AM Radio Today: The death of America’s rural radio stations

Radio in the UK is very different from that of the US or Canada. Local, live radio stations thrive on the AM & FM & DAB+ bands & are a mix of commercial, community & government-run BBC outlets. The big difference in the UK is the refusal of broadcasting authorities to allow consolidation by retaining ownership restrictions of licenses & stations. Only a few “networks” containing a small group of stations are permitted in that country. There is a vibrancy & diversity of programming on the airwaves not experienced any longer in this country.

1250 KHIL tower, studio & transmitter shack, Willcox AZ;  Photograph: Cassidy Araiza/The Guardian

One of the UK’s main national newspapers – The Guardian  has just published a story by writer Debbie Weingarten on America’s vanishing small town radio stations. She heads to Willcox AZ (pop. 3,500) to profile the one remaining AM there – 1250 KHIL and it’s two remaining operators who are, essentially volunteers. The locally programmed station & it’s FM – KWCX, which runs an automated, syndicated format have been owned by a number of different operators. The current owner, although local, has very little revenue coming in. Willcox, like many communities in the US, has had it’s heyday pass & now struggles to retain any businesses other than a few gas stations & restaurants on the nearby Interstate. Ad revenues have mostly dried up & the owner considered shutting down the AM & turning in the license. One-time paid employee Mark Lucke is all that remains at KHIL. He & his son Tristan rely on Snap and Medicaid. He also hosts an online shop for his self-published horror novels and poetry collections, as well as KHIL coffee mugs and other merchandise. Mark & Tristan are both volunteers & sleep & maintain a residence in what once served as the KHIL/KWCX offices & studios. They strive to keep KHIL local & live & play an eclectic mix of different genres to please the mostly over-60 age group that make up the bulk of Willcox residents. Weingarten’s article is both sympathetic regarding the fading out of small rural broadcasters & expresses nostalgia for a more prosperous time that once existed in small communities such as Willcox, that had no problem keeping a small station like KHIL viable. The pictures that accompany the article have a sadness about them that paints today’s small-town AM broadcasters as the has-been’s they’ve become. The article paints a portrait of a once successful AM broadcaster now on life support & makes the statement clear that the 1996 changes to the Telecomm Act relaxing ownership limits & increasing consolidation have contributed to this scenario.

Tristan and Mark Lucke of 1250 KHIL in Willcox, Arizona. Photograph: Cassidy Araiza/The Guardian

The article likely won’t enlighten or reveal anything new to the readers, professionals – both active & retired or listeners who frequent Puget Sound Media. It was written to enlighten British readers who are largely unfamiliar with the broadcasting scene in North American countries & to illustrate that like newspapers, the over-the-air broadcast media, particularly AM, are on a downward slide. It makes for an enjoyable read, however and will instill nostalgia in you for yesterday’s vibrant small-market radio scene as it did me. It’s a sad subject to digest.

The hallway of KHIL in Willcox. Photograph: Cassidy Araiza/The Guardian


Author: Mike Cherry

retired broadcaster: on-air, MD, PD, asst PD, Prod Mgr, IT, station technician/engineer, pioneer Internet webcaster, station installation/maintenance; 12 years in commercial radio, 17 years volunteer in campus/community radio in B.C., Alberta & Wash. Amateur radio operator & "DXer" specializing in AM night-time DX, short-wave DX/listening & remote SDR DXing/listening

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