How long will radio last?

These are among the since-demolished towers of the once-mighty WMEX/1510 radio in Boston.

The question on Quora was How long does a radio station last on average? Here is my answer, which also addresses the bigger question of what will happen to radio itself.

Radio station licenses will last as long as they have value to the owners—or that regulators allow them to persist. Call signs (aka call letters) come and go, as do fashions around them.* But licenses are the broadcasting equivalent of real estate. Their value is holding up, but it won’t forever.

Arguing for persistence is the simple fact that many thousands of radio station licenses have been issued since the 1920s, and the vast majority of those are still in use.

Arguing for their mortality, however, are signs of rot, especially on the AM band, where many stations are shrinking—literally, with smaller signals and coverage areas—and some are dying. Four reasons for that:

  1. FM and digital media sound much better. Electrical (and especially computer) noise also infects all but the strongest signals. It also doesn’t help that the AM radios in most new cars sound like the speakers are talking through a pillow.
  2. Syndicated national programming is crowding out the local kind. This is due to consolidation of ownership in the hands of a few large companies (e.g. Entercom, Cumulus, iHeart) and to the shift of advertising money away from local radio. The independent local AM (and even FM) station is in the same economic pickle as the independent local newspaper.
  3. AM transmission tends to come from towers, or collections of them, on many acres of land. Now, as suburbs spread and the value of real estate goes up, the land under many AM transmitters exceeds the value of the stations themselves. A typical example is KDWN/720 in Las Vegas. Since it was born in 1975, KDWN has been 50,000 watts day and night (the legal max), with a night signal that blanketed the whole West Coast. But, in the last year, the station moved a site where it can share another station’s towers, downscaling the signal to just 25,000 watts by day and 7,500 watts by night. Here is a 2019 Google StreetView of the old site, with a For Sale sign. Also note also that KDWN now identifies as “101.5 FM / 720 AM – The Talk of Las Vegas .” The 101.5 is its 250-watt translator (signal repeater), known legally as K268CS. From its perch atop The Strat (formerly the Stratosphpere) on The Strip, the translator puts out a good-enough FM signal to cover the heart of the Las Vegas metro. Today many AM stations exist only as an excuse to operate FM translators like this one. Even fully successful AM stations play this new game. WBBM/780, the legacy all-news station that (rarely among AMs) is still ranked #1 in the Nielsen Ratings for Chicago, sold the land under its old towers and now shares the towers of another station, where it radiates with less power.
  4. In the Battle of the Bands, FM won. For evidence, look at the Nielsen Audio Ratings for the Washington DC region. Only two AMs show, and they’re at the bottom. One is WBQH/1050, a regional Mexican formatted station with an 0.2% share of listening and a signal that is only 44 watts at night. And most of the listening likely owes to the station’s 180-watt translator on 93.5fm. (Both only cover a few northside suburbs and the northern tip of DC.) The other station is WSBN/630am, a sports station with an 0.1% share: a number that couldn’t be lower without disappearing. That license was once WMAL, which sold off the land under its towers a few years ago, moving far out of town to “diplex” on the towers of yet another station that long ago sold the land under its original towers. That other station is now called WWRC/570. It’s a religious/conservative talker with no ratings that was once WGMS, famous in its glory years as a landmark classical station.

Despite this, the number of AM licenses in the U.S persist in the thousands, while the number of abandoned AM licenses number in the dozens. (The FCC’s Silent AM Broadcast Stations List is 83 stations long. The Silent FM Broadcast Stations List is longer, but includes a lot of translators and LPFMs—low-power stations meant to serve a few zip codes at most. Also, neither list includes licenses that have been revoked or abandoned in the distant past, such as the once-legendary KISN in Portland, Oregon.)

What I’ve reported so far applies only to the U.S. AM band, which is called MW (for mediumwave) in most of the rest of the world. In a lot of that world, AM/MW is being regulated away: abandoned by decree. That’s why it is gone, or close to it, in some European countries. Canada has also scaled back on AM, with the CBC  moving in many places exclusively to FM.

The news is less bad for FM, which has thrived since the 1970s, and now accounts for most over-the-air radio listening. The FCC has also done its best to expand the number of stations and signals on the FM band, especially in recent years through translators and LPFMs. In Radio-Locator’s list of stations you’ll recieve in Las Vegas, 16 of the 59 listed signals are for translators and LPFMs. Meanwhile only 18 stations have listenable signals on AM, and some of those signals (such as KDWN’s) are smaller than they used to be.

Still, the effects of streaming and podcasting through the Internet will only increase. This is why so many stations, personalities, programming sources and station owners are rushing to put out as many streams and podcasts as possible. Today, every phone, pad and laptop is a receiver for every station with digital content of any kind, and there are many more entities competing for this “band” than radio stations alone.

While it’s possible that decades will pass before AM and FM are retired completely, it’s not hard to read the tea leaves. AM and FM are both gone now in Norway, which has switched to Digital Audio Broadcasting, or DAB, as has much of the rest of Europe. (We don’t have DAB in the U.S., and thus far there is very little interest in it.)

Still, I don’t doubt that many of entities we call “stations” will persist without signals. Last summer we listened to local radio from Santa Barbara (mostly KCLU) while driving around Spain, just by jacking a phone into the dashboard and listening to Internet streams through the cellular data system. Even after all their transmitters get turned off, sometime in the far future, I’m sure KCLU will still be KCLU.

The process at work here is what the great media scholars Marshall McLuhan and his son Eric  (in Laws of Media: The New Science) call retrieval. What they mean is that every new medium retrieves the content of what it obsolesces. So, much as print retrieved writing and TV retrieved radio, the Internet retrieves damn near everything it obsolesces, including TV, radio, print, speech and you-name-it.

In most cases the old medium doesn’t go away. But broadcasting might be different, because it exists by grace of regulation, meaning governments can make them disappear. The FCC has already done that to much of the UHF TV band, auctioning off the best channels to cellular systems. This is why, for example, T-Mobile can brag about their new long-range “5G” coverage. They’re getting that coverage that over what used to be UHF TV channels that stations auctioned away. It’s also why, for example, when you watch KLCS, channel 58 in Los Angeles, you’re actually watching channel 28, which the station shares with KCET, using the same site and transmitter. The Los Angeles Unified School District collected a cool $130,510,880 in a spectrum auction for channel 58.

So, when listening to the AM and FM bands drops sufficiently, don’t assume the FCC won’t say, “Hey, all the stations that matter are streaming and podcasting on the Internet, so we’re going to follow the path of Norway.” When that happens, your AM and FM radios will be as useful as the heavy old TVs you hauled out to the curb a decade ago.

Additional reading: The slow sidelining of over-the-air radio  and AM radio declared dead by BMW and Disney.

*In the ‘1970s, the hot thing in music radio was using high-value scrabble letters: Z, Q and J. Also combining those with “dial” positions, e.g. “Z-100.”