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Steve West

On Fixing the AM Problem: What can be done?

By Steve West, Owner and Curator

AM RadioWhen was the last time you asked a non radio friend about something they heard on an AM station? Chances are, if you did, you received a response such as, “I don’t listen to AM”.

Such seems to be the average answer. Corporate owners know this and think the solution is to clutter the once open FM frequencies with translators rebroadcasting the myriad of talk formats populating the once community oriented and one time profitable AM stations which remain. Let’s be honest. Most of these talk programs are politically oriented, often contributing to a distasteful blend of societal angst, helping to polarize opinions one political way or another, but more importantly, helping to push listeners further away from AM as a whole.

Why is this? Is talk radio actually helping or hurting AM, and what could be done to revitalize an aging radio band that goes back to the very beginnings of radio communications as we know it?

I’ve heard, perhaps, every potential solution, bantered back and forth on various social media discussion groups, consultant opinions and even former AM jocks themselves who wax nostalgic. Most have quite valid ideas; some are quite pessimistic, suggesting AM is a lost cause.

Stations themselves are trying various programming ideas, albeit most of those being half hearted weekend endeavors, and few doing much to increase revenue or listeners. In fact, as I write this, I’m listening to 1360 WDRC Hartford, which airs a special Sunday program of music from the 1950s, 60s and 70s, branded “The Big D is Back!”

Unfortunately, I think the ultimate solution to AMs woes are too complex for one particular solution to work on its own. AM stations as a whole need a multi-pronged approach to reinvigorate the band, and I’m going to describe what I think needs to happen on a national scale to remake the AM dial as both a viable and profitable piece of American broadcasting property.

First off before I begin, let’s shelve the idea that AM is dead and the band is completely useless. It is not, as evidenced by the high profile standalone 24/7 news operations around the country. Since I live in the northeast, I’ll highlight the three largest stations which run All News formats: 1010 WINS and Newsradio 880 WCBS, both in New York City, and WBZ 1030 Boston, which airs 14 hours of news during the day and 100% LOCAL talk all night. These stations invest a very significant amount of capital in operating their news formats and the payoff is a positive flow of advertising dollars. Now, add in All Sports WFAN, and the revenue pie expands dramatically. Keep in mind, the stations continued high visibility and instantly recognizable branding (much of which comes from having maintained their current formats for many decades) plays a major factor in each ones success.

Main points.

Signal Meter1. Signal quality.

The main idea, that AM radio listening is severely degraded due to its inherent noise and low fidelity is certainly valid, and probably the biggest complaint I hear when asking non radio people about AM radio. Point taken. There’s no countering that argument. Not today, when a significant number of media consumers get their content online, or do have a favorite FM station. Ideas have been tried… everything from AM Stereo in the mid-1980s to AM HD a decade ago. Some of the reasons are technical in nature, but the bottom line in both cases cited above is the complete lack of interest by the FCC in demanding that a de-facto receiver standard be REQUIRED of receiver manufacturers. The commission, instead, taking a ‘let the market decide’ approach.

This is patently wrong. Radios governing body had no problem mandating standards for transmitting stations, yet has completely dropped the ball on the receiver side. The question is, why?

I believe the answer has to do with lobbying from the National Association of Broadcasters and the giant corporate broadcasters, who for all their debt laden operating practices, are highly proprietary in protecting their cash cow FM stations. Now, sure. All of the major broadcasters own both FM AND AM stations. But outside of the 50kw ND signals, the rest are mostly losing money and even the upkeep of these stations is a drag on cash flow. I think it’s many corporate contentions that they’d rather maintain status quo and feed transmitters syndicated programming with limited listenership and some cash flow than have to produce expensive local programming 24/7. Transmitter and tower upkeep, never mind the electric bills are far greater with these AM stations. The solution in their minds is to simply put their am signals on FM translators, and once the audience moves to FM, kill the AM station entirely. In fact that very thing is occurring with increasing frequency.

I haven’t even begun with my solutions yet. Bear with me.

2. Programming.

If listeners to, say, WLS, back in 1975 were to tune in and hear a syndicated political talk show airing divisive right wing talk programming instead of John Records Landecker, the tune-out factor would be so high that the station would probably lose half the audience in 24 hours. Perhaps three quarters. You know the reason. So, why is it, corporate managers think that listeners want to hear that 24/7 today? It would be one thing if, like it was in the early 1990s, there was a wide variety of programming but only ONE major talk show in Rush Limbaugh. That was different and AM still had the advantage of being where most adults listened in their youth. There were still music formats. Talk programming was in its infancy and much of it was locally produced. Today? A half dozen large National talk shows all right wing politically based taking up most of the viable signals in a market. Which today limits the available audience to 55+! What are they thinking?!

AM Radio3. Radios

If you were to listen to WABC in the 1960s and 1970s, you likely listened on a small transistor radio. Those old radios were sensitive! And they were also wideband receivers, and captured the nuances of the music being played. Yes, if you sat under a neon sign you’d hear that steady electrical noise but just move away and it sounded good. Same thing for those old Delco car radios. They really picked up the signals and with that one giant speaker in the center of the dash they sounded wonderful!

Why do the AM radios suck today?

Some of it has to do with an FCC decision many years ago, which reduced the allowable AM bandwidth from 13khz to 9. What that did was reduce the amount of audio signal which could be transmitted and decided by your typical radio. So what comes out the little speaker or headphones sounds like mud.

AM receiver manufacturers share much of the blame for AM basically sounding like crap. For decades they have put inferior components into the AM receiver side and instead, elected to jam these radios with a pretty good FM side, but no HD, no AM stereo (believe it or not some AM stations still broadcast in C-Quam) but instead, fancy led lights, 50 watts of speaker power and usb jacks and iPhone ports. That’s NOT helping radio at all and in fact it’s helping to do more damage than increase listenership.

I’ll continue this in part 2…
Stay tuned!

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37 Comments


  1. Spot on so far Steve – very enlightening – a big thanks!

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  2. You are so correct regarding programming. Talk radio doesn’t necessarily have to be horrible, but the heavy right wing bias and reliance on syndication has skewed the audience way older than 55+. One local exec once said he gears right wing WRKO to 70+! When Boston’s WRKO switched to all talk in the early 80’s, it ran some political talk that encouraged dialogue from both sides. It ran morning teams with one liberal and one conservative who could banter on friendly and kidding terms. It also offered light general interest talk, sports talk, and specialty shows like call-in dating, financial advice and restaurant reviews. The political talk was actually informative and entertaining, truly presenting opposing sides without the garbage and partisanship found today. Among the best were the late David Brudnoy and Gene Burns, both who spoke lucidly while maintaining fairness. Jerry Williams was a populist rabel rouser but his approach appears Churchillian against the likes of Limbaugh and Hannity. Williams knew Nixon was decitful way before it was reported.

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    • You remember quite well. I was a big fan of Dr. Gene Burns. He indeed was fair, quite balanced and while he did often lean to the right, that’s what it was. A slight lean. More towards a modern libertarian point of view, I might add. His crusade against Bill Bulger was epic. Gerry Williams… man, I remember him long before he got to WRKO, when he was on evenings on WBZ back in the mid-1970s. He most certainly was a rabble rouser and completely responsible for the radio career of Howie Carr, because starting a few years before Carr got his own show, Williams would have him on as a guest. Carr’s claim to fame was as a writer, as most everyone knows.

      On second thought, I’d have to agree with you on the 70+… well, 60+. There are relatively few young and middle aged listeners who believe in far right wing ideals, not counting the super rich or business owners – which comprise the majority of the 40-ish audience.

      Good reply!

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  3. Some things don’t come back and most people don’t care . Ask Blockbuster or if you can find a ventriloquist. When people had to listen to radio to hear new music, it was a different world.

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    • I talk about saving AM as a part of the whole commercial RF industry. Blockbuster should have gone into streaming and reinvented itself. There was no foresight until it was too late. AM radio? It’s *ALMOST* too late, but I have a solution which, if the industry can envision it, and if they understand what I’m going to propose, will save the over the air industry. I will agree with you in one way… and this is a hint as to my way of thinking… We need to CEASE referring to radio as “radio”. You say RADIO to young people and they automatically tune out of the conversation because they consume music and content online. PERIOD. Over the air radio needs to be part of corporate’s media content delivery system and integrated into the greater package of online and over the air.

      I think I just gave it away. No matter. If iHeart and Cumulus and Entercom are to SURVIVE… along with most all other radio property owners, then they need to completely re-think what they are delivering, and how they are branding it.

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  4. Just like the record labels should have gone into digital before Apple gained a foothold huh, Steve? We in radio call it “content”…at least in our company. But, I think branding is just one part of the solution. If you talk to “old radio guys”, their only solution…is “play 50’s-70’s oldies”. Great. That reaches people age 55 to dead. Now, what? I’m not saying AM Radio should embrace FM. But, if some AM operators would just try some unique ideas, like a weekend show about local artists, A “behind the music” show about some of the top acts, the kind of stuff LPFM stations are doing, albeit in some cases, poorly…in other words, aim at a target audience that does NOT have one foot in the grave…and promote it…then, perhaps….

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    • To a degree I can agree, but with the caveat that AM has a foot and a half in the grave. Not the hospital, we’re talking morbidly ill. No. One. Solution will EVER help AM. Not Classic Hits, not Oldies, Not AC… The only format that has life in it is News and Sports. Even Talk Radio has a foot in the grave. When the uber conservative talk fans become worm food the format’s finished. We have to talk reality here. I’m going way beyond format. Signal to noise, Amplitude Modulation, thunderstorms, powerlines and computers. NOBODY wants to hear the spurious noise. That they put up with it for so long into the 80s is a testament to listener loyalty. Before computers and streaming and from about 1979 prior, AM had plenty of life in it. It had the life because people HAD NO CHOICE! Sure, there was FM in the 70s but very few stations on FM, if you’ll remember correctly, even bothered to play Top 40. One or two played Album Rock, one might play Soft Rock, one Country… and that’s if you were VERY LUCKY! Most markets outside the top 5 had one rock station and one top 40 station on FM and the rest played classical or elevator music. So, AM ruled as king! Today? I’m going to stress this point one more time. MOST people 30 and younger… hell, 40 and younger, have their face in a mobile device, will stream what they want when they want and have absolutely ZERO need for AM OR FM radio! Young people today are so damned stuck in their phones they’ll walk right into TRAFFIC with their face in a phone! AM, sir, in it’s present form is on life support and the only thing holding it together are the giant 50kw News and Sports stations. When they go to FM, which, unless the industry changes it’s mindset, they will… eventually they’ll all have their transmitters turned off. If not voluntarily, then by the FCC which will auction off the spectrum. And trust me, in more than a few cases, it’ll be the saving grace for small owners who are losing their shirt on these next to worthless AM stations.

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  5. Broadcast information/entertainment is competing for advertising dollars. It is a complicated situation with fewer brick and mortar stores to help fill the coffers.
    As I write this, I am listening to an A.M. station on a new pocket size radio. This is an extremely inexpensive unit that features DSP chip (Digital Siginal Processor). Leave it to China to capitalize on a U.S. company [Sililcon Labs] chip to stir a quiet revolution in radio receivers. This radio is an XHDATA branded model D-328. It plays via a USB port for power/charging the included lithium ion user replaceable Nokoia style battery.
    Back to the point, A.M. radio needs better radios in consumers hands. Most vehicles have decent A.M. front ends. Of course I am a guy that grew up on radio, F.M. was for rich kids and old people listening to classical music. F.M. for me was just beginning to take off in the mid sixties.
    My first personal A.M. F.M. radio didn’t come along until 1970? I didn’t make much money then but knew what I wanted. My parents had a Zenith table radio that could tune F.M. but unlike some of my friends parents home, no stereo consoles.
    I’ll be looking forward to your part two Steve.

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    • Well hey, Craig… I’m not sure anyone is ready for part 2. From a discussion I had today, my idea is five years old! However, I think it has merit. For what it’s worth, a revolution in new receivers would be very welcome. Used to be you needed a Grundig with a ferrite bar antenna on top or a longwire in the back yard to bother listening to AM anymore… Which, for the record, I have.

      I have to agree with you about FM being for rich kids and old Classical music geezers back in the 70s. It took a good 5-10 years of trying before the FMs took off and pushed AM to the side. Remember, though… they had help. The FCC did what they could to hold AM back and promote FM, the industry was very aggressive in moving listeners to FM and the government was so aggressive in helping FM that they intentionally took no action to allow AM stereo to begin in the late 70s. The technology was there, but the Commission refused to name a standard and I remember. I was THERE. They did this intentionally to promote the FM band. Problem was, once FM went past AM in listenership, they continued their anti AM behavior well into the 1990s. And by then, it was too late for AM. AM broadcasters didn’t help matters. By ditching contemporary formats for nostalgia and 55+ audiences, they pushed away the very listeners that could have kept the band viable. Today… many young people don’t even know what AM radio is. And that’s the truth.

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  6. I can’t let this go by; Like it or not, the “right wing divisive” talk shows you disparage and complain about, programme for an audience that drives the format. Educated, older adults listen because the format IS equal time in addressing mainstream media lies and deceit that has been unaddressed for so long. Far more divisive than those who expose them for what they truly are. The 55+ are mostly educated and own their own businesses, have a serious concern about being over regulated, taxed, and the Constitution being trashed. They are sick and tired of it and, unlike years past, now have a voice. Not everyone agrees with the liberal agenda, thinly disguised as entertainment and information. They appreciate that outlet. Look at the ratings. If the audience wasn’t there, neither would be the ratings on which broadcasters
    so desperately depend. Conservative talk radio is largely successful, love it or hate it. Liberal progressive content is not. An experiment gone terribly wrong, otherwise Air America would still be at the forefront of talk radio, which it is not, nor has been since its inception, hence limited audience. Certainly AM radio is not dead by any stretch. Many enjoy distant signals at night. HD has also helped dramatically. Many 50kw “blowtorch” stations employ it, boosting listenership. Younger audiences do not generally listen to AM, and very few FM. Most are listening to pod casts and downloaded music. Something that has been apparent since the late 90s. The numbers prove it out. As a techie and ham radio general class operator, I’ve seen trends come and go but the conservative format is solid and here to stay.

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    • I’m going to make this crystal clear. THIS *political* argument stops right here. It’s not the mission of this website. I WILL respond, however.

      I am not complaining about right wing talk, conservative talk, liberal talk, etc. I pointed out that those talk shows are, as a matter of FACT, divisive in nature. Take sides in some other forum. Talk radio, the nature of it by itself creates controvercy… and that’s what it does by design. Sorry you don’t like the label.

      I mentioned it in the first place, in the greater context of how to save AM radio. Oh, no question that they are successful programs today. But if you have the vision and foresight to see down the road, 10 to 15 years, I think you’ll find that not only does the audience age out, but the AVAILABLE audience on the 540-1700 kHz band will be substantially less even than it is today. There may not even BE an AM band as we have known it. That’s the context in which I mentioned it.

      With all due respect, Talk Radio, be it left or right wing based, IS DIVISIVE by its nature. End of conversation, you don’t get a rebuttal on this page. Go to facebook and have a shouting match.

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    • conservative radio…….is simply the very profitable legal hate speech format of the day, mainly for aging listeners who’s lives are a disappointment to themselves. It’s emotional , not factual……..it’s a pity party for the low information disgruntled backward thinking, largely old school racist bonehead. It’s the last battle front of the ignorant. Like Confederate Statues….. It too, shall pass as the fans grow too old to remember how to turn on a radio. Backward conservative thinking always gets replaced with better ideas and concepts. It’s just a matter of time.

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      • I distinctly remember Rush Limbaugh being called the Man Who Saved AM Radio….

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        • I agree, Ron ! That’s why the audience skews 60 plus , just like Fox News. And listen to the products they hawk !

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  7. Doug-Tell KNBR, KFI, and WINS that. If you have the signal-the correct format-and target market you can win on AM or FM.
    That said there are too many peanut whistle (Low power or too directional) stations, more are being signed off -which isa good thing, FM will see this happen as well in the future-far too many FM translators and low other low power FM’s making FM the new AM band.

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    • You just hit the nail on the head. Just made my next point! Funny how they looked at what didn’t work for AM and are doing their best to replicate it on FM, wouldn’t you say?

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  8. aside from audio quality differences; AM radio killed itself with incessant everyone trying to be a Morning Zoo at all hours of the day. Further…AM programmers taught listeners to “go away’ ….any time the music stopped for a few spots. Much More Music programming taught listeners to seek music without the interruptions…and of course….back in the day….AM was pretty much your only music option. With FM, Walkmans, mix tapes, portable CD players, smart phones, iTunes, satellite radio and others……listeners could ‘cherry pick’ what they wanted to hear; a lot of it…. commercial free. Just as other forms of “amusement” morphed over the decades……so, too, did AM Radio. Sad but true.

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    • I don’t necessarily agree. Back in the early 80s, I worked for (WNEW veteran) Dick Partridge. His belief was that it was better to air one or two spots between every song than do a 4-5 minute stop set and REALLY drive away listeners. I didn’t agree with him back then – being a smartass 18 year old. Today, I absolutely agree with him, God rest his soul.

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      • the ‘much more music formats” subliminally taught listeners……..whenever the music stops….punch out to another station . That was born out, when stations began using “quarter hour maintenance” techniques to keep a listener across 2 listening quarter ratings.

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  9. We need FCC mandated AM “HD” reception in every radio sold in the U.S.. We then need to begin Digital I.B.O.C. (no Hybrid) AM transmissions. The number of car radios that would translate these digital transmissions, right now, might surprise you. As an added plus, the bandwidth of digital only AM is not nearly as wide as for “Hybrid Digital”.

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    • IF American consumers were in the mood to buy a shiny new radio with “AM HD”, I would agree with you. Seems as if consumers don’t particularly care for a media device that doesn’t have a screen with “apps”. There will always be hobbyists and hams, like myself who would buy one. But try to think nationally, to young people taught by public schools teaching common core….. does that inspire much confidence in you?

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  10. In some smaller communities, music on AM radio actually does well and the formats that these broadcast often are classic country, oldies, nostalgia, etc.

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  11. It would be interesting to hear your view, and those of others, regarding HD radio.

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    • I have three HD receivers and have heard the end product on those, both bands, day and night propagation, and best of all, in cars. I LOVE it! But it’s not the answer.

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  12. In smaller towns, there are AM music stations out there and most of these are the 55+ formats.

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    • Right. Hence, why nearly the only thing you can sell spots for (and mostly bartered out) is male enhancement pills and hair restoration. That’s not gonna make anyone rich… unless you’re on the board of directors at Purity Products (is Mark Simone… nevermind LOL)

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  13. “Divisive” right wing broadcasting?
    Did you have to add that? I wonder if your goal is to get rid of conservative radio stations?

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    • Yes. I did. I have no such goal. My only ‘goal’ is to save RADIO. You obviously weren’t reading. Right wing talk shows are divisive and they are *almost* the entire compliment of political talk programming available. When Air America was on the air 15 years ago, I said that was divisive as well.

      Neither I nor anyone else will get rid of conservative programming. Once the last demos pass on, the format will be finished all by itself, in fact, LONG before. Owners such as iHeart are in the business of making money. When no one will advertise on it, the format and it’s syndicated hosts will be done. It’s attracting well past 55+ in most markets as it is right now. Simple demographics, sir. No political bias to either side intended.

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  14. You’re talking the biggest markets in the US here with more older listeners and with stations around for decades.

    As far as people under 40 barely listening to radio (in another post) , most people have more eclectic tastes (like my daughter and her friends) than what radio plays. Some people might like hearing the same
    f Mac , eagles and b Joel songs for over 40 years but I don’t and why would someone under 40 ?!

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  15. I’m 55 and the only times I listen to radio (and I listen to AM) are for news and sports. When I want to hear a song, I go to youtube, as a lot of what I like is in the past and never got very high on the charts (when it did chart) and enjoy my music that way.

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  16. I’m presently fighting a battle with one of the Big Three that is planning on cheapening their AM Receiver Chips, again. Presently, they sound pretty good, but I expect that if they pull the string on this, their radios will sound like those in BMWs. Pure crap. 9.5 Khz is okay, provided the receivers are good. I have an old tube radio from the 30’s that I run and the stations sound really crisp. I really wish that the Commission would go ahead with what they said that they’d do. More power, repeal the Ratchet Rule and all of that. Why they skipped this and went straight to translators is beyond me…. and, yes, I did jump on the FMT bandwagon, securing Translators for all of my AMs. I had to preserve the value of my assets in the markets that I serve.

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  17. I’ve long thought that narrowcasting a niche form of music with a devoted audience might save AM. A station of devoted, die-hard metal heads for example that know the format. I know nothing of metal, I can’t stand most of it, so this is not a station I would listen to–but metal heads have no radio, really, and yet are a devoted and knowledgable group. There are probably other formats, as well. The lack of fidelity might still be a put-off, but maybe not, depending on the genre. And yes, if HD would get it together, that would solve that problem. But as it is it’s hard to get HD FM radios out here. So I suspect this is almost its own topic.

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    • Deep classic rock, similar to pre-Lee Abrahms free form (or close) radio seems like a good choice , depending on the market and, of course, the audio quality. There’s a Minnesota AM doing that, WXYG, and with a 540 dial position , I’m guessing the audio might be decent. They also have a translator and are online.

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  18. Don’t blame the lack of politically balanced talk radio (and formats) on conservatives, blame it on the lack of talent presenting the liberal side of the discussion (or perhaps their lacking legitimate points). Political talk has been the only savior of ailing AM (I agree with your other points as to why AM is failing). Without political talk, AM’s would have gone dark a decade ago. BTW, Hartford’s Big D has more heritage (and then thrown away by the last owners after Buckley) than almost any station in the country. It was unbelievably great.

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    • I agree, Russ. There’s a reason why AA and the others, failed.

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  19. The big problem is that millennials not only don’t listen to AM radio, they hardly know it exists. So what future does it possibly have? Once the baby boomers are all gone, who’ll be listening?

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