Eric Norberg's Weekly Commentary

A part of each issue of The Adult Contemporary MUSIC RESEARCH Letter is Eric's commentary.  Here's this issue's comment:

In our fifth weekly music test of 2024, nine new pop music tracks were received for testing -- but none of them reached "Recommended for your Mainstream AC playlist" in our scoring.  There were five re-tests of previously-tested songs, and one of them did move up to our baseline "Recommended" score:  GIRLS by Rachel Platten, on RedLight Records.  

It's an emotional, sparsely-arranged soft song, and it was clear from the first test that it had some appeal to the AC core female listeners, but it was not until its third test that they wanted to hear it all the way through, which understandably is a requirement for any track to be "Recommended" for radio airplay.  Our theory is that they finally picked up enough of the lyric to know what it's about -- inspirational encouragement for young girls' empowerment -- and that made the difference in getting it boosted up to "Recommended" this week.

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You ARE identifying all the songs you play, right?  That is -- and it has always been -- among the top five Preferences of the Mainstream AC listener!  Despite that, most AC stations -- at least in the United States -- hesitate to do it, simply because "nobody else is doing it"!  First, how can you lose by meeting one of the top preferences of your listener?  Second, if you DO find a preference others don't meet, that makes it all the more important that you set your station apart by being the one that IS doing it!  You can't win if you're not setting yourself apart in a way that appeals to the available listeners!


On another subject,
in a 2024 issue of our Music Letter we pointed out that "It is pretty clear to you, no doubt, that we hate to see radio resources wasted."  Here's the rest of that thread....important, for all AM radio broadcasters.  They face a chance to make AM radio mainstream permanently -- or to lose this opportunity forever.

When we were first getting into the radio business, a long time ago, FM was the "lost band".  There was a whole separate radio band out there that most people were nor really awarae of at the time; but its potential really fascinated us.  Always, the best opportunity is always where the crowd is not looking for it.

Our first on-air readio job out of college was at a new FM station on the Central California coast pattered after the one single FM station in the whole United States at that time which saw an opportunity others didn't, and it taking advantage of it it turned FM around.  That was KPEN -- later "K-101" -- in San Francisco.

James Gabbert and Gary Gielow, freshly graduated from of Stanford University, bought a 1 kilowatt FM transmitter that was for sale cheap near Minneapolis, and build 4 KW (ERP) KPEN, then licensed to Atherton, California, near Palo Also -- and devoted its programming to appeal to the new "hi-fi audiophile fanatics".  There were plenty, at that time, and they all had lots of money.  High-end audio systems were an expensive hobby!  So car dealers, high-end hi-fi retailers, and other advertisers came on board, and the station succeeded beyond anyone's  expectations -- in so doing, single-handedly turning around FM as a medium.  In the year they went on the air several FM stsations were continuing a years-long trend of turning in their FM licenses and going off the air; one was owned by the San Francisco Chronicle, thirty miles away!  From the year KPEN went on the air, there were more FM stations on the air each year after that, and other new successful formats for the new medium were found -- "progressive rock" among them -- and FM never looked back.

Now we have much more listening to FM than to AM stations, and now AM radio is starving.  AM still has propagational and reception advantages over FM, yet today it's the AM stations that, year by year, are turning in their licences and going off the air -- or selling stations for pennies on the dollar.  So, the real OPPORTUNITIES now are on the band that the radio folks have given up on -- AM.

AM’s last and only hope is viewed today as talk radio (”it doesn’t require high fidelity”).  But this is a very faint hope; one or two AMs in a market, well programmed, can draw an audience with talk, but it’s a minority audience.  Over 80% of radio listening is done for music formats, and now National Public Radio is eating into AM’s talk audience. Can AM be successful once again with music?  

Yes, and it’s not all that hard, because radio listeners still do have vestigial expectations of music on AM -- and they’re different, and somewhat moe advantageous, than for FM!  (If you want to explore that discussion, it's in Eric's still-in-print and available 1996 book, Radio Programming: Tactics and Strategy, starting on page 7.)

It still can be done with a conventional AM station.  But if AM radio is to regain the mainstream, it must be through transformative change: Such as switching to “HD radio ONLY” mode!  (If you want to keep the analog signal on the air, buy another analog AM station cheaply and duplicate it on that.  But how many analog listeners are there now?) 

By dropping the analog audo, AM “HD-only” stations regain full coverage, add FM-like static resistance, and have digital stereo high fidelity.  One station has proven over the past couple of years that this CAN be successful -- it has just ended a two year “experimental” broadcast period, and applied for and gotten an FCC license for “HD digital ONLY” operation permanently.  They found themselves successful with it, and made it permanent.  

It’s Hubbard Broadcasting's WWFD (AM) in Frederick, Maryland.  If AM radio people more widely adopt this established standard, AM radio broadcasters will again have the transformative new service they desperately need!  

“...But there are no radios,” AM broadcasters whine. 

Oh yes there are!
  Car radios that receive HD FM usually can get HD AM too -- so there's a huge number of available listeners for it out there -- right now!!  GO FOR IT AND REVIVE AM RADIO, as James Gabbert did for FM forever, way back in 1957!

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AND HERE'S AN ITEM FROM "RADIO WORLD" MAGAZINE ALL ABOUT IT....

A 2023 issue of the radio engineering magazine “Radio World” led its “letters” column with a similar observation written by a reader, headlined “Take Advantage of All-Digital AM”:

“AM radio has seen many attempts to improve the service over the years. There was stereo AM, the NRSC-1 AM standard, and then in-band on-channel analog/digital broadcast. IBOC suffered from the digital interfering with the analog of adjacent channels; in the end everyone shut down the digital and considered it a fail.  But in the meantime, for the last 10 years or so, car manufacturers have been providing HD radios with digital AM stereo capabilities! Sadly there’s no mention, not even a hint, that these radios are digital AM capable. It was not until WWFD in Frederick, Maryland, started broadcasting digital-only that I was able to listen to and evaluate digital AM for myself.  It is surprisingly good.  Audio quality [even on music] is very good! The signal coverage appears to be close if not equal to the analog coverage.  Most importantly, there is no audible noise.  And, yes, both of my cars — model years 2010 and 2012 — receive digital HD AM!  As I read and listen to the complaints about AM, I find it amazing that an existing technology, one that is mostly already in place and available, is being ignored.

“Carmakers are not going to continue to support a technology that no one is using or cares about. AM stations clamored to add FM translators to improve the listening experience; yet most of those stations have a much greater signal coverage on their AM signal -- in many cases by hundreds of miles. Not taking advantage of the HD technology already  available could be the beginning of the end for the AM band.”  – David Eltzroth, Elkridge, Maryland

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Since we do have new subscribers, we probably should go over some of the basics of our testing once again. 

To start with, we test everything we can -- whether intended for AC or not -- because you never can tell what will be attractive to the AC core listeners (the trade charts, based only on programmer opinions and feedback from the charts themselves, certainly don’t tell you that).  Our accuracy is what put us into business a third of a century ago, and continues to keep us relevant for programmers who want to make sure they are playing new and current music that actually appeals to their audience, while making sure their station sounds up-to-date, instead of like some sort of boring oldies operation, which unfortunately most of them do these days.  We offer the antidote for that!

Our testing is totally different from the usual hook-based testing, which forces the subjects to intellectualize their responses (reconstructing in their mind the song which this is a fragment of, and then trying to figure out what they think of it -- turning an emotional response into a intellectual one).  We play songs from the beginning, and continue to play them to the end -- unless the participants are disinterested and ask us to move on, which we then do.  No song can be “Recommended” unless our test subjects really want to hear it all the way through -- the relevance of that response to choosing the song for your radio station should be obvious!  (And our testing gives reliable scores on material they have never heard before, too -- a major advantage.) 

If you ever have questions, just contact us.

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Many of our recent discussions with broadcasters have focused on ratings, and their deficiencies.  No credible national radio rating service has ever had more deficiencies than Arbitron/Nielsen, in our opinion -- both when using diaries and now when using people meters.

But radio and advertisers seem always to be focused on "share" in any radio ratings report, and that is an artificial projected figure, based upon the cumulative audience for each station -- projected from the measured sample, combined with the average amount of time listeners in the sample listened.  Cume is inherently based on a better sample than average listening span, as a result.

The first point to make is that print media have always loved that radio sells share figures (either "persons" share, or an abstract number) while print sells "circulation" -- which is equivalent to cume persons in radio, and that guarantees that print looks better in the comparison!  Unless local print media is willing to reveal their "average readers per page", you cannot compare their circulation with your share.  So sell locally with CUME!

We used to do ratings analysis for major and smaller market stations which restored the data to more or less what it was to begin with, in the survey -- and which made it clear what the ratings were saying.  We ranked stations by cume -- and then showed each's "average listening span" (per demo, per daypart).

If you want to do the same, the formula for calculating this is:

AVG. LISTENING SPAN FOR A STATION, IN MINUTES PER DAYPART = STATION SHARE PERSONS IN DAYPART, divided by STATION CUME PERSONS IN DAYPART, multiplied by THE TOTAL MINUTES IN THE DAYPART.
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Changing the subject, a longtime radio friend of ours recently sent us an opinion piece by a respected industry veteran who essentially advocated throwing in the towel on AM radio, and disposing of the band and moving all the stations in it to a “new FM band”, or something like that. 

With due respect, we think this guy is just echoing the general industry dismissive attitude towards AM, which unfortunately has been endemic for well over thirty years now, and by which broadcasters have trained listeners to think of AM is inferior, when they would probably not have come to any such a conclusion by themselves.  Putting fringe-interest programming on AM, mainly of a non-music nature, has surely not helped -- even though the American public has never demonstrated much understanding of quality broadcast audio and video anyway, and really still doesn’t.  CD’s do sound better than MP3s, but nobody seems to care!  

Two points he apparently has forgotten, or perhaps never really understood:

1)  FM nearly suffered the fate he encourages for AM.  Although early FM commercial broadcasts dated from the 1940’s, FM was badly hurt by the decision of the FCC to change the FM band from 42-50 MHz to 88-108 MHz after early broadcasters had signed on and listeners had started  buying radios.  The new band really was  better suited for FM than the older one; but making everybody who had gotten interested in FM buy another new radio to hear it, while requiring the stations to build a new transmission system to transmit it, nearly killed it.  By 1957, there were fewer FM stations on the air each successive year -- and if James Gabbert hadn’t put KPEN/KIOI FM on the air at San Francisco in 1957 with a “hi-fi” format, to appeal to fans who had FM tuners -- and started getting sponsors, thus showing a possible path to success for FM -- it is possible the FM band would have simply gone away.  Every year after KPEN debuted in 1957 there were more FM stations on the air, and more listeners.   

2)  Until the later 1960’s, the only rating service that would even RATE FM’s was Hooper; FM listening would all go into “miscellanous”.  FM radios were hard to find, too.  But FM found ways of attracting listeners -- progressive rock was the second  new path to FM success in 1967 -- and FM eventually succeeded.  AM still  has more listeners and radios than FM did then!  But this industry veteran may not think so, because Nielsen will not allow public publication in its radio ratings results of any rated call letters that don’t subscribe; and most AM’s don’t!

There are still ways of attracting and holding AM listeners!  Just one would be by going 100% stereo HD, as we recently have been advocating, as in the opinion piece below.
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The FCC in the United States seems inclined to go ahead and let American AM stations go all-digital if they want to; they have pushed out a "notice of proposed rulemaking", using the iBiquity digital standard already in use (and which is pervasive in newer cars) in the U.S.  Although up till now (except for some testing) all U.S. AM and FM stations have used the digital system in "hybrid mode", with the analog signal predominating, and the digital signal embedded in it at a much lower level, which does work pretty well for FM -- on AM, the hybrid digital has been transmitted at such an extremely low power level that, in practice, a station can only be heard in digital at our above about the 16 mv/m contour.  When you reflect that the "city grade signal" now recognized by the FCC over the city of license is only 5 mv/m, you can see that, to attain much coverage, the basic station power level has to be quite high for the digital component to be widely received, and then over much less of the analog coverage area.  But the all-digital AM signal can replicate the station's full coverage area, and for car iBiquity radios that can receive AM digital in any form, they will receive this much-improved signal over the station's full "former-analog" coverage area. 

We think this is a great idea, particularly considering that AM radio's remaining audience has held up much better in cars than in the home, and that so many cars now on the road are already able to receive a full-AM-digital (stereo) signal!


With declining AM audiences, this is the time to revive the century-old band by broadcasting a 21st Century 100% HD radio signal on AM, in our opinion.

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We've saved some recent past commentaries which seem to us to have ongoing relevance; click here to check them out!

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