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The Transition of Talk Radio from AM to FM

January 24, 2013

Formats including sports, talk and all-news are migrating from their traditional spot on the AM dial to reside on the FM dial. It has become a growing, and surprising, new trend in radio.  Revenue, sound and reach are the three major factors contributing to this transition.

A recent example of this trend was the decision by Emmis Communications to shut down their 31-year old Urban AC station, WRKS-FM in New York, to lease its 98.7 signal to ESPN for an FM sports-talk outlet.  This switch surprised many but signifies similar changeovers to come.

“It’s like moving your store from a small shopping center to a big mall where there are more people overall, including more younger people and more women,” Jim Farley, VP of news and programming at Hubbard’s all-news WTOP-FM Washington, D.C. explained to Billboard magazine.  “It’s a matter of location, location, location.”

WTOP was initially an AM-only station until adding an FM simulcast in 1997 to expand the station’s reach to an outlying area of the market not covered by the weaker signal.

ESPN is adding FM affiliates at an extremely fast pace, growing from 62 FM stations in fall 2009 to more than twice that number today.  Glen Enoch, ESPN VP of integrated media research, compared AM and FM sports audiences, finding that the median FM sports listener’s age is 40, which is five years younger than the AM band.  Those five years mark a significant difference since many advertisers using radio specifically seek ad buys that target the 25-54 demographic.

For markets rated by Arbitron’s PPM methodology, Enoch found 83 AM sports stations and 25 FM outlets.  The FM stations averaged more than twice the listeners as compared to the AM stations.  Plus, in 16 markets where there are sports stations on both bands, the FM station was the higher-rated outlet in 11 of those markets.

Another factor contributing to the transition of talk to FM is the distinct difference in sound quality.  Radio stations are hoping to hook audiences that grew up with digital-quality sound from iPods and other electronic devices.  Being on the FM dial seems to be a clear advantage for sales in the modern era.

-Morgan O’Connor, Production Specialist

Source:  Billboard; 5/19/2012, Vol. 124 Issue 17, p6-7