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Meet the Market Managers: Todd Farquharson, Gow Media Houston

“I can walk into a meeting and say, ‘Well, we’re just like you. We’re a local business born and raised right here in Houston, Texas. So we’re very similar to you.’ I think owners of businesses appreciate that.”

Demetri Ravanos

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It isn’t easy to be in the sports radio game in Houston. Todd Farquharson and his team at ESPN Houston know that. Three locally staffed stations and two stations that run national programming give fans in the area a lot of options.

Farquharson talks about how Houston became home to so many sports stations in the latest column in our Meet the Market Managers series presented by Point-to-Point Marketing. He also talks about the things our industry thinks too inwardly on, like dial position and the value of ESPN Radio.

ESPN 97.5 and 92.5 in Houston is built largely on the strength of local sales. For Todd, his sales staff, and his programming staff, that means everyone is important to the clients.

Demetri Ravanos: Let’s talk about the Houston market. There are a lot of sports stations there, and it’s a lot of sports stations fighting for what usually are not big numbers. So what makes it worth it to be in a crowded, small space? 

Todd Farquharson: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve been in the sports radio business, I started in ’94 with a local, independent group that would be bought by Clear Channel. It was before there was an all-sports station in town, which became Sports Radio 610.               

Then I guess in 2003, SportsTalk 790 popped up. That’s iHeart’s sports radio station. Our group now was born out of some guys that were at 610. It’s a weird circumstance where you got two competitors were probably enough for this market, but then a third was born out of, “Hey, we want to leave and do our own thing.”            

You’re right. I mean, the Houston sports radio share is probably six or seven when we’re doing well and we’re all fighting for that. What makes it worthwhile is it’s what we know best and it’s where our talent is, and I feel really good about our talent.                      

Ultimately, I’d love to see us grow the market, not just ourselves but the other stations too. Now, I don’t see us working together side-by-side, but what can we do as a sports platform to grow the share? I go to an Astros game and it’s packed with 43,000 people during the playoffs and there’s a lot of fervor and excitement. There’s so many of those people, I guarantee you, that just don’t listen to sports radio. Maybe if they’re exposed to it or give it a shot, they might go, “Wow, I had no idea!” So I hope to not just fight for the sixth share forever. 

DR: Let’s sort of keep it in the realm of what’s going on now. Again, there’s a lot of stations fighting for not a lot of share, but you guys are the only ones on FM. How are you talking about that — whether it is with clients, maybe even prospective hires for you guys? How much are you putting that front and center? 

TF: We certainly make that a big part of our pitch when we’re talking to advertisers. It depends though. The advertisers who know the sports radio space recognize that. Other times, you have to be Captain Obvious and tell the buyer that “this matters because the sound is better.”        

One interesting thing that they wouldn’t know is that we don’t duplicate with the stations very much. There’s very little audience duplication, actually. So you’re reaching totally different people. We crossover mostly with the rock station, with the AC stations, with the urban stations. So we’re going to help you reach a whole different audience.                 

I don’t sell against my competition because if a strategy is working for you on those radio stations, it should work for you on our station. We share the same qualitative demographics in terms of who the listeners are, but ours are totally different set within the demo that happen to be on the FM dial. 

DR: You don’t want to sell against your competition. You want to sell what it is you guys do, but within the industry, we’ve been having a lot of conversations about what exactly the future is for AM radio. So I wonder, does the fact that there are eight car manufacturers that aren’t even putting access to the AM band on the dashboard anymore come up at all in conversations with clients? 

TF: I don’t think it has a lot unless they’re really dialed into the business. It’s not something I want to bring out because, usually, we’re selling schedules for the next three, six, or twelve months. For a lot of people, it’s not a reality yet. So, I think it may come across as negative selling when it’s just not even a factor right now. 

DR: I do want to talk about the way we look at audience now, because I can sit here and say exactly what I said, right? “It’s a small share that everybody’s fighting for.” But that’s not the only way to measure an audience. That might not even be the accurate way to measure it all. So what is it you guys are looking at to understand not just how big the audience is, but what kind of impact you’re content is having on your listeners? 

TF: We certainly want to give the advertisers an ROI. They need the return. So that’s measured often by their experience.             

“Oh man, you know, we are getting some people to walk into the store” or “We’re getting some phone calls” or “The website traffic has gone up 3%.” That’s when we can feel that our ads are working.

But beyond the radio audience itself, we do try to give them exposure to bigger audiences. For example, we have a companion website, SportsMap.com. It’s focused on Astros, Rockets, and Texans. So it’s very much the same content, but a lot of people that land on the website have never listened to the radio station.

As an advertiser, you may reach, let’s say, 100,000 on our radio stations, but there’s another 200,000 a month that will hit this website that you may not be exposed to. We videotape all our live programing. We’ll chop up that video into 30, 60 seconds snippets, put it on Tik Tok, put it on YouTube, put it on Facebook. So we’re exposing other audiences to what we do that, again, probably never listen to sports radio. We get that. We met a few listeners who said, “Man, I discovered you guys on YouTube. I didn’t realize y’all had a radio show.” That happens every day.

DR: That kind of goes exactly to something else I was thinking about as I was putting doing my research and putting this together to chat today. There was a time in this industry when if you said ESPN Houston is on 97.5 and 92.5, that might be deemed by some in the industry as too confusing. But you just hit it on the head, man. People are coming to your content in so many different ways. I would guess that not only is it not even a huge problem anymore, may not even be a consideration for a lot of listeners. 

TF: I think we are so fractured. I mean this morning, I get up early and go walking and I listen to a podcast until our local morning show came on. So I flipped from podcast to stream and I hopped into my car and I’m listening to radio. You know, we all have figured out how to consume multiple mediums, so I would hope somebody can flip a dial from 97.5 to 92.5 easily. 

DR: You guys have been recruiting for a PD in recent months, and I wonder what some of the challenges that came with doing that in 2023 were. What are candidate’s questions and concerns about, not just your business, but the future of radio in general and are they the kinds of questions you had to answer five or ten years ago when you’re doing this? 

TF: Yeah, it’s interesting. Most of the people that were interested in talking to about the job, I don’t think there were a lot of questions to be pointed about where are we going to be in ten years with the industry or where is the media going to be. Maybe I had a few of those, but I guess they were more interested in, “Hey, I’d like to come work there and be a part of the sports radio station.” So we didn’t honestly have that many conversations about the future of it, specifically to our company.

We’re trying to be broader than just radio, as I mentioned. Beyond our digital platform SportsMap.com, we have CultureMap.com. That’s in five cities, the five major cities in Texas. We have an InnovationMap.com. So we have nice digital platforms that expand into different categories and we’re trying to grow that way as well so that we are not siloed into the singularity of sports radio. 

DR: So are you looking for candidates then that can contribute to building the business, in all of those different ways? 

TF: We’re looking for somebody who acknowledges that we are a bigger platform than just sports radio. Maybe sometimes you might be running promos for InnovationMap or CultureMap sponsors an event and we take our sports radio show live from there. Why not be exposed to all these people? So it’s just a matter of working together and realizing that we’re greater together.

DR: In my position, I’ve been studying the changes to ESPN’s business over the last three years. In the industry, we all have opinions about what is the quality of ESPN Radio programming. We all wonder what is the stability of ESPN’s audio product. 

But I want to talk about it with you from the standpoint of people outside of our industry. When you go out on the street, whether it is meeting listeners, meeting potential clients, whatever, do those four letters still carry the weight that they did, say five, ten years ago?

TF: Absolutely. It’s still the biggest brand of sports. You kind of touched on it. We can be hypercritical within the industry, but let’s say I’m talking to a female business owner and she is not really into sports, but she’s open to listening and she wants to reach the right audience. ESPN means something. She’s she knows it. It’s better than, “Hey, it’s Todd’s sports radio,” right? 

DR: I make this joke all the time that in this format, we have a wheel of five words that you’re allowed to name your station – Fan, Ticket, Score. You know the ones. In Hosuton, none of that exists and the branding is clearly laid out with “Sports Radio 610” and “SportsTalk 790”. You guys have gone with a very specific, well-known brand. I mean, that does say something different than “97.5 The Ticket” would. 

TF: Right. We enjoy our partnership with ESPN in terms of even the backstop programing we get. You can never have to apologize because your weekend or evening programing wasn’t great. ESPN does a nice job. So we love that.            

I love when we can carry the Astros. You know, we’re not the flagship, but when ESPN says, “Hey, we’ve got an Astros game and you’re allowed to run it” I just say alright. When the Astros are in the playoffs or in the World Series, we carry all those games, which is fantastic. And we’re able to monetize that in a way in a really nice way. 

DR: The bulk of your business being almost entirely local, tell me a bit about the role that your talent plays in starting and maintaining those client relationships. 

TF: Yeah, you’re right. The national business kind of withers away. As ratings fluctuate, so does national business. But fortunately, we rely on our direct business, the local business.            

I can walk into a meeting and say, “Well, we’re just like you. We’re a local business born and raised right here in Houston, Texas. So we’re very similar to you.” I think owners of businesses appreciate that.                

When it comes to the hosts, they’re very interactive. They’re anxious to create relationships and maintain relationships. A few of our hosts, frankly, are some of our best salespeople, because they meet people out and because they’re on the air. They have engaging personalities and people want to be around them and they get to know them. When those people are like, “Hey, I have a business. How do I start advertising with you guys?” that is who they usually ask. I love and depend on our hosts. They do a terrific job for us. 

DR: So are those hosts that are also going out and doing their own selling? Is it the folks that have been there for a while or when you launched that new afternoon show or bring in Jeremy to be a part of the midday show are you welcoming them to come in and try their hand at selling their own show as well. 

TF: Absolutely, and to be fair, I shouldn’t say that they’re necessarily selling. What they’re doing is setting up a relationship. “Hey, I met this guy.”

If you are instrumental in bringing some business to you, to us, and we get the deal, we’ll give you a little something to incentivize you to do that again. Sometimes a personality can open a door much quicker than a salesperson can. 

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AM Radio Advocates Aren’t Fighting the Right Fight

“Remember what we are fighting here. No one wants to outlaw AM radio.”

Demetri Ravanos

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There is still value in AM radio. That has been made tremendously clear over the last few months as Congress has rallied to fight against automakers eliminating the band from the dashboard in 2024 models. 

The arguments were effective for at least one company, as Ford has decided to reverse course and preserve AM radio in their cars. The same cannot be said though for the other seven car manufacturers. They aren’t interested in being in the amplitude modulation business anymore.

Our industry is taking up a worthwhile cause, but the arguments being made on Capitol Hill and in open letters ring hollow. Even though I am not rooting for cars to be manufactured in a way that makes it harder for any listener to hear their favorite station, I can see the carmakers’ point of view. I get why they wouldn’t be swayed by these arguments.

Remember what we are fighting here. No one wants to outlaw AM radio. No one is trying to pass a bill to make it illegal to carry legal advice and gardening shows.

Carmakers are making a business decision. Electric vehicles’ engines interfere with AM signals. Making the necessary changes in order to keep that from happening costs money that they don’t see as a necessary expense. How do we combat that?

Instead, we are talking about EAS systems. That has nothing to do with the fight we are fighting. I have worked at AM stations. I have worked at FM stations. We carry those alerts on both bands. In the event of severe weather or national emergency, both bands go to wall-to-wall coverage. 

If we aren’t trying to fight a bill that makes AM radio illegal, then this argument is irrelevant. Even if stations go out of business, if AM is imperative for distributing emergency information, the government has a responsibility to find ways to keep that distribution system operational. 

We talk about how important the band is for sports fans. We romanticize listening to a game on the radio. Nostalgia is great if your audience has the nostalgia, but what if they don’t?

I grew up having to listen to Alabama games on AM radio. Guess what? It sounded like shit. I’m not eager to experience it again.

Some of right-wing talk radio’s biggest stars have made the argument that this is another step in silencing conservative voices. That can easily be disproven by the fact that Elon Musk’s Tesla was the first automaker to announce the removal of the AM band. You can also simply pointing to the number of FM talk stations that carry those very same programs.

“No one is loyal to amplitude modulation or frequency modulation,” Larry Rosin told me before this year’s BSM Summit. Our audience chooses content 100% of the time. They are not loyal to AM or FM. They aren’t even loyal to a particular station. They are loyal to themselves, and that is perfectly understandable. 

The one time I tried to watch an episode of Yellowstone, I was positive the people that call it the best thing on TV were playing a prank on me. I didn’t give it a second chance because it didn’t entertain me in the least. It had nothing to do with preferring streaming to cable or a vendetta against Paramount Network.

Seriously, there’s a joke I’m not in on, right? Yellowstone is bad.

Again, I am not advocating for the end of AM radio. I am advocating for making smarter arguments and fighting the right fight.

If AM radio is harder to access, stations will lose money and that means that they will likely cut staff. Job losses are not good for people being able to make ends meet, let alone buy new cars. That is an argument to make to elected officials who want to win future elections and to carmakers that want to sell new cars.

Yes, people can find the information they need on an FM station in the event of an emergency. Doesn’t it make sense to preserve all choices in a car though? If an AM radio listener switches to streaming music or podcasts because the content they want isn’t readily available, they could miss that emergency information.

Now, it sucks, but there is one more thing to consider here. 

Maybe this is a war AM radio cannot win. Maybe the best we can do is win some individual battles and buy ourselves a little time.

Technology is ever-evolving and that isn’t going to change. We have already seen it. Newspapers struggle in the age of the internet. Tape decks are replaced in cars by CD players. Even when you go to the movies, it is rare that you are watching film being projected onto the screen. Now it is digital video.

Better ways of delivering information and entertainment come along all the time and slowly replace what we have always relied on. NAB and radio groups are fighting to preserve AM radio. They should also be making sure that their listeners and advertisers are well-acquainted with all of the ways to access their content. 

Fighting to keep AM radio on the car dashboard is worthwhile, but when you’re fighting technical innovation, any victory is temporary. Let’s not be so narrowly focused that we forget that the ultimate goal for the stations on AM is that the content survives.

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Eddie Olczyk is Jacked Up For the Stanley Cup

“Pucks and ponies are a big part of my life, and I’m very passionate about it.”

Derek Futterman

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Entering the broadcast booth before a game, Eddie Olczyk can be doing any number of things. Whether it is watching warmups, interacting with his colleagues or simply taking in the environment, he recognizes how fortunate he is to still call his workplace. Another recurring setting, albeit outdoors, are horse racing tracks, the venues from which Olczyk has not only broadcast, but also competed as an owner in marquee events.

“Pucks and ponies are a big part of my life, and I’m very passionate about it and handicapping and I have always been a horse player and horse owner,” said Olczyk, who just returned from working for NBC as part of the network’s Kentucky Derby coverage. “I think it’s really helped my ability to communicate a little bit more for hockey because a lot of that is more the one-on-one and the verbalization and has to do with storytelling.”

Olczyk played hockey for 16 seasons with the Stanley Cup at the forefront of his mind. He eventually achieved his goal during the 1993-94 season, helping the New York Rangers capture their first championship in 54 years. A few months after the ticker tape parade, the world of hockey came to a standstill.

The league was in a lockout, meaning Olczyk, at least for the short term, was out of a job. One of the locations he had brought the Stanley Cup was the Meadowlands Racetrack in East Rutherford, NJ. He became friendly with some of its regular spectators and owners.

“The people at the Meadowlands said, ‘Hey, you love horse racing [and] you love to handicap,’” Olczyk recalled. “‘You’re not working. Would you like to come and handicap the races at the racetrack and do our wrap up show? Kind of just dabble in the media?’

Stunned to receive an offer to be paid to show up to the racetrack, Olczyk did not hesitate. He quickly began working with commentator Barbara Foster and absorbed a profusion of information about being a professional in sports media. Olczyk served as her sidekick during the proceedings over the ensuing three months and returned to professional hockey once the dispute between the league and its players was resolved. He was dealt to the Winnipeg Jets later that season, and then played with the Los Angeles Kings, Pittsburgh Penguins and hometown Chicago Blackhawks before hanging up the skates.

  Growing up in Chicago, the voices of sports media were firmly ingrained into Eddie Olczyk’s subconscious. He eventually had the privilege to meet some of them and call them his colleagues. They served as inspiration for him to refine his craft and work to become a viable broadcast partner for play-by-play announcers, producers, directors and other personnel. 

“I don’t think anyone could ever shoreside me for not aligning myself or getting a chance to work with some of the greatest voices in NHL history,” Olczyk said. “I’m very lucky and I’m sure their shoulders are probably a little sore from carrying me for all those years, but it was very educational. They were obviously very instrumental.”

Once he exited the game though, Olczyk signed on with Fox Sports Net Pittsburgh to become the color commentator for Penguins games. He was paired with play-by-play announcer Mike Lange, his first bonafide partner when it came to working in sports media. 

That job did not last very long, because he became the head coach of the Penguins for the next two seasons. After a slow start to the 2005-06 season, Olczyk was relieved of his head coaching duties, but still wanted to remain around the game of hockey. 

The very next season, he joined the local television broadcasting team for the Chicago Blackhawks, the team he grew up watching and played for during two separate stints. He worked with an announcer he listened to in his youth: Pat Foley.

Foley wasn’t his only partner for very long. Eddie Olczyk quickly jumped into the national spotlight. His previous experience on NHL Radio taught him the subtle, yet essential differences in those broadcasts, and he ultimately earned a chance to work with Mike “Doc” Emrick on Versus/NBC Sports.

At the end of the 2006-07 season, Olczyk called his first Stanley Cup Finals with Emrick. He would do that for the next 13 seasons, watching the greatest players of a generation such as Penguins forward Sidney Crosby and Washington Capitals forward Alexander Ovechkin get their names etched on the trophy. As he balanced the national job with his role calling Blackhawks games locally, Olczyk felt like he had made it to the highest level sports media had to offer – but only after earnest recognition from his esteemed colleague.

“Doc was doing an article of some sort and they asked him about our relationship,” Olczyk remembered. “I’m paraphrasing, but Doc said, ‘I hope that when Edzo is 65, he has somebody that takes care of him as he has taken care of me.’ I just thought that was obviously very humbling, but when you can get the stamp of approval from Doc Emrick, you’ve done something right, and that I will take with me the rest of my life.”

Whether it was calling the Cup Finals, featured regular season matchups or the Olympic Games, Olczyk’s time working with Emrick was special both while at the game and on the road. He misses going out to dinner, attending meetings before each broadcast and the camaraderie between him and the rest of the NBC Sports crew.

Emrick called it a career in 2021, after broadcasting hockey for more than four decades. Kenny Albert slotted in as the new lead voice of hockey for NBC Sports. While Albert is a skilled and versatile commentator having called baseball, basketball, football and hockey both locally and nationally, Emrick and his direct association with this magnificent game on ice is indisputable.

“When you heard his voice, you knew it was an important game, and he just had that incredible ability in the fastest game in the world to be able to stickhandle and weave a story while play is going on and never break stride,” Olczyk said of Emrick. “That, to me, was something that was just really incredible.”

The National Hockey League inked a seven-year media rights agreement with The Walt Disney Company and Warner Bros. Discovery to begin the 2021-22 season. When Olczyk signed with the latter outlet, he knew he would not be on the broadcast for the Stanley Cup Final. Instead, he would have that duty every other year. 

“Obviously it was an incredible relationship there with TNT and ESPN on the NBA side, so this isn’t two major entities just all of a sudden coming together,” Olczyk stated. “The more eyes that we can have on our sport, the better it is short term and long term.”

On the local front, Eddie Olczyk departed Chicago Blackhawks broadcasts after 15 seasons. He quickly found a new home with familiar faces and a young NHL team with a bright future – the Seattle Kraken. The move was very much a family affair since Olczyk’s brother, Ricky, is the team’s assistant general manager. In addition to that, Olczyk’s oldest son of the same name is an amateur scout, and his other son, Nick, is a studio host on the television broadcasts.

“New is always scary. Without a doubt, there’s always trepidation,” Olczyk said. “It was an incredible opportunity to be there and work with so many talented people and see the improvement for the team…It was an incredible first year.”

The Stanley Cup Finals will be on TNT for the first time in the network’s history this season. It is a seminal occasion for Warner Bros. Discovery, highlighted by the presence of the Stanley Cup at its Upfront event at Madison Square Garden: the arena in which Olczyk hoisted the trophy in jubilation on a summer night 29 years ago. 

“I’m excited for everybody because coming together two hockey seasons ago, [there were] a lot of unknowns but a lot of us obviously knew each other,” Olczyk said. “The leadership at the top has just been incredible and reminds me a lot of my journey at NBC. Everything is first class; every day is first class. It’s awesome.”

Albert last called the Finals with Olczyk on NBC Sports, but they were not paired together for the entire series. This time around, they will be the primary booth for the NHL on TNT, and Liam McHugh will anchor studio coverage with a cast of analysts including Paul Bissonnette and Wayne Gretzky.

“We’re here to entertain [and] we’re here to talk about the greatest game in the world and showcase the greatest athletes and sell the game,” Olczyk said. “I don’t think any of that will stop, but I think knowing the room and having a feel and letting everything else take care of itself [is important].”

It will be Albert who will announce to the world that a team has just claimed the sport’s ultimate prize and Olczyk is excited to listen to how he will punctuate the call. Yet he knows the craft is very much a team effort. Now, he is ready to demonstrate his shrewd ability to break down the game on its biggest stage.

“It’s not hard to be jacked up for a Stanley Cup Final, but I think it’s, again, knowing the room, having a feel and knowing when to go ahead and be elongated – and at other times, know when you’ve just got to get in and get out and let Kenny do his thing. At some point in the Cup Finals, it’s going to be Kenny’s time, and he’s going to have to take it. When the time presents itself, we’ll jump in.”

During the hockey season, Olczyk is constantly traveling, following teams and fully immersed in the sport. When he made the move from Chicago to Seattle, there was a time when he thought it may just be better to do one game per week, but he determined that he was not ready to step back just yet. He remains motivated by the competitive aspect of the work and trying to be the very best analyst in the business, and does everything in his power to put himself in the best position to succeed.

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There’s Never Been a Better Time To Take AM Radio To Market

“Nobody can argue that mobile phones aren’t more convenient and can stream or provide pods, but your AM radio station stands out in a digital crowd.”

Jeff Caves

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Your AM radio station really is better than your mobile phone. Now is the time to make that case. Thanks to Ford’s decision to NOT drop AM radio from its 2024 lineup of vehicles, many of your clients have an awareness of AM that they have not had for a while. Streaming and mobile dominate the conversation, so this is a chance to make critical points about your AM station. 

The fight over the Emergency Broadcast System being partly delivered by AM radio and not replaced by mobile phone streaming was made in Congress, and Ford listened. The NAB rallied.

Nobody can argue that mobile phones aren’t more convenient and can stream or provide pods, but your AM radio station stands out in a digital crowd. Be proud. Here is why we should let the AM force be with us and why it’s an invaluable tool for businesses to reach a target market. 

WIDE AND LOCAL

AM radio can carry a powerful signal that allows for wide geographic coverage. Local businesses looking to connect with their entire community can benefit from such a wide net. By buying a local ad schedule on AM radio, businesses will promote trust and loyalty and increase brand awareness. This is especially true of legacy local businesses that have been in service for 25 years or more. 

RELIABILITY AND ACCESSIBILITY

AM radio is reliable and easy to get to. Just turn on your car radio. Mobile phones need a good connection, and that can be tricky. Big AM radio stations have multiple towers to transmit over the air, even during power outages or when cell phone towers are knocked over. Dependability is vital when the chips are down, and an emergency or natural disaster has hit your area. Mobile phone networks can get too much traffic and jam up. The ability of AM radio to provide critical information and updates is huge! 

NICHE AND TARGETED AUDIENCES

There is no arguing that streaming off a mobile phone opens a world of choices. But AM radio hits sports fans, political nerds, religious folks, or news hounds. Los Angeles has prominent sports radio stations on AM. AM advertisers can tap into these audiences, so the right people hear their message. It is much easier to navigate buying radio from you than streaming from a website. 

PERSONAL AND DOWN THE STREET

AM radio stations often have deep roots within their communities and provide a real personal connection with their listeners. Local play-by-play programming, talk shows, and news updates are often fodder for locals to debate and share their opinions. How does a mobile phone stream do that? It would be hard to call into your favorite show off a delayed stream with your device to listen to it. Businesses can enhance their credibility and build strong customer relationships when swimming in AM radio waters.

For sure mobile phone streams are convenient and accessible. But AM radio has reach, loyalty, local connection, reliability, and target audiences. And AM radios will be available in Fords for the foreseeable future. 

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