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For AM stations, future may be on the FM band

WBZ’s strength, WEEI’s sports programs have delayed the change in Boston, but younger listeners are mostly ignoring the older system

By Johnny Diaz
Globe Staff / November 9, 2011

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Chad Restrick used to listen to sports talk WEEI-AM 850, but he couldn’t always pick up the station’s AM signal during his commutes from Hanover to his job as an administrator at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston. “It was tough to hear because the signal wasn’t good,’’ said Restrick, 28.

Two years ago, he switched to The Sports Hub, WEEI’s competitor at 98.5 on the FM band. “It’s perfect. I never had a problem with them,’’ he said.

Stations like WEEI are losing their audiences as listeners who grew up with AM radio age and younger listeners insist on the richer sound of FM. With its weak AM signal and competition from The Sports Hub, WEEI, the dominant sports talk station in Boston for years, was falling in the ratings. So in September, the station took a spot on the FM dial, simulcasting its AM programming on a former pop rock station, WMKK-FM 93.7.

In markets such as Atlanta, Chicago, and San Francisco, heritage AM news or sports radio stations like WEEI are taking over FM counterparts to simulcast their programs. Some have done it to appeal to younger audiences who have grown up with FM. Other outlets have done it to blunt a competitor. And for the most part, the result has been better ratings.

Until recently, Boston avoided the trend because two of its most popular radio stations are on AM: WBZ-AM 1030 and WEEI.

So far, no other local AM station has revealed plans to follow WEEI to the FM band, although increasingly, that’s where the listeners are. Almost three out of every four radio listeners in the United States say they never tune in to AM, according to Arbitron, the ratings service. In Boston, 81 percent of people listening to radio at a given moment are tuned to an FM station, Arbitron said.

Boston stations are late to switching from AM to FM because “having the Red Sox on [WEEI] by itself has done a lot to keeping AM in the consciousness of listeners,’’ said analyst Scott Fybush, publisher of the Northeast Radio Watch newsletter. “It hasn’t hurt that WBZ has remained as strong as it is.’’

For WEEI, the decision to simulcast on FM was a matter of numbers. In October 2009, two months after the launch of The Sports Hub, WEEI was capturing 5.3 percent of Boston’s listening audience. A year later, its share had dropped to 4.2 percent.

By September, when WEEI made its move to FM, The Sports Hub was finishing first among males ages 25 to 54, a demographic advertisers covet. Among those listeners, WEEI ranked eighth.

But the decision to simulcast on FM is working for WEEI. Counting its signal on both AM and FM, the station’s average weekly listener audience is up 27 percent since the simulcast began, according to Arbitron’s October ratings.

WEEI was also up 46 percent among men ages 25 to 54, although The Sports Hub was still tops in that demographic.

And WEEI’s total audience numbers more than recovered. In October, WEEI on average had 824,100 weekly listeners in Boston, a 5.6 percent share. The Sports Hub had a 4.3 percent share.

“We knew it would be a huge benefit for us,’’ said Jason Wolfe, WEEI’s vice president of programming, of the simulcast. “We had a lot of trouble on the AM [band] reaching those younger people’’ who listen to FM.

There have been similar results in other markets. Last year, for example, the Atlanta news-talk outlet WSB-AM started simulcasting on FM. Together, its AM and FM broadcasts now form a powerhouse, ranking second and fifth in the most recent ratings period.

The question is whether the migration to FM signals the beginning of the end for AM radio. Jack Casey, an Emerson College radio professor, called WEEI’s FM simulcast “a bellwether indicating that in order to get younger listeners, you have to be on FM. Most younger listeners never frequent the AM band. They hardly know it exists.’’

The migration may accelerate, said Northeast Radio Watch’s Fybush. Since WEEI began its FM simulcast, there are only two AM stations that rank among the top 15 in Boston by percentage share of total listening audience.

One is WBZ, which draws about 6 percent of listeners in Boston. Only WXKS-FM 107.9, which has 9.5 percent, draws more listeners in Boston.

The other popular AM outlet is the conservative talk station WRKO-AM 680, which ranked 14th with 2.3 percent of Boston listeners.

Mark Hannon, senior vice president and market manager for CBS Radio, which owns five stations in Boston, said he launched The Sports Hub in 2009 to boost the flagging ratings performance of then-rock music station WBCN-FM. (The Sports Hub replaced adult contemporary music station WBMX, or Mix 98.5 FM, which moved its programming to 104.1 FM, former home of WBCN.)

As for WBZ, also owned by CBS Radio, there are no immediate plans to place its programming on FM, Hannon said. WBZ has a potent signal that reaches as far north as Canada and as far as south as the Carolinas at night, he added.

“That station transcends everything because it’s such a large signal, and a station with 90 years of heritage,’’ he said.

WEEI’s Wolfe said his station’s FM simulcast has improved not only the ratings but its reach. “The direction of the signal is unimpeded,’’ Wolfe said. “It’s like a blanket now, where as there were pockets before on AM.’’

Between the AM and FM stations, WEEI can be heard in Southern New Hampshire, the Merrimack Valley, Metrowest, and Worcester, as well as in Greater Boston.

Demetri Rizos, 42, is one listener who followed WEEI from AM to FM. “It’s better clarity,’’ said Rizos, a physician who listens to WEEI on his morning commutes from Danvers to Lowell.

“Going to FM is like putting the cherry on the ice cream.’’

Johnny Diaz can be reached at jodiaz@globe.com.