that?

It’s something to consider in an era when media has become overcrowded and audiences are scattered among many platforms. Is your constituency passive – they listen, watch, or read, but don’t feel any particular loyalty or fealty to you – or is it a real community with a strong two-way connection to you and your brand?

I’ll defer to Seth Resler, who has been promoting the importance of community for radio, as to specifics on why community is important (and the missing element in radio marketing). It does occur to me that radio used to be able to do this, and do it better than any other medium. Great personalities and stations were able to create bonds with their listeners that today’s media just doesn’t do as well anymore.

From Jean Shepherd’s “Night People” to Howard Stern’s legion of fans, teens picking sides in the Top 40 battles of yore (were you a KHJ Boss Radio listener or a KRLA die-hard? WABC All-Americans or WMCA Good Guys? WLS or Super CFL?)… even in those pre-social media days, there was a connection that was more than just passive or background listening. It’s why there’s (perhaps too much) nostalgia for those days, especially among the Facebook commentators who want radio to be just like that today. Those days are over.

But community building isn’t, and all you need to know is “Swiftie” or “Bey Hive” to understand what a rabid fan base can do for you. Media in general doesn’t get fans like that anymore, but it should be taking cues from how fans behave online. DJs and hosts should be celebrities, not anonymous one-name interchangeable plug-and-play voice trackers.

Events you create should be big deals clearly identified with your brand (look at D.C., where the “HFStival” is returning even though WHFS as a radio station is long gone from the market). Got a newspaper? Create and promote social media accounts and aggressively promote them as the best local forum on every topic, like local restaurants, local politics, local everything. Ideally, you should make your identity synonymous with your audience and your locality. Your name should mean something more than just “a radio station” or “a newspaper” or “a website.” Think big, then think bigger.

Here’s an example of something someone should be doing: Right now, we’ve entered Hurricane Season in these parts, and as I write this, it’s pouring. The local TV stations in West Palm and Miami all compete to be identified as “the weather station,” promoting their meteorologists being “most accurate” and “number one for weather.”

Great, but it just ends there with the marketing. They could have Facebook groups, and Instagram posts, and Zoom open meetings where people can ask questions and get answers, and report conditions in real-time. Some do have hurricane preparation events, but they could be more than just a card table and canopy with brochures and a station employee there to meet and greet. They all have apps, and that helps, but there’s no interactivity.

As a local resident, do I know who to trust most on the weather? Do I feel loyalty to any of the stations? Not really. There’s no community. So I just turn on the TV and whichever channel I happen to land upon first is what I’ll watch for weather updates. They’re basically the same. Radio?

I couldn’t tell you which station is the go-to for anything. A lot of them just simulcast TV news coverage in emergencies anyway. I haven’t met anyone here who’s a real fan of any local radio station, though that may be a function of the number of new arrivals here, mostly from Long Island; they’re all more likely to say they listen(ed) to 1010 WINS for news anyway.

TL;DR: Your media outlet needs to develop a closer bond with your audience and make them (and you) part of a shared community. Turn fans into family. Ask Seth Resler for more. We have too many ex-New Yorkers here. Ranger Suarez for NL Cy Young. Okay, that wasn’t in here, but still.

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BNM Writers

Steve Cochran Isn’t Looking in the Rear View Mirror After WLS-AM 890 Exit

“(WLS) and I were never a natural fit. But I believe — and I believe they believed — that we could do something and deliver something … everybody wasn’t rowing the boat in the same direction, but I’m good.”

Garrett Searight

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A photo of Steve Cochran
(Photo: Steve Cochran)

There’s a longstanding adage in the radio business: “You haven’t really been in radio until you’ve been fired.” Steve Cochran has embodied the mantra 11 times after exiting Chicago news/talk station WLS-AM 890 last Friday.

After a two-year run in mornings on the Cumulus-owned station, the two sides went their separate ways in what Cochran said was an amicable parting.

“I liked those people a lot. They’re good people. We just have a disagreement on what show should be on there,” he said. “The signs aren’t hard to figure out. It was not contentious. I’ve certainly had ugly ones. This was not it. We just simply disagree on how to do the best show in in Chicago. And frankly, I felt like I was doing not just that, but the best show in the country. And the last sane talk show in the country.”

That sentiment — “the last sane talk show in the country” — is something Cochran had shared on the air during his stint with the station.

When asked what that exactly meant to him, Steve Cochran noted that it includes two separate issues. One is the business side of radio which affects companies like iHeartMedia, Audacy, and Cumulus. He believes some of the larger radio operators are solely focused on stock price, which in turn affects the on-air programming.

But maybe more importantly is the political polarization that has enveloped the talk radio space that Cochran has become most disillusioned with.

“This is not a secret: I’ve leaned right most of my life, but I’ve voted right and left depending on the candidate — the way I think everybody ought to,” said Cochran. “Because the far right and the far left, as I’ve said a million times, will kill the country. And I just wanted to drive the middle. I still think you could monetize the middle, but you have to have a company that’s willing to really invest in that.

“They held up their end of the bargain and they didn’t tell me how to do the show. And I held up mine and told him that I would be hard on Trump, but I would also be hard on any Democrats that deserved it. I pound on the mayor of Chicago, who’s a disaster, and the Democratic machine in Chicago, which is also a disaster, over and over again. We got good response from a lot of people that said, ‘Look, you’re fair. I don’t always agree, but I appreciate it.'”

He continued by noting that welcoming each side of the political aisle to talk radio needs to be much more prevalent than it has become, stating “Unless we get back to talking to each other, we’re done and everything in politics now is about not doing that.”

Steve Cochran admitted that he might not have been the best fit for WLS — and vice versa — but was interested in giving the position a test run after more than 15 years at crosstown rival WGN.

He called the relationship “a joint experiment”, before noting that that the proposed mission of the Cumulus-owned outlet to be “the most conservative station in America,” in the words of former colleague John Howell, wasn’t the perfect situation for him at this stage of his career.

After more than 40 years in the industry, and being 63 years old, it’s logical question to wonder what the future holds for Steve Cochran.

And he revealed he has the same thoughts.

“I will miss being on the radio. I don’t know that I’ll ever be on the radio again, and that’s a very weird thing to say after 43 years,” he shared. “I just think radio is still the greatest medium.”

As much as he questions his potential future on the air, Cochran questions if radio entities will be able to shift their focus away from AM radio to a more easily accessible distribution platform for younger audiences.

“The mistake these companies have made in regards to AM talk radio — and I said this to Cumulus — is stop calling it AM. When you say ‘AM,’ it sounds like an antique store. And it’s a natural turnoff to anybody under the age of probably 45.

“So in talk radio, AM should be treated like every other content platform. It’s just another content platform. It should have as much of the same opportunities and revenue streams as well. Cameras in studio, a video guy, social media people to monetize all of that,” he said. “I think the companies who are gonna win this — the remaining companies that may feel like they’re stuck with these big AMs — will figure out a way to treat them like content platforms and not like ‘Grandma’s down on the corner, the light’s on so I guess she’s ok.'”

If his morning show at WLS-AM 890 really was his last radio hurrah, Steve Cochran is content with that.

“When I left (WGN) — that was not my call, or my desire, though I hated the way the company was being run at that point, and still being run, frankly, it’s half the radio station once was. And (WLS) and I were never a natural fit, but I really believed — and I believe they believed — that we could do something and deliver something,” Cochran said. “But it involved a lot of promotion, a lot of focus, and everybody wasn’t rowing the boat the same way.

“So I came back, I had my say, and I think I’m better at this than I’ve ever been. I’d like to be able to do it somewhere, but for the time being, and maybe fully, I’m gonna do it in podcast form.”

His podcast — Live From My Office — has published more than 350 episodes since its launch. In addition to his podcast, Cochran continues to be a stand-up comedian in the Windy City, with a set scheduled for Friday night at the Raue Center for the Arts.

It would be easy for him to view the departure from the venerable Chicago station as a sad note. However, Cochran reiterated that he had no bad things to say about management in Chicago or the company, and noted that they stuck to everything the two sides agreed upon before the “joint experiment.”

“I didn’t get notes or direction or censorship or editing by WLS in Chicago or by Cumulus and I respect that. That was our agreement going in, and they honored it,” Steve Cochran shared. “But I have considerations for sponsors and consideration for the framework of things when I’m working for somebody else. So I don’t have to worry about that stuff anymore. That’s a bit of the freedom, but that’s just a small piece of it ’cause I never felt restricted at WLS.”

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How Hunter Biden Talk Should Be Handled By News Media Members

I have some points that you may not have considered, and this could be useful for your show! 

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A photo of Hunter Biden appearing on Fox News
(Photo: Fox News)

The surviving first son — Hunter Biden — was convicted of 3 felonies over his gun buy after lying that he was not a drug addict. I am not going to joke about addiction. It truly is a horrible infliction affecting people in families all over the world and the First Family. But stick with me here. I have some points that you may not have considered, and this could be useful for your show! 

Hunter Biden was raised by an absent father. Sen. Joe Biden has often told the story about taking Amtrak home every night to be at home for his kids. Do you know what would have been better? Raising the kids in Washington DC. Arriving at midnight on a train is not parenting. It is virtue signaling about a commitment to fatherhood. Fatherhood is about being there for your children.

My old man was often on the road when I was a kid. It was necessary for his career as a Sales Manager. I know that if my dad could have been home for dinner every night, he would have done so. Hunter Biden’s mother was killed in a car wreck. It is a terrible thing. While Joe Biden has told that story often as a ploy for sympathy, Hunter Biden was not a prop. He didn’t choose to be raised by a political family. His lack of connection to his father was obviously a part of his addiction. Many of the addicted are hiding from pain and that pain is often familial.

Hunter learned early that the Biden name made things easier. Hunter went to Georgetown and then to Yale Law. I have no idea what Hunter’s qualifications were, but both of those institutions love bragging that a Senator’s son attended. Hunter graduated and Yale Law ain’t no summer picnic. Obviously, graduating from both institutions is an honor.

Hunter started on the grift immediately to cash in on his father’s name. Took a consulting gig with MDNA bank that had donated over $200k to his father’s campaigns. When I was in school and had started my first radio job, my full-time gig was with a hotel. I did the night audit. My dad called me and suggested that I call his fraternity brother who owned several large hotels. I told my father that I wanted to make it on my own. I didn’t want a job from a friend.

Just as a note, I was close to my parents and still hold them in high esteem. (They are no longer with us.) I decided to make my own way. I have this belief that it is not Republican or Democratic, it is reality. There amazing people are elected to Congress. The problem with Senators and Representatives is that they see the massive amount spent in the District of Columbia.

I believe that nearly all Congress can be corrupted by the cash. Hunter Biden just saw a way to cash in. It was raw greed based purely on connections to his father. There are adult children of elected officials who are cashing in because of connections to their lawmaker parents. It is dirty, it is wrong, and it is totally immoral.

Hunter Biden just joined the party. Sadly, Hunter’s father did not stop it. Joe Biden encouraged it. Nearly every member of the Biden family has cashed in on “The Big Guy.” It is dirty and the person guilty is Joe Biden. Joe Biden, who’s claimed he’s “Blue Collar Joe”, owns three homes. I had a friend point out that Joe had a book deal. My retort? Who purchased the books? My thinking is that lobbyists and big donors were at the center of it.

Joe Biden was greedy. Not because of a product, service, or company that he founded. It was because Joe Biden used his power as a U.S. Senator to become stinking rich. I love Delaware. They have The Waffle House! Imagine a strung-out Hunter Biden ordering the All-Star Special! By the way, the pork chops and eggs are amazing at The Waffle House. This is from personal experience.

Hunter cashed in on daddy. It was a family thing. But President Joe Biden chose public service as his career. Joe Biden could have stopped the Biden family scam at any moment. Why didn’t the President stop it? It was greed.

Hunter Biden and his Uncle James (Jimmy) Biden started a hedge fund that was financed by Allen Stanford. Stanford was convicted of a Ponzi Scheme and will get freedom in 2103. The Biden family made big bucks off this. Google Allen Stanford, Hunter Biden, and James Biden. I’ll tell you two people who didn’t have to return any money. Hunter and James Biden.

Hunter Biden may be the most ethical of the Biden family. He needed crack, booze, hookers to mask his personal pain. Hunter is obviously an adult and can make his own decisions. There are children from very functional families who just implode in life. There are children from impoverished families who have risen above their circumstances.

Hunter Biden is an emotional wreck. His father and stepmother have been enablers. His wives and girlfriends have allowed this behavior. But there was no chance for Hunter. He was wrecked by a dysfunctional family and a greedy dad.

I feel sorry for him. Hunter’s fall has more to do by his father than anything else. Beau Biden was the favored son. Hunter was the Prince Harry of the USA. Hunter deserves sympathy and perhaps some crack.

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