Eric Norberg's Weekly Commentary

A part of each issue of The Adult Contemporary MUSIC RESEARCH Letter is Eric's commentary.  Here's this issue's comment:

Six new tracks to test this week -- and this time, one of the new ones made it over the bar to our baseline "Recommended for your Mainstream AC playlist" scoring level this week: THAT PART by Lauren Spencer-Smith, on Island Records.

One of the six re-tested tracks made it up to a "Recommended" score too: CHANGES by Chubby Checker (born Ernest Evans), who began his career as an impressionist of other singers of the era, including Fats Domino (from whom he drew his own stage name), and Elvis Presley.  He went on to have 34 songs on the Billboard Hot 100 chart between1959 and 1988, but he is most identified with THE TWIST, which has the unique distinction of reaching #1 twice in two different years -- 1960 and 1961.  Ernest is now 82 and clearly can still sing -- his performance here reminds us a bit of the late Sam Cooke.  It tests well with the core female audience of Mainstream AC radio.

On another subject, In a recent Music Letter we offered the thought that if AM radio is to survive it has to revive listener interest in it and demand for it, and the most likely path to that would be for AM stations to take advantage of the high audio quality and static resistance of going to 100% HD Radio.  We pointed out that anyone with an “HD Radio” in their car could receive it in high fidelity and stereo; that it sounds as good as FM if not better, and has the same coverage as the analog signal -- while being resistant to static.  (And for AM stations worried that a few older listeners may not be able to tune it in -- you can always buy another AM station in your market and duplicate your HD signal on that, in analog AM -- thus using the new station as a “translator” for your main signal.)   A May issue of the radio engineering magazine “Radio World” led its “letters” column with a similar observation written by a reader, headlined “Take Advantage of All-Digital AM”:

“AM radio has seen many attempts to improve the service over the years. There was stereo AM, the NRSC-1 AM standard, and then in-band on-channel analog/digital broadcast. IBOC suffered from the digital interfering with the analog of adjacent channels; in the end everyone shut down the digital and considered it a fail.  But in the meantime, for the last 10 years or so, car manufacturers have been providing HD radios with digital AM stereo capabilities! Sadly there’s no mention, not even a hint, that these radios are digital AM capable. It was not until WWFD in Frederick, Maryland, started broadcasting digital-only that I was able to listen to and evaluate digital AM for myself.  It is surprisingly good.  Audio quality [even on music] is very good! The signal coverage appears to be close if not equal to the analog coverage.  Most importantly, there is no audible noise.  And, yes, both of my cars — model years 2010 and 2012 — receive digital HD AM!  As I read and listen to the complaints about AM, I find it amazing that an existing technology, one that is mostly already in place and available, is being ignored.

“Carmakers are not going to continue to support a technology that no one is using or cares about. AM stations clamored to add FM translators to improve the listening experience; yet most of those stations have a much greater signal coverage on their AM signal -- in many cases by hundreds of miles. Not taking advantage of the HD technology already  available could be the beginning of the end for the AM band.”  – David Eltzroth, Elkridge, Maryland


Since we do have new subscribers, we probably should go over some of the basics of our testing once again. 

To start with, we test everything we can -- whether intended for AC or not -- because you never can tell what will be attractive to the AC core listeners (the trade charts, based only on programmer opinions and feedback from the charts themselves, certainly don’t tell you that).  Our accuracy is what put us into business a third of a century ago, and continues to keep us relevant for programmers who want to make sure they are playing new and current music that actually appeals to their audience, while making sure their station sounds up-to-date, instead of like some sort of boring oldies operation, which unfortunately most of them do these days.  We offer the antidote for that!

Our testing is totally different from the usual hook-based testing, which forces the subjects to intellectualize their responses (reconstructing in their mind the song which this is a fragment of, and then trying to figure out what they think of it -- turning an emotional response into a intellectual one).  We play songs from the beginning, and continue to play them to the end -- unless the participants are disinterested and ask us to move on, which we then do.  No song can be “Recommended” unless our test subjects really want to hear it all the way through -- the relevance of that response to choosing the song for your radio station should be obvious!  (And our testing gives reliable scores on material they have never heard before, too -- a major advantage.) 

If you ever have questions, just contact us.


Many of our recent discussions with broadcasters have focused on ratings, and their deficiencies.  No credible national radio rating service has ever had more deficiencies than Arbitron/Nielsen, in our opinion -- both when using diaries and now when using people meters.

But radio and advertisers seem always to be focused on "share" in any radio ratings report, and that is an artificial projected figure, based upon the cumulative audience for each station -- projected from the measured sample, combined with the average amount of time listeners in the sample listened.  Cume is inherently based on a better sample than average listening span, as a result.

The first point to make is that print media have always loved that radio sells share figures (either "persons" share, or an abstract number) while print sells "circulation" -- which is equivalent to cume persons in radio, and that guarantees that print looks better in the comparison!  Unless local print media is willing to reveal their "average readers per page", you cannot compare their circulation with your share.  So sell locally with CUME!

We used to do ratings analysis for major and smaller market stations which restored the data to more or less what it was to begin with, in the survey -- and which made it clear what the ratings were saying.  We ranked stations by cume -- and then showed each's "average listening span" (per demo, per daypart).

If you want to do the same, the formula for calculating this is:


Changing the subject, a longtime radio friend of ours recently sent us an opinion piece by a respected industry veteran who essentially advocated throwing in the towel on AM radio, and disposing of the band and moving all the stations in it to a “new FM band”, or something like that. 

With due respect, we think this guy is just echoing the general industry dismissive attitude towards AM, which unfortunately has been endemic for well over thirty years now, and by which broadcasters have trained listeners to think of AM is inferior, when they would probably not have come to any such a conclusion by themselves.  Putting fringe-interest programming on AM, mainly of a non-music nature, has surely not helped -- even though the American public has never demonstrated much understanding of quality broadcast audio and video anyway, and really still doesn’t.  CD’s do sound better than MP3s, but nobody seems to care!  

Two points he apparently has forgotten, or perhaps never really understood:

1)  FM nearly suffered the fate he encourages for AM.  Although early FM commercial broadcasts dated from the 1940’s, FM was badly hurt by the decision of the FCC to change the FM band from 42-50 MHz to 88-108 MHz after early broadcasters had signed on and listeners had started  buying radios.  The new band really was  better suited for FM than the older one; but making everybody who had gotten interested in FM buy another new radio to hear it, while requiring the stations to build a new transmission system to transmit it, nearly killed it.  By 1957, there were fewer FM stations on the air each successive year -- and if James Gabbert hadn’t put KPEN/KIOI FM on the air at San Francisco in 1957 with a “hi-fi” format, to appeal to fans who had FM tuners -- and started getting sponsors, thus showing a possible path to success for FM -- it is possible the FM band would have simply gone away.  Every year after KPEN debuted in 1957 there were more FM stations on the air, and more listeners.   

2)  Until the later 1960’s, the only rating service that would even RATE FM’s was Hooper; FM listening would all go into “miscellanous”.  FM radios were hard to find, too.  But FM found ways of attracting listeners -- progressive rock was the second  new path to FM success in 1967 -- and FM eventually succeeded.  AM still  has more listeners and radios than FM did then!  But this industry veteran may not think so, because Nielsen will not allow public publication in its radio ratings results of any rated call letters that don’t subscribe; and most AM’s don’t!

There are still ways of attracting and holding AM listeners!  Just one would be by going 100% stereo HD, as we recently have been advocating, as in the opinion piece below.

The FCC in the United States seems inclined to go ahead and let American AM stations go all-digital if they want to; they have pushed out a "notice of proposed rulemaking", using the iBiquity digital standard already in use (and which is pervasive in newer cars) in the U.S.  Although up till now (except for some testing) all U.S. AM and FM stations have used the digital system in "hybrid mode", with the analog signal predominating, and the digital signal embedded in it at a much lower level, which does work pretty well for FM -- on AM, the hybrid digital has been transmitted at such an extremely low power level that, in practice, a station can only be heard in digital at our above about the 16 mv/m contour.  When you reflect that the "city grade signal" now recognized by the FCC over the city of license is only 5 mv/m, you can see that, to attain much coverage, the basic station power level has to be quite high for the digital component to be widely received, and then over much less of the analog coverage area.  But the all-digital AM signal can replicate the station's full coverage area, and for car iBiquity radios that can receive AM digital in any form, they will receive this much-improved signal over the station's full "former-analog" coverage area. 

We think this is a great idea, particularly considering that AM radio's remaining audience has held up much better in cars than in the home, and that so many cars now on the road are already able to receive a full-AM-digital (stereo) signal!

With declining AM audiences, this is the time to revive the century-old band by broadcasting a 21st Century 100% HD radio signal on AM, in our opinion.



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