By: Mike Austerman
There appears to be a major revolution underway in radio this autumn. In city after city across the country, talk-based programming is shifting from AM stations with marginal signals to the FM band, where listeners are more likely to be able to tune in 24 hours a day without annoying interference and static.
In a way, FM radio is coming full circle: When the band was a relative new kid on the block in the 1950s and ’60s, many FM stations simulcast with their AM counterparts until the FCC made rules restricting the practice as a way to encourage more diverse programming options, particularly in larger urban areas. Those rules were done away with years ago as they became increasingly irrelevant.
Thanks to progressive programming on local stations like WABX-FM (99.5), along with more traditional formats like classical WQRS-FM (105.1), taking advantage of the band’s superior fidelity, FM grew dramatically in popularity throughout the last part of the 20th century. Just as recently as the late ’70s, getting an FM radio in your new car was most likely an option. It’s still a shock to me to see how many radios now being sold don’t have an AM band on them.
In most markets, there are only a couple of AM stations found in the highest positions in terms of audience measurement. And like WJR (760) and WWJ (950), most of them enjoy stronger-than-average signals than the rest of their AM counterparts and have been on the air for more than 50 years.
In Indianapolis earlier this week, operator Emmis abruptly changed the format of its pop music station to All-Christmas for the next 93 days in advance of moving its news-talk format from an AM station (WIBC) that doesn’t enjoy the coverage area of the FM at night.
Amazingly, the format and name of the pop station, which enjoyed great ratings, were sold to another owner in Indianapolis, which promptly reintroduced the format on a different frequency just two days later. Other recent examples of news/talk stations either moving to FM or simulcasting on both FM and AM include WTOP Washington, D.C.; KTAR Phoenix; and WBT Charlotte.
The technical changes made to WXYT-AM (1270) that allowed it to capture the broadcast rights for the Detroit Tigers and Red Wings several years back fell far short of an ideal solution for many fans, who had to endure a lot of static on 1270 at night. Adding the games to FM 97.1 offered a lot of relief — and it’s no surprise, then, that CBS Radio decided to add its sports format to the FM band in order to see how far it could go in this sports-crazed area. WXYT-FM appears to be giving the format a fair shake, providing live and local programming pretty much around the clock weekdays and most of the time weekends. Former Live 97.1 late morning host Johnny D has been added, hosting weekday overnights, starting at midnight, for all the third shift workers and those with insomnia.
Even with three defunct local FM talkers in WDRQ-FM (93.1) from the 1970s, WOWF-FM (99.5) from the 1990s and now what was WKRK-FM 97.1, the evidence is there that radio companies are embracing the idea of connecting with listeners with talk formats that are today’s equivalent of what used to be called full-service. Those kinds of stations were pretty much heard only on AM — until recently. So who will be next to attempt a mainstream-type talk station on one of our local FM stations? And when?
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Quick hits: Congrats to Mike Scott, midday host at WYCDFM (99.5), on adding the responsibilities of music director and assistant program director for the area’s most popular country radio outlet … Shannyn Caldwell has joined Christian WMUZ-FM (103.5) for morning drive, where she’s teamed up with Jon Culbert, who’s been manning the show solo since the passing of Rhonda Hart earlier this year … A good set of call letters rarely dies, evidence the recently departed WKRK-FM, which promptly moved across Lake Erie to CBS Radio’s FM 92.3 in Cleveland where it fit that station’s “K-Rock” name perfectly. Interestingly, those letters were found by my colleague Art Vuolo on a small AM station in Murphy, N.C., back in 1997 when FM 97.1 took on the “K-Rock” name.
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Set your dial: “Somewhere in Time” explores the music of Hoagy Carmichael at 6 p.m. on WMUZ and WRDT-AM 560. On Oct. 28 beginning at 2 p.m., Classical/Jazz WRCJ-FM (90.9) will offer the first-ever live broadcast of the Michigan Opera Theatre’s performance of “Cyrano,” which was scheduled to make its world premiere at the MOT Saturday. WRCJ’s Kelly Rinne and Dr. David DiChiera will host the broadcast and provide interviews and backstage insights during the intermissions of the three-act opera. The live airing of “Cyrano” is the first of five upcoming MOT performances that are planned for broadcast on WRCJ, including: Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” on Nov. 4; Bellini’s “La Sonnambula,” to be presented live with Richard Bonynge conducting April 6; Puccini’s “La Rondine” on April 13; and “La Traviata” on May 4.
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Mike Austerman is the founder of Michiguide.com and has covered radio for The Oakland Press since 2001.
Reprinted from the Sunday Oakland Press, October 14, 2007