Why are all of your favorite sports teams switching to FM?
The Padres are the latest Major League Baseball team to break away from the dated AM format, for the clear, crisp airwaves of FM
Radio and baseball go hand-in-hand, that is a given. Nearly as long as there have been radio stations broadcasting, there have been baseball games on the air. This iconic pairing of America’s pastime and broadcast radio is a tried and true combo that has connected teams to their fans and to their cities for nearly a century. The first Major League game ever transmitted across the airwaves was in 1921, broadcasted out of Forbes Field in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania, on a homemade microphone. As the decades passed and technologies evolved, baseball fans have seen many changes; gone were the days of recreated games via telegraph, live broadcasts became the norm as radio became more accessible, stations began to incorporate pre and post games, teams even began playing away-games on the radio despite major criticism that this would kill ticket sales. All of these changes have helped shape the foundation of the sport, and now a new era of baseball on the radio seems to be upon us. In recent years, teams have begun to switch from AM to FM stations. These teams are looking for a cleaner, crisper sound in an attempt to reach a younger generation that has shunned the AM dial. In a move very similar to the revitalizing of the NFL on TV back in the 90’s, baseball on the radio is looking to revamp and rejoin the 21st century, as an upbeat and contemporary force in the broadcast world.
The love-affair that is baseball and radio, began almost 100 years ago, even though, at the time many believed it was simply a publicity stunt. On August 5th 1921, Harold Arlin of KDKA in Pittsburg, called the game between the Pittsburg Pirates and the Philadelphia Phillies; this was to be the first ever baseball radio broadcast. Harold was sitting in a field-level box and using a microphone he outfitted from an old telephone receiver and some other jerry-rigged equipment he threw together. At the time this was considered to be a onetime deal, and that it would be too dull and boring to become a permanent feature in radio. However, despite mixed feelings from fans and teams alike, later that year, KDKA and WJZ of Newark both went on to broadcast the World Series. Almost overnight baseball on the radio became an American institution. Since then baseball has blossomed on-air, and despite early fears that radio would discourage fans from attending games when they could just listen to them for free, baseball’s popularity actually increased, as did ticket sales. Baseball fans had the radio bug, and the opportunities seemed endless. Teams were signing broadcast deals to get their games on air and reach as many fans as possible. Radio stations began to develop pre and post-game shows, host interviews with players and coaches after the game, and provide unique features for their listeners. They developed an unmatched experience that you couldn’t find anywhere outside of broadcast radio.
Through all of these new and exciting changes that baseball experienced on-air, one thing remained the same, the AM format. Even as the 80’s rolled around and FM started to become popular, baseball stuck to the AM dial position. This was primarily due to several inherent differences between AM and FM. AM had always been the dominant format for radio up to this point. FM radio wasn’t developed until the 1930’s, and by that point, AM had been around in some manner shape or form for 60 years and commercially broadcasting for an entire decade. AM was also cheaper and simpler to transmit, and it could reach a much greater area than FM. It was also less likely to be impacted by physical barriers, such as buildings and mountains. AM had its’ own shortfalls however; the signal was prone to interference from electrical storms and other radio frequencies, and it was often distorted with static. FM was specifically designed to overcome these issues. Despite its diminished range and susceptibility to physical signal blockage, FM produced a much better sound quality that was unaffected by storms or distorted by other frequencies. For this reason by the 90’s most radio stations with a music format had begun making the switch to FM.
Shortly after the migration of music to FM, the National Football League found itself in the middle of an identity crisis of its own. In 1994, Rupurt Murdoch and Fox beat out CBS for the rights to the NFC broadcasts. They aimed to completely revitalize football on the television. Amid deep concerns by “football-purists”, Fox poured millions of dollars to improve the quality of Football Broadcasts. Fox’s new plan was to immerse the fan in the football experience. They made every game a production; each game started with a rock & roll intro and went right into the teams storming the field, super-imposed logos and graphics flashing across the screen. Info-graphics were used to display stats in real-time, keeping the fans up-to-date on what was going on across the League. Before and after every game, commentators would host shows breaking down the opponent’s strengths and weaknesses. This new format appealed to both the hardline football fan as well as the casual fan. It wasn’t long until CBS, ABC/ESPN, and NBC all followed suit. This was an entirely new approach to broadcasting sports, and it worked. This is the type of reimaging the many teams in the MLB are looking to capture as they switch from AM. The FM dial position allows them the opportunity to turn every broadcast into a production. It affords them the clarity to not only broadcast a game, but an immersive sporting experience.
Of all the appealing reasons for the Padres to turn to FM, one stands out from the others, Millennials. This younger generation grew up on FM. AM was just old men talking on that radio station their dad would listen to in the car. In San Diego alone 89% of residents under 40, have not listened to AM radio in the last year. As this millennial generation ages, they are composing more and more of the target demographic for advertisers in radio. In 2015, 48% of adults over 18 in San Diego attended, listened to, or watched a Padres game, that’s 1.2 million people. There was clearly a major gap in the market where Padres broadcasts were not reaching their audience. The Padres watched recent success of other teams that have switched to FM radio stations, and decided that FM94/9 had both the format and ability to bring Padres radio to the millennial audience.
For years the team had been shaping their image around the alternative rock and craft beer scene San Diego is famous for. Every night at Petco Park the speakers blared Blink 182 and Fall Out Boy, as fans packed the lines at the beer garden. Now that the Padres are teaming up with San Diego’s alternative, FM94/9, they will be combining all the things that make this city what it is: alternative music, craft beer, and Padres Baseball. San Diego is all set to experience a whole new way to enjoy baseball. The Padres Radio Network will be clear and crisp, bringing new life to Padres Baseball, all while staying true to the sport and its fans. With the Padres working hard to rebuild their image both on the field and now on the air, this truly is going to be an amazing time to be a baseball fan in San Diego.