AM’s demise? All talk
Format is profitable, but concerns are clear
By Tim Jones
Tribune Media Writer
No official moment of prayer exists at WLS-AM, no daily pause between Rush and Dr. Laura to give thanks for Monica Lewinsky, Saddam Hussein, El Nino or Latrell Sprewell.
But Zemira Jones, the general manager at the Chicago talk station, is indeed grateful-“Every day, every day,” he says with a smile, much like a man who has seen salvation and embraced it.
Such is life in the world of AM radio, where the music died a long, long time ago. Talk, from thoughtful and provocative to loud and inane, is the profitable foundation of the formerly dominant radio band, generating profit margins for big stations of 25 to 35 percent, and sometimes more.
“News-talk radio is the new next-door neighbor. People know us better than they know their own neighbors,” and Jones, whose station broadcasts Rush Limbaugh and Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the nation’s two most popular syndicated talkers, and highly rated morning drive-time hosts Don Wade and Roma.
They are part of what makes the personality-driven news, talk and sports radio franchise profitable today.
There are good reasons to wonder, though, about tomorrow.
The biggest audience for talk radio is old. Anywhere from 50 percent to nearly 60 percent of the estimated 100 million-plus people who listen to talk radio every week are 55 years or older, according to Duncan’s American Radio, a publication that follows trends in the radio industry.
In contrast, 99 percent of the Peoples to FM’s album-oriented rock stations are younger than 55, and one-third are between the ages of 12 and 24.
Advertisers, who are fixated with youth, have reacted. In 1993, five of the nation’s top 10 stations, as measured by revenue, were AMs, with the highest – ranking FM station finishing fifth. In 1997, according to BIA companies, a broadcast consulting firm, only three of the top 10 were AM stations, with FM stations ranked second and third.