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Five easy steps for making Canadian telecoms winners with news & information radio
Bell to turn-off or sell nine AM radio stations across the country as revenues tumble
If your favorite produce chain cut costs by selling only frozen fruits and vegetables, would you be empathetic when it then had to close shop due to a lack of customers? Of course not. Would you shed tears when it blamed changing dietary habits, supply chains and the regulatory environment? Obviously not. Yet Bell Media/BCE says it’s forced to rethink its news and information by axing close to 1,300 positions in a reorganization. On the TV side, that means the elimination or downsizing of foreign bureaus. It also means the loss of many middle-managers across Bell’s portfolio including those at CTV, CP24 and BNN/Bloomberg . The impact is especially brutal when it comes to nine legacy AM radio stations - six of which are going off the air while the other three will somehow be sold.
Edmonton - TSN 1260 Radio (sports): shut down
Vancouver - BNN Bloomberg radio 1410 (business news/information), Funny 1040 (comedy): shut down
Winnipeg - Funny 1290 (comedy): shutdown
Calgary - Funny 1060 (comedy): shutdown
London - NewsTalk 1290 (news/information): shutdown
Hamilton AM 1150 and AM 820: for sale
Windsor AM 580: for sale
While much has been said about recent struggles with AM as some auto manufacturers skip it in their EVs, the broadcast mode/band remains strong for those who appreciate quality content. And yes, car makers can eliminate noise problems in electric vehicles if they want…the technology has been around for years. Memo to Elon Musk: Talk to Ford.
AM radio’s secret problem: the transmitters are costly power pigs. Major market stations run up to 50,000 watts, 24 hours a day. FM stations can run on a fraction of that power (although some still don’t) with transmitters that even a hobbyist can afford.
AM stations are also labor intensive while many FMs can operate with only a handful of staff as the programming is music-centric.
The benefit of AM radio, beyond its legacy appeal and deep roots steeped in the development of Canada’s business and political landscape, is an amazing ability to withstand cellphone or internet outages. It’s portable and unlike its little sister, FM, the range can be hundreds of miles - a true asset in remote areas or on remote highways and backroads.
Also, content remains key on AM since its days of music programming are long gone. But in recent times we’ve seen AM given the shaft. Corporate leaders treat it like the red-headed stepchild. Bell cut sports programming in some of its cities, switching to cheap comedy recordings. Other Bell stations were rebroadcasters of its TV shows.
Listeners deserve better. They shouldn’t have to put up with shitty programming just because corporate overlords don’t understand or appreciate the medium. Really! There are plenty of North American big market radio stations still making bags of money on the AM dial but they understand the lane they’re in. You can’t offer bad apples and expect people to shop at your produce store.
Here are five easy things that could make AM great again ( #MAMGA - my new hashtag).
Senior corporate leadership must love radio
It seems obvious. Those who lead companies which own and operate AM radio stations, should appreciate AM radio stations. The sad fact is that has been far from the case over the past ten years. My memory goes back to a newly tapped Canadian president of a telecom’s broadcasting division who told employees he didn’t know what ratings were or how they worked. That same president boss-splained how radio was coming to an end and content across TV and digital platforms was the future. Cuts were then made in radio - leadership failed to understand the radio journalists were the ones producing content for the others. That same telecom still can’t edge out a tier-one placement with any of its news and information channels in any of its markets. Even the consultants flip-flopped like little gymnasts.
I’m lucky, however. Every time I’ve been hired in radio, it’s been by those who report to senior leaders who have either worked in radio or at least admired its power. Fewer of those people are around today - some even tell their employees that radio is dead.
What’s needed is Canadian corporate leadership that advocates for information radio. What we have is leadership apologizing for it and wondering how to divest of stations including those which have the ability to lean into the credibility of a telecom’s brand.
Content must have utility
Purpose. Utility. In AM radio, it’s not a luxury. It’s a must.
AM formats that work when executed properly: News, talk, information (traffic, weather, topical or breaking stories), live sports/games, sports talk, ethnic/multicultural, religious.
AM formats doomed to fail in 2023: music, 24 hour TV simulcasts, comedy, many informercials, guy talk, shows that sound immature, basic or bland.
In all my years in radio, the stations that performed best were those that committed to important and interesting local information for busy people. Even in an era of mobile devices, people crave information that helps direct their daily needs. They listen while doing something else like driving, getting dressed, changing a baby or brushing their teeth. AM radio should be an outperformer with answers for quick questions. What time is it? What do I need to wear? What route should I avoid while driving? The idea should be to build trust and always live up to the promised performance.
Long form radio on AM can also take a deeper dive in to topics that answer larger questions. Why am I worried about my job, career and money? Is it safe to take transit or walk the streets in the city? What can I do for fun this summer? Can I still be lazy and lose weight?
The problem with this utility is the mindset of relegation. Especially in Canada, the CRTC has been reluctant to understand this doesn’t necessarily have to be the realm of AM. FM doesn’t have to be for music stations only.
Know the world but be hyper local
Back in the 1960s, 1010 WINS in New York discovered the power of a simple concept - give us 20 minutes and we’ll give you the world. The news wheel was born and people developed a listening habit based on feeling information satisfied. With 20 minutes of listening, they could hear quick international headlines, local news, business, traffic, weather and sports updates. All this while not having to stop to watch a TV or read a newspaper. It was up-to-date and it was portable. It was utility.
That was then and this is now. News and information radio in the digital age has to offer more - something others don’t. Local news coverage is part of the secret sauce. It also requires reporters, producers and newscasters who understand how to connect with those wanting to know what went bump in the night or why their kid’s school is under lockdown.
For now, and until AM radio is allowed to migrate to the FM dial, real time news commands that audience when stations make a commitment to covering local weather, traffic, crime, fires, flight cancellations and business/school closures. That’s why many people tune-in. Sure, some of that information is available on social media but can it be trusted and has it been vetted by those who are news professionals.
Be there when others aren’t
Many Canadians don’t seem to understand that natural disasters can knock out cell service and high-speed internet. Those living on the Gulf Coast in the States get it. They’ve lived through it.
AM radio remains the best source for conveying information to those needing to evacuate - that is, when stations make a commitment to providing staffing for that information. The communications medium is there. The will and understanding needs strong advocates and a rebirth of those willing to make AM radio a part of local emergency planning. Driving out of a fire zone requires the best information - something radio can provide. It’s also more universal in its reach - radio remains free while other information channels require payment whether its through cellphones, internet packages or expensive computers and TVs.
Also, the ability of radio to pivot to continuous breaking news is unmatched. I’ve been part of this in newsrooms where we switched to covering live updates on floods, windstorms, fire and chemical leak evacuations and even shooter-at-large situations. One would hope that this service never disappears - however, few North American stations are staffing at the levels to make this work. What’s needed is a commitment to understanding the needs of people when disasters or dangers occur and how that information can be provided.
Relate on a heart-to-heart level
I love radio talk shows. I also believe hosts play a vital role in helping all of us relate to each other in good times and bad. That may sound like an overly simplistic platitude but it isn’t. I’ve been fortunate enough to talk with AM radio listeners who have thanked our teams for being with them when they needed to hear a voice of reassurance or comfort. Someone to make sense of the senseless or at least acknowledge its existence.
This is why I continue to push for live radio as a means of connecting with as many people as possible. Always being there when they need it…even if it is in the middle of the night. Radio is a one-to-one medium with each and every one of the thousands that can be listening. It’s current. It’s immediate and it’s always there. At least, that’s my hope.
As we continue to figure out a world where AI is being considered for content delivery, TikTok is becoming the fast food of information, and news websites are thin on stories and late on delivery, radio fills an important void. But it needs strong supporters, leaders and advocates. It needs C-suite help and yes, it needs to find new ways to remain relevant so people will always be connected. Until there is a regulatory and business path to transitioning news and information to FM, AM remains an important part of our lives.
Bruce Claggett is a 35 year veteran in the news media, having worked as a reporter, newscaster, producer/editor, senior editor, news director, journalism instructor and media consultant. He holds a BA (political science/geography) from UBC, B.Ed. (secondary education) from UBC and a Dipl. T. (broadcast journalism) from BCIT. He continues to work as a guest host on 980/CKNW, media trainer and communications advisor.
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