by Sean Ross, VP of Music and Programming
Bonneville’s decision to move WTOP Washington, D.C., to the current 103.5 home of WGMS on January 4 took the industry by surprise. So much so in fact that you would have thought that WTOP hadn’t been simulcasting its News format on FM for many years. Or that D.C. hadn’t had two commercial N/Ts for a while. Or that Bonneville hadn’t done the same thing in Salt Lake City a few months ago, simulcasting N/T powerhouse KSL on former Hot AC KQMB. But News and Talk on FM were rarities for so long, and so marked by a relatively high mortality rate, that each new launch was still remarkable.
But if the format flips of each January are any indication of the hot format, News and Talk on FM aren’t just becoming less remarkable, but the format du jour. WTOP’s announcement came on the heels of Clear Channel’s new KTLK Minneapolis and a day after the launch of Infinity’s WFNY (Free-FM) New York. With the launch of WFNY and the rest of its Infinity Free-FM sister stations, there is now some form of commercial News, Talk, or Sports radio on FM in all of the top 10 markets.
The accelerated FM building boom for News and Talk raises a lot of questions not only for the development of the format, but also for the AM dial and the development of HD radio. And in some ways, it appears to have happened despite the industry’s determination to build an FM Talk format.
For years, the quest to build Talk on FM was often focused around something called “Hot Talk,” the elusive formula that would make N/T radio more relatable to the generation that grew up with FM. Every now and then during the ’90s, a WTKS Orlando, Fla., pulled it off. Just as often, a highly publicized failure came and went within a year’s time, apparently operated by owners who didn’t know that even WABC New York or KFI Los Angeles needed 3-to-5 years to become viable.
In reality, of course, “Hot Talk” has existed on FM for most of the last 20 years. It just wasn’t on “Hot Talk” stations. It was on any FM rocker that had Howard Stern. It was on any FM rocker that had Bob & Tom or John Boy & Billy or Lex & Terry. It was on any Top 40 station where the PD had finally decided to stop fighting for six records an hour in morning drive. It was on every Urban FM that had high-profile personality in every daypart, particularly once Steve Harvey, Wendy Williams, and Michael Baisden joined Tom Joyner among the available syndicated offerings.
That same plethora of available content seemed a little more elusive if you were building a new “Hot Talk” FM in the ’90s. If you were starting with Stern or another established rock morning show, you had an opening. If you were WKXW (New Jersey 101.5) Trenton, N.J., you were inherently high-concept, with a signal that allowed you to create a new market. But often a new N/T FM was in the position of having to create six new morning shows at once because all the “hot talk” in the market was on the music stations.
At the same time, there were indications that being N/T on FM didn’t have to mean being younger and edgier, or focused on entertainment topics (as opposed to entertaining ones). WWDB Philadelphia’s long run with FM talk, and the eventual loss of Rush Limbaugh to AM, suggested that it was content, not the band, that mattered. There was the growth of NPR, which seemed to take place off of commercial radio’s radar, until some adult-targeted radio formats realized their listening was eroding and there was no obvious commercial beneficiary. And Sirius and XM have also trained listeners, even pre-Howard Stern on satellite, to think of N/T as a suite of channels, but not a separate band.
One clear lesson of the recent flips is that it’s easier to start with an existing franchise, whether it’s WTOP, KSL, or being able to launch with Rush Limbaugh in Minneapolis, than from scratch. Putting KSL on FM or WTOP-FM on a better frequency doesn’t come with all the immediate infrastructure demands that a brand new All-News station would. (Although WTOP-AM’s eventual successor, Washington Post Radio, eventually will.) And just as the proliferation of syndicated content helped foster the growth of N/T AM stations in the early ’90s, it plays a role in FM’s growth as well, whether its Clear Channel/Premiere’s ability to start KTLK or WPGB Pittsburgh with established shows, or Infinity having multiple-market platforms for its Free-FM content.
WTOP and KSL were both AM stations with monster signals. So if even those stations felt they were losing listening by not being on FM, it’s likely that other operators are going to start seeing an FM location as an imperative, not an opportunity. Besides, as service elements disappear from even adult-targeted music stations, where else is there to get a traffic report in afternoon drive on FM besides a News or Talk station?
The News and Talk on FM movement also has implications for the development of HD Radio. Those owners without an extra FM outlet to play with would probably be well served to start thinking of their AM franchises as a viable choice for their HD extension channels. The right play-by-play listening party for an all-sports station could have as much potential to sell HD radios as any completely new service.
Meanwhile, HD’s proponents are also going to have to turn their attention back to its long promised potential to make music radio more competitive on AM. With all the talk about new FM side frequencies, we haven’t heard much about those AM stations with FM sound quality that we were promised. But AM is no longer going to be a preserve for N/T programming. And the six-share success of Oldies on WMTR Morristown, N.J., shows that it doesn’t have to be. And if WMTR is available digitally at 1250 AM, that defangs the question of whether it’s offered at FM 109 or FM 105.5-HD-2.
As is the case with any format-building boom, the operators who walk in with viable franchises are going to be offset by the stations that never should have changed format. As we saw with the AM Talk boom of the early ’90s, some operators could fill-up their stations with syndicated programming and leave it there, regardless of ratings. Over the last 15 years, the lines between talk and music programming have been obscured, as have the lines between “hot” and traditional talk-if they weren’t a little arbitrary to begin with. So why shouldn’t the AM/FM divide for N/T fall-particularly since we’re not that far from a post-wireless broadband infinite dial that could well transcend AM, FM, and satellite radio?