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Radio AM to FM: February 28, 2003

Why the Fuss?

It is fairly well-accepted that liberal thinking dominates mass media. KRLA (870 AM) personality Dennis Prager argued in one of his recent town hall columns, available on his web page (, that liberals dominate the major network and cable news broadcasts, television entertainment shows, numerous newspapers, educational institutions, public television and public radio. Liberals dominate pretty much everything, says Prager. Except one thing ... talk radio. And that really ticks them off.

A wealthy group of Democrat party donors has put together $10 million for startup costs on a new liberal radio network in the hopes of finding stations willing to commit 14 hours of their broadcast day to air the likes of former comedian Al Franken, author of Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot. The group, led by Sheldon and Anita Drobny, hopes to raise $200 million for the cause.

What makes this story so humorous is the fact that outside of a few hosts, conservatives hardly dominate anything. Or at least hardly anything with high ratings.

True, Rush Limbaugh is the top-rated nationally-syndicated talk show in America. And a handful of others are popular, at least regionally, including KABC's (790 AM) Larry Elder. But few shows make a huge dent in the conscience of America -- look at the ratings of conservative talkers KRLA and KPLS (830 AM) -- to bother getting all worked up.

Most of the shows on KLSX (97.1 FM) lean liberal, including the popular Tom Leykis Show. KABC's Mr. KABC? Liberal. KFI's Phil Hendrie? Liberal. John and Ken? Well, they hate everyone in politics. And public radio's program leanings are legendary.

Do all those shows feature political topics as a primary focus? No, but they shouldn't. Few and far between are popular political shows. Limbaugh and the handful of others are the exception, not the rule.

Saving Radio

Stations across the country are beginning to install equipment that will allow them to broadcast so-called HD Radio, digital signals on the same frequency as the analog signal that can be decoded by special receivers (not yet available) with the promise of "CD-quality" sound on FM and "FM sound" on AM.

Forgetting for a moment that at one time AM could broadcast -- theoretically, at least -- a higher-fidelity sound than FM, and that some consider HD a step back rather than a step forward, the promise that HD Radio will "save" radio from competitors like XM and Sirius satellite is, at best, dubious.

In a phrase, it's the programing, stupid.

Radio is at its lowest level of listenership ever. Among young people, radio's future, listening is dangerously low. But people aren't leaving traditional radio for satellite, their own CDs and tapes, or any number of other entertainment choices because the sound isn't good enough. They're doing it because they can't hear what they want to hear on the radio.

Using research to pick songs for a station may be safe, but it sounds bad: people want variety, and they want new bands. Hiring personalities based on what they'll take in pay rather than their talent makes the bottom-line look good, but it sounds bad. And voice tracking, the practice of having personalities in one city record their voices for stations in numerous other cities not only sounds bad, it's dangerous.

Recently, a freight train derailed in Minot, North Dakota, releasing a deadly cloud of anhydrous ammonia. Police called the local radio stations to help notify the public, but the phones weren't answered ... voices on computer from other cities can't answer the phone. It took over 90 minutes to get in contact with the stations so a bulletin could be aired; in the meantime 300 people were hospitalized, and numerous pets and livestock died.

The only way to improve radio is for radio to remake itself back into something that serves the public interest. Give people what they want: good programming. All the digital improvements in the world won't make a bit of difference if the programming is still bad. Is radio -- especially AM radio -- up to the challenge?


Copyright © 2003 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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