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Eight inches of snow.
It’s a moderate amount, something we in New England should handle with little effort.
That wasn’t the case on a Thursday afternoon in December of 2007, however. The snow that fell that day created such a mess across Rhode Island it coined a nickname. The December Debacle raised major questions about the preparedness of municipal officials, it left motorists stranded in their cars for hours, students stuck on buses late into the night….
….and may have changed the state of Rhode Island radio.
Local radio filled a need that night. WPRO dropped its format and hosted a call-in show that helped inform listeners about weather conditions and traffic delays while also providing area residents with a venue to share stories, concerns, frustration and general information. It’s what good local radio stations like ‘PRO and WHJJ had done for years in Providence, just as WBZ did in Boston, WTAG in Worcester, WOCB had done on the Cape. Those AM powerhouses, with their scratchy signals that carried much farther than their sister stations on the FM side, provided a port in the storm for listeners worried about a blizzard, or a hurricane, or the status of a child stuck on a bus at ten o’clock on a snowy night.
Such was the topic of conversation that night in 2007. Paul Giammarco, program director of WPRO, was on air with Matt Allen (full disclosure: Paul hired me more than two years ago to co-host the morning show on ‘PRO – he’s obviously quite brilliant). Giammarco noticed something unique about the callers that night: they were young. “The majority of those voices said it was the first time they had ever listened to AM.” One listener told him, “’I didn’t even know what that AM dial was for.’”
It was an underserved market. Giammarco, already concerned about a spotty AM signal (“There was a significant null in coverage in the South County area”), decided to do something about it. He pitched the idea of simulcasting the AM signal on 99.7 FM, at the time an underperforming sports station owned by Citadel, the group that also owned WPRO. Fared Suleman, the head of Citadel, understood the need for a change, Giammarco said, “but he wanted a guarantee.”
Giammarco offered the only guarantee he could: “I told him if it didn’t work, he could fire me.”
“He never fired me.”
And so Providence’s longest serving radio station jumped to the FM side; the listenership, Giammarco said, jumped dramatically. It wasn’t the only newstalk station on FM: WTKK in Boston had recently made the move along with a handful of other stations across the country. AM radio, rejuvenated in the 80’s by the popularity of right-wing talkers like Rush Limbaugh, continued plodding along as its older demographic became less and less popular for advertisers. Those advertisers today look to users of smartphones and tablets and not listeners of AM radio. Plus, it’s not just the aging demographics of AM radio that are damaging the industry; those smart phones and tablets along with other items like computers, refrigerators, energy saving fluorescent lightbulbs (according to a story last week in the New York Times) all infringe upon the AM signal.
So what can be done to save AM radio? Ajit Pai, the lone Republican on the Federal Communications Commission, is pushing for an overhaul of the frequency. He’d like to see an end to regulations that hamper AM license holders. He’s also looking into a requirement that all AM stations carry a digital signal which would dramatically decrease the static currently heard on AM. Pai tells the Times that his desire to overhaul AM, currently a bastion of conservative talk and religious programming, is in no way connected to his own conservative beliefs. The FCC, currently headed by Mignon Clyburn (the daughter of Congressman Jim Clyburn, a member of the Democratic House Leadership) is unlikely to move Pai’s request to the top of its list of priorities.
Pai’s motivation for improvement to the frequency comes from a youth spent listening to AM. Raised in the rural Midwest, Pai would tune in to stations hundreds of miles away, too far for FM signals to travel. The same holds true here. The engineer at WPRO once told me he could pick up our signal well north of Providence. I tried and, amazingly, heard the station as I was driving through Kennebunk, Maine last year. He was right. But then I thought, who cares? Who the heck in Maine wants to hear some sophomoric Providence talk-show host deal with the same dozen callers he speaks with every day? I quickly switched back to FM.
Ultimately, it’s not necessarily the static or the strength of signal that may be killing AM, it’s the programming. In times of crisis – when storms and downed trees knock out television and internet access – radio is at its best.
The day-to-day, however….
The hosts yelling at listeners?
The callers ranting about one issue or another?
The local news departments trying to cover more with resources being depleted by ownership every month?
That’s what will kill AM radio. Hell, in my opinion, that’s what will kill ALL terrestrial radio.
Giammarco isn’t as pessimistic. “I feel good about AM radio,” he says. “It’s about local content. It just has to find the right path.”
Hopefully for radio executives, that path will be easier to follow than the one traveled by motorists on that snowy December night in 2007.