Hubbard has been with All-Digital AM for four years. Here’s how to do it. | story | Panda Anku

It has been a little over four years since Hubbard Radio’s adult alternative “The Gamut” WWFD, Frederick, MD (820) shut down its analog signal and operated as a digital-only AM station experimental authority granted by the FCC. Since then, new FCC regulations allowing all-digital AMs across the industry have caused broadcasters to take a closer look at the WWFD when considering battered AM options.

WWFD posted a 1.5 (12+) share in Nielsen’s Spring Frederick, MD poll with a weekly cume of 3,300. Before it went fully digital, Dave Kolesar, senior broadcast engineer at Hubbard and the station’s PD, says it was a ratings no-show, “a wasted signal.”

The idea for the digital-only leap came around Christmas 2016, when Kolesar concluded that a music format on AM – even one as nuanced as The Gamut’s extensive playlist – “is pretty much a non-starter that exists, to have an FM translator. In all-digital mode, the AM signal has the ability to “become relevant again” with digital sound quality and displays of artist and album titles and album art.

According to Xperi, about 35% of the cars on the road in the DC market are equipped with HD radio receivers. However, only a small fraction of the radio listening in the market is AM radio. The broadcaster focuses on the third of the market that could enjoy a music format that looks and feels like any other service on the dashboard. The strategy is to use the FM repeater to advertise the digital AM frequency: “If you’re outside of our 94.3 FM signal coverage, turn on 820 and hear us as you drive around.” , explains Kolesar.

Because the station’s PPM encoder feeds both the AM and FM converter signals, it’s unknown which part will tune into the all-digital AM. But when the signal goes down, Kolesar says the station gets calls and messages. That wasn’t the case in its analogue days.

While all-news and news/talk giants that continue to enjoy massive success in analog AM are unlikely to be fully digital, Hubbard and other companies with ailing AM broadcasters are looking at just that. “They are looking closely at how this can fit into their business plans for their AM stations,” Kolesar says of Hubbard. “And other radio companies are looking at what we’ve been doing and having the same conversations. This prompted Cumulus to switch to WFAS in the New York market. They came here and drove around in an electric vehicle with an HD radio and watched it breathe new life into a ailing AM station.” WFAS became the first all-digital AM radio station on the New York subway in May 2021.

“Make something out of nothing”

“With the AM’s much wider range, people were able to tune in regionally and stay connected as they commuted around, while the FM translator really only covers the city of Frederick and its immediate vicinity,” explains Kolesar. The 820-frequency fringe shots of the Washington Market and The Gamut also broadcasts on the entire news giant WTOP Washington’s HD-3 channel (103.5).

“It doesn’t set the world on fire, but the channel hadn’t received any ratings in the previous 10 years,” Kolesar notes. “So now we’ve made something out of nothing.”

Choosing a format that attracts adoring fans is key, Kolesar says, as they become evangelists — not just for the programming, but for the technology that delivers it. “They want formats followed by evangelists and not just old listeners because they’re the ones selling the concept. They tell other people how to tune in,” he explains.

Preparing for the future of the connected car

As connected-car platforms like Xperi’s Radio DNS and DTS AutoStage are integrated into dashboards, Kolesar advocates that AM stations that don’t broadcast in HD — either pure digital or analog-digital hybrid — don’t appear in the connected radio dash unlike a number on a screen in the manual search menu. He sees this as a way to make legacy 50,000-watt AM stations accessible in the connected radio dashboard while preserving their traditional listeners.

The auto industry is moving towards an electric future as auto giants like Nissan and General Motors invest billions of dollars to expand their electrification range. But electric vehicles emit more interference than gas-powered vehicles, and that can wreak havoc on AM reception. This makes Kolesar optimistic about the future of all digital AM. “Of course, the future is electric cars. So AM radio operators should really pay attention and push the story that all digital AM in EVs not only works, it works well. I see it as AM’s ultimate survival bet.” – Paul Hein


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