Survival of the Fittest on the AM Band

ANTERO PIETILA

January 09, 1993|By ANTERO PIETILA

As a part of a wider communications revolution touching everything from newspapers and telephones to cable television, America's AM radio is experiencing an unprecedented upheaval.

Unable to match the superior sound quality of FM stereo, AM stations are increasingly becoming the poor cousins of the broadcasting industry. Their audience totals -- mostly motorists -- are sagging and the stations no longer warrant the highly inflated prices they used to fetch just a few years ago.

In August, when New York's legendary WNEW changed hands, its sellers reportedly took a loss of at least $6 million.

When Baltimore's big-band station WITH sold last month for $762,500, it netted nearly $1 million less than the contract price offered four years ago by an ill-fated acquisition group headed by Alan Christian.

Anyone who has been scanning the dial in Baltimore is aware of how rapidly familiar AM radio formats and call letters have been disappearing in recent months.

First, WERQ (1010) quit playing music and began simulcasting the audio portion of CNN cable news.

Then WEBB (1360), the city's pioneering black-owned station, was sold. It changed its call letters to WHLP and now airs nothing but advertising about job openings.

More changes are in the offing. When the sale of WITH (1230) is completed in March, the station will discard its big-band format and shift over to -- children's programming!

''It's the survival of the fittest,'' says Jeff Beauchamp, general manager of WBAL (1090), one the city's perennial ratings leaders. ''As profit margins narrow, many stations are willing to try almost anything.''

Trend watchers say listeners haven't seen anything yet. Relaxed federal rules are going to have a profound effect on the radio industry, they predict.

Under new regulations, the Federal Communications Commission may allow a single owner to own up to four stations in markets with more than 15 stations.

Radio-industry watchers believe it is only a question of time before such joint operating arrangements will be the rage of major markets. By building AM-FM combinations that dominate ratings, an owner may hope to dominate advertising as well.

Meanwhile, simplified FCC rules allow stations to change call letters almost as easily as formats. As the example of Baltimore's WJFK-AM (1300) indicates, a station sharing call letters does not even have to be in the same city. (The station simulcasts WJFK-FM, which is in Washington and in a separate market).

These developments are forcing smaller AM stations in particular to find increasingly specialized audiences. Broadcasters talk about ''niche targeting,'' ''continued fragmentation,'' ''more segmentation'' and ''narrowcasting.''

Under a strategic plan implemented over the past eight years, WBAL, once known for its mixture of news and middle-of-the-road music, has phased out music altogether. It now emphasizes ''news and information'' and ''talk.''

Meanwhile, another talk station, WCBM (680), has become the city's leader in brokered air-time for call-in shows and ''infocommercials'' during weekends.

No fewer than 25 professionals -- ranging from estate planners to car mechanics and pet shop owners -- buy air time to offer their advice or tout their services on WCBM every Saturday and Sunday. Some of them are known to resort to faked listeners' calls. Others -- such as financial consultant Dottie Schmitt -- seem to have a genuine following.

As stations keep changing hands and shifting formats, original call letters disappear, erasing a broadcaster's connection to its community.

In a few years, only true radio buffs will remember that WEBB was named after the Baltimore-born jazz musician Chick Webb. Or that WFBR -- the predecessor of today's WJFK-AM -- meant the Fifth Baltimore Regiment. That unit started the station and operated in its early years from the armory at Howard and Preston streets.

WITH's impending ownership change is likely to stamp out its big-band sound altogether, much to the disappointment of its aging listeners. (''Our teen-agers are probably 50-55 years old,'' quips disc jockey Ken Jackson, 60).

WITH's disappearance will leave a painful void in the community. In addition to playing standards over the past two decades, the station has co-sponsored countless big-band concerts, cruises and dinners. It will be missed.

Antero Pietila writes editorials for The Baltimore Sun.

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