As the presence of broadband technology increases, has listening to broadcast radio become a thing of the past, an afterthought for the American people? Some might say that anytime we hear the term “broad” these days, it seems to be followed by “band” and not “cast.” But in the words of FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai, the number of Americans listening to broadcasts each week has not budged since 2002. Ninety-two percent of Americans are still tuning in, even after Pandora, Spotify, and iTunes arrived on the scene and dug in their heels. To Commissioner Pai, radio broadcast listeners who rely on daily radio programming are not simply clinging to the past. These audiences are proof that broadband and broadcast are not substitutes; they can complement one another.
These are just a few of the reasons Commissioner Pai is advocating for the revitalization of AM radio. At the radio luncheon hosted by the National Association of Broadcasters last month, Commissioner Pai appeared via video to express to broadcasters his understanding of the challenges they face today.
Commissioner Pai noted that since joining the FCC sixteen months ago, he has visited many radio stations across the nation, including small stations, stations in rural communities and on the coasts, and stations that gross the most money each year. Commissioner Pai has dedicated his time and resources to gathering support for the revitalization of AM radio because of the one thing these different stations have in common: their commitments to serving their local communities.
Why AM Radio?
Commissioner Pai noted that although the demand for radio broadcasting is clear, AM radio in particular is suffering. In 1973, the year he was born, AM radio made up half of the radio broadcasts the public listened to. Today, AM radio accounts for only 20 percent of broadcasts. Commissioner Pai acknowledged that the number of AM radio stations is declining, and it is becoming harder to turn on the radio and find a clear AM radio signal.
Commissioner Pai recognized that revitalizing AM radio first begins with acceptance that radio is still vital to the American public, in emergency situations and day-to-day life. In his words, the radio industry as a whole is relevant, resilient, and has the ability to adapt to the demands of the modern media market.
Commissioner Pai also recognized that the value of AM radio lies in its capacity to capture localism and diversity in a way FM radio has not. Most minority-owned radio stations and non-minority-owned stations that carry programming for ethnic and foreign-language minority populations are AM radio stations. Many AM radio stations cover local news, weather, and community events, providing a local forum for local residents. Thus, Commissioner Pai urged broadcasters to value AM radio revitalization just as they value localism as the “blood life” of their stations or diversity as much more than an abstraction when it comes to the rich quality of AM programming.
Commissioner Pai also explained his proposal that the FCC take certain actions to get AM radio revitalization under way. Since the FCC has not completed a comprehensive review of its AM radio regulations since 1991, Commissioner Pai echoed his previously expressed sentiment at the Radio Show in Dallas last year: the FCC needs to launch an AM radio revitalization initiative. Considering the amount of support that flooded into his office following his talk at the Radio Show, he is also confident that suggestions and support from dedicated listeners, engineers, big station operators, and small daytime station owners from all over the nation will provide a catalyst for the initiative.
Commissioner Pai went on to extend an invitation to the broadcasters in attendance to continue to express their suggestions and ideas for radio revitalization. He emphasized that generating ideas was an important step, but not the final leap toward a refurbished AM band. Instead, he encouraged broadcasters to prepare to take action.
Commissioner Pai saluted Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn for circulating to other Commissioners a draft order addressing AM revitalization, which seeks public comment on proposed changes to FCC AM radio rules. He acknowledged both Commissioner Jessical Rosenworcel and the Chairwoman for leading the FCC into an important endeavor: “learning to chew gum while walking at the same time.” That is, the FCC’s initiative to revitalize AM radio should be couched in a complete review of issues in both the broadcasting and broadband sectors.
In the end, Commissioner Pai shared a powerful anecdote about the life of radio. In 1897, Lord Kelvin, President of the British Royal Society, declared, “Radio has no future.” One hundred and sixteen years later, radio broadcasters should remain unfazed by naysayers. Radio broadcasters and supporters should continue to work with the FCC to revitalize AM radio because its value has not been lost. AM radio still provides an important media platform for minorities, and its local and diverse programming should be preserved.