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Behind the mic: Talk 1300's Paul Vandenburgh.

Photo: Alicia Solsman

Tuning In

AM Radio thrives on local programming, despite pressures from new technology

By Shawn Stone

To some listeners, AM radio isn’t even on the radar. It’s the angry place where conservatives rule. The FCC would like to see it disappear in its current analog form, and moved over to a digital format requiring listeners to buy new equipment. But AM radio, with its emphasis on news and talk, often offers the closest local connection, in terms of programming and listener interaction, anywhere on either side of the dial.

For example, there’s Albany-based Talk 1300 AM. It’s a recent Monday morning, and host Paul Vandenburgh is in full-bore rant mode. The subject is the latest embarrassment out of the Schenectady Police Department, an officer who went to a dentist appointment while on duty.

“The coppers. The Schenectady coppers,” Vandenburgh snarls with a combination of amusement and unconcealed scorn. He’s a conservative, and certainly not anti-police—he chalks up the problems with both the Albany and Schenectady forces to undue police union influence—but he routinely calls out the misdeeds and follies of individual local cops. And the politicians (mostly Democrats) who, in his view, have enabled their bad behavior. And when it comes to national politics, Vandenburgh delights conservatives—and enrages liberals—when he cheerfully deploys the “S” word about President Obama. (“S” as in socialist.)

A few hours later, in his office at the station’s new home at the Times Union Center, Vandenburgh is in a completely opposite mood to his radio rant, if not completely relaxed—he has, after all, another hour of radio to do from 11 AM to noon, bridging the gap between Live From the State Capitol, hosted by the New York Post’s Fred Dicker, and Dr. Laura Schlessinger’s nationally syndicated program. Asked if he’s having fun, he smiles.

Vandenburgh is not just host and programming director, he’s part owner of Talk 1300. And, even in these grim economic times, he’s a very happy part owner. Others see a digital future (or none at all) for AM radio; he’s planning to install a new transmitter.

“It’s the greatest thing I ever did. It’s the smartest and best thing I ever did,” he says. “It gave me the opportunity to be my own boss, number one, though I have partners—they’re not involved in the day-to-day operation of the station.”

The 50-something Vandenburgh adds, “It gave me the chance to run a business, which is something else I was really interested in doing before I retire. Run my own place, do my own payrolls, solve my own problems. And that’s been a great part of this.”

When Vandenburgh left WROW-AM in 2007, after a 10-year run programming and hosting, he teamed up with some local businesspeople—including Trustco Bank CEO Robert J. McCormick—to form Capital Broadcasting, Inc., and purchase station WTMM-AM. At the time, it was an ESPN Radio affiliate. Once upon a time it was WQBK-AM, a talk station in the same building as Metroland’s old offices on Albany’s Central Avenue—and a place where Vandenburgh hosted, too.

At the time Vandenburgh started Talk 1300, there was a lot of speculation. On Sept. 26, 2007, on his blog In Media Res, retired TV journalist and anchor Ed Dague wrote: “My guess is that [he’ll] program a lot of syndicated right-wing talk radio (the return of Mike Gallagher?) with him taking the morning drive slot. There are several hot national shows available. He might well succeed, I think.”

What makes Talk 1300 interesting, however, is that Vandenburgh didn’t go in that direction. After his morning drive show from 5 AM to 10 AM is Live From the State Capitol, then another hour of Vandenburgh. After “Dr. Laura,” former Times Union managing editor and columnist Dan Lynch is on from 3 to 6 PM, followed by another hour of local talk with various hosts. There is some local programming on the weekend, too, including John Graney’s four-hour Sunday evening show Sportstalk.

“Twenty years ago,” Vandenburgh says, “satellite programming wasn’t available in the abundance it is today, or in the time slots it is today. I’m talking about mornings and afternoons. If you look at afternoon drive around the country, you’ve got Rush Limbaugh and you’ve got Sean Hannity.”

That would include the 800-pound gorilla in the Capital Region AM market, WGY, and their noon-to-6 PM lineup.

“A lot of stations run [Limbaugh and Hannity] back-to-back. I think it’s really important for a station to have a local afternoon show that’s hosted by somebody who has a background in the area that he’s doing the show. I have Dan Lynch.”

Vandenburgh is conservative, and Fred Dicker is the right-wing New York Post’s key reporter-editor in Albany; Lynch has often, jokingly, referred to himself as the “house liberal,” when he’s as centrist as the day is long. Whatever the philosophies of the various hosts, it’s this local talk—about, specifically, the Capital Region and New York state government—that makes the station must-listening for news junkies of all political stripes.

When it is pointed out that both Assembly speaker Sheldon Silver and attorney general Andrew Cuomo were on Dicker’s show in the same program a few days earlier, Vandenburgh adds, “He also had the governor and the comptroller on in the same show last week, too.”

When the station was first on the air, Vandenburgh seemed to be on all the time. (“That’s what you do when you’re starting.”) Though that’s been reduced to a more workable schedule, he may have to add another hour a week if Albany Mayor Jerry Jennings definitely runs for re-election. Jennings hosts an hour-long show on Fridays on Talk 1300 (call letters WGDJ-AM), most of which is devoted to people either complaining about potholes or telling the mayor what a great job he’s doing.

About the station’s future, Vandenburgh says, “I want it to grow, I want it to get better, I want to keep working on it.”

Not everyone is so sanguine about the future of AM radio, especially if you wander from these shores. In fact, while the AM band thrives (as much as any broadcast radio thrives) here, it’s on life support in other parts of the world. As detailed in a Jan. 19 story in The New York Times, Switzerland’s public-radio service shut down one of its two remaining AM transmitters in February and shifted that programming to a digital signal. (Only the French-speaking Swiss are still served by AM broadcasts.)

The Times story also noted that both Ireland and Austria have completely ditched AM radio, and that Great Britain has seen some digital-radio market penetration—though, after major efforts by commercial broadcasters, it’s still only about 12 percent of radio listeners.

Down under, Australia is experiencing a nationwide push for digital radio. Though there’s been no date set for the end of analog AM or FM, commercial Australian stations will debut digital signals in May; ABC, the public-radio service, will follow in July or August.

Our Federal Communications Commission has certainly led the cheering section for digital radio, which, in the United States, is an “in-band, on-channel (IBOC) technology” selected by the FCC in 2002 and marketed as HD Radio.

(There is plenty of online info about the technical specs of digital—aka HD—radio, technical info that is above this writer’s capability to translate into a useful couple of paragraphs. So, by all means, fire up the Google for this info.)

In an undated (but clearly years-old) “FCC Consumer Facts” document on their Web site, the FCC asserts, “AM digital radio is capable of providing sound quality equivalent to that of standard analog FM. . . . Some broadcasters believe that digital broadcasting may bring music back to the AM band.”

“Some broadcasters” might point out that music never left AM radio. In this market, one can point to—for starters—Radio Disney, with its measurably popular, tweener-friendly Miley Cyrus, Jonas Brothers and other Disney Channel star-heavy play list; WABY 1160 AM, “Moon Radio,” featuring local broadcasting legend David Allan’s weekday afternoon show; WVKZ 1240 AM, which broadcasts a “True Oldies” format from Schenectady; and WVTL 1570 AM, which features a “Beautiful Music” format from Amsterdam.

Unless one listens closely to the long station identification, many listeners to WAMC/Northeast Public Radio might not be aware that they broadcast on two AM stations: WAMC 1400 AM in Albany, and WRUN 1150 AM in Utica. The Albany AM signal makes it possible to hear WAMC in those odd neighborhoods where the FM signals are dicey. The Utica signal was their western-most outpost for a time, though they’ve since acquired an FM signal in Utica, too.

Mostly, the AM broadcasts are the same as what’s on the FM. But not always. As WAMC’s David Galletly explains in an e-mail, “We do alternate programming on the AM when the reduced audio quality of AM signals would not do justice to programming like the [Metropolitan Opera] or the Boston Symphony. It also allows us to do some alternate programming such as The Tavis Smiley Show.”

Like many other local stations, WAMC also broadcasts in the new digital format. He is asked if there’s a future for AM.

“There is a future for AM,” Galletly writes, “in the conversion to digital signals. As stations transition to HD Radio, AM stations will gain FM quality signals. As more HD Radio receivers go into service, this will make a difference.”

The only hitch is that consumers have so far proved indifferent to HD Radio.

Last month, for example, J.D. Power and Associates released a survey, which found that HD Radio has only approximately 5 percent penetration in new cars. (Though Jaguar says HD receivers will be standard in next year’s models.)

There are technological reasons why HD Radio hasn’t caught on—involving the power, or the lack thereof, behind current digital signals—but a bigger reason is price. Going back to the “Consumer Facts” doc, the FCC suggested that “early models [of HD Radios] are expected to cost more than analog radios, but the FCC has no information on how much more.”

It has turned out to be a lot more. As Ben Fong-Torres pointed out in a March 8 story in the San Francisco Chronicle, “the lowest-priced models (from Radiosophy and Sony) are about $100.”

“Guy Wire,” a pseudononymous columnist in the trade newspaper Radio World, sums up the situation nicely: “Despite better marketing, receiver sales figures have been, shall we say, rather disappointing. Less than a million receivers have been sold since the technology’s introduction. . . . That number pales in comparison to that of any other successful electronic innovation targeting a mass audience.”

There’s another reason HD Radio hasn’t caught on, namely, the growth of radio on the Internet. As Fong-Torres observed in the Chronicle, “HD offers ‘subchannels,’ extra stations programmed by existing stations. So far, they’re not that exciting; the Internet offers way more variety.”

Bob Cudmore is another longtime Capital Region broadcaster who’s still making his mark in local AM radio. In this case, it’s WVTL 1570 in Amsterdam. He has a regular history column in The Daily Gazette; on radio, he’s probably best known for his dozen years at WGY.

His three-hour, weekday morning show from 6 to 9 AM is a mix of news, talk, interviews and features. One morning you may hear an interview with an author of a book on local history; another morning you’ll hear an interview with a local TV or print reporter. (You’ll also hear commentary from another old-school Capital Region broadcaster, Steve Fitz.) It’s fast-paced, and tightly formatted—every second counts, right up to the end of the show, but Cudmore never sounds rushed.

“The basis of the show,” he says, “is that we cover Montgomery and Fulton counties. I mean, we are a local radio show.”

“As time permits, I interview other people,” he says, “but the plan I have is to focus on our local area. And that is what I think has kept us afloat in these tough times.”

Following Cudmore, there’s a one-hour show called Valley Talk hosted by Mike Mancini and Sam Zurlo. “They’re really plugged into Amsterdam politics,” Cudmore notes.

Like many smaller stations, WVTL does rely on a satellite service for most of their programming—but not talk. They recently ditched Mike Gallagher and other right-wing hosts in favor of the “beautiful music” format, which is mostly pop standards and some big-band classics. (Cudmore says it’s working out fine.)

How else does a small station succeed in these times? WVTL is involved in the community, raising funds for various charities. It started in 2006 when, Cudmore says, “we raised money for small businesses hurt in the flood.” Since then, WVTL has helped the Amsterdam Free Library, United Way, and others raise funds, and, he says, “we’ll probably do more this year.”

“I think you have to add value to what you’re doing in media these days,” he explains. It’s a way of connecting with the community: “In addition to the money we raise, the charities get a lot of exposure on the show. . . . We do two weeks of interviews and one week of fundraising.”

There’s another added value of being a local station—being there when disaster strikes, as with the floods of 2006.

“As soon as the flood hit, up in the Mohawk Valley—to me, that’s one of the things radio can provide,” Cudmore says. “When everything’s going down, AM radio is an old, established technology. It’s easy to get.”

“When the flood was on, we got phone calls from people we haven’t got calls from before, or since,” he says. “I remember talking to this woman in Palatine Bridge who’d driven from her house, and she was just tuning the dial, and she said, ‘I heard you there, talking about the flood. Do you know anything about it?’ ”

“I think that’s when we can really provide a service, in radio.”

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