What's the frequency, South Florida? If you're wondering why you're hearing some of your favorite AM sports and news talk stations on the FM dial lately, it's part of a recent migration that's changing the airwaves.
ESPN West Palm Beach's move to FM last month signaled the most recent dial turn from AM radio. Last year, WAXY 790 AM The Ticket also began broadcasting its sports shows on 104.3 FM in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood-Miami market. It followed news talk station WIOD 610 AM, which can also be heard on 100.3 FM.
Experts say it's just the latest evolution of local radio. As music stations flocked from AM to FM in the 1970s and '80s, AM became more of a dial destination for news talk and sports. Now those stations have increasingly been shifting to FM, where music outlets have become fragmented with more nonterrestrial options (satellite and online radio).
"AM stations are looking to reinvent themselves, and for new programming," said David Jaffe, professor of radio, television and Internet media at Lynn University in Boca Raton. "They are trying to come up with something that will enable them to sell advertising."
Some stations have made the switch to appeal to younger audiences who have grown up with FM and don't frequent the AM band, where listeners are aging. Other outlets have made the FM switch to broaden their coverage area and help boost ratings.
WAXY, for example, now ranks twice in ratings, with its AM and FM frequencies, increasing its percentage share of listeners in the country's 11th largest radio market.
Unlike AM, which can have a spotty, static-prone signal, the sound quality of FM is clearer and richer. What's also at play is the pursuit of the passionate sports fan, whom advertisers covet. AM stations are following those listeners who are frequenting FM more for sports scores and commentary.
"Sports radio continues to be one of the strongest segments in all of sports media,'' said Theodore Curtis, Lynn associate professor of sports management. "It hits that sweet spot of marketing — 18- to 35-year-old men — that sports marketers crave."
Overall, AM listenership has been trending downward in South Florida, according to the radio industry ratings service, Arbitron. In the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood-Miami market, 15.6 percent share of all radio listening went to AM radio in summer 2011. That number is now 10.8 percent, and it's even lower in the Boca Raton-West Palm Beach radio market, Arbitron officials say.
Of the top 30 most-listened-to stations by market share in Fort Lauderdale-Miami-Hollywood in August, only nine were AM, including Univision Radio's WAQI 710 AM Spanish news and sports station and WIOD's news talk. In the Boca Raton-West Palm Beach radio market, only two AM stations rank among the top 20 in August.
But not all station owners have abandoned AM. They are just supplementing it with FM broadcasts. Two years ago, WIOD began simulcasting on 100.3 FM, which had religious programming.
"We wanted to see if by adding the FM frequency we could add a different cume (cumulative audience) and a younger listening audience,'' said Grace Blazer, WIOD's program director, referring to listeners ages 35-54.
Since launching the FM simulcast in April 2011, WIOD went from 210,600 weekly listeners to 244,600 in April 2013, according to Arbitron.
"It's been working out well,'' added Blazer, noting that the FM translator station sits on the Broward/Miami-Dade county line, strengthening WIOD's signal from south of Pompano Beach to North Miami. "We are adding a new and more interesting way to hear our interesting services."
By moving to 106.3 FM from 760 AM, ESPN West Palm Beach made room for ESPN Deportes to appeal to Palm Beach County's growing Hispanic population. Steve Politziner, general manager of both stations, said he wasn't looking for an FM station for his English affiliate per se, until CBS Radio put up urban adult music station WUUB-FM for sale.
"We were looking for an opportunity to bring ESPN Deportes into this market and be able to grow what our assets were,'' he said. "It didn't matter to us, AM or FM."
Still, he acknowledges the power of FM and its ad-friendly listenership. "The younger generation is just more accustomed to FM. It certainly doesn't hurt with that, but there are people from the older generation that are more familiar with talk on the AM. Ultimately, it does expand it,'' he said.
The switch to FM has not only helped ESPN West Palm Beach penetrate deeper into Palm Beach County but also south into Broward. The AM signal for ESPN Deportes also helps better target Hispanic sports fans who are accustomed to getting their sports play by play and commentary on AM, Politziner said.
Officials at Univision's WAQI, which has the highest percentage share of listeners on the AM dial in the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood-Miami market, agreed.
"In many Latin American countries, radio is the medium of preference, so Hispanics are accustomed to getting their news and sports commentaries via AM radio,'' said Claudia Puig, senior vice president and regional manager of Univision Radio, which does not have any immediate plans to shift to FM. "That tradition is still, to some extent, the norm that has carried into life here in the U.S."
AM is still going to be around, according to Kevin Petrich, a media instructor with Florida Atlantic University.
"It will still have a purpose,'' he said. "What that purpose might be, what kind of role it might be playing, is a fairly difficult thing to predict."
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