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(Note: In Venezuela, or at least western Venezuela, the term AM is commonly used for the medium wave band instead of onda larga or onda media, as in other Latin American countries I have visited. Therefore, I will use the term AM in this report.)

From all appearances, FM radio is rapidly gaining marketshare versus AM in western Venezuela. Indeed, I sensed that many AM stations were "running scared" due to the FM threat. Compared to the rest of Latin America, Venezuela is a newcomer to the FM broadcasting industry. A decade ago, there were few FM stations in the country. I learned the interesting background to this from Dr. Dubuc of Radio Universidad. Apparently around the 1950s or so, the Venezuelan government made a regulation that there could only be one radio station per 60,000 inhabitants in a region. This was to protect the radio industry from over-saturation of stations and resultant economic instability in the industry. Thus, when FM came along a few decades later, the law made it all but impossible to open FM stations anywhere except areas with high population growth, such as Caracas. For example, in 1987 the Merida area had five AM stations and only one FM.

However, in 1988 the government decided that this rule could only be applied to AM, as there was no FM radio at the time the law was written. The government then began awarding FM licenses to political favorites, with no concern for how many stations a market could bear. In some cases, these included owners of AM stations. For example, the owner of Radio Trujillo got a license for an FM operation, the Ecos del Torbes group got one, and Radio San Sebastian got two. In other cases, AM owners were unable to get FM licenses. This was particularly true in Merida, where none of the AM stations have FM affiliates, although the owner of Radio 1560 is a part-owner of an FM. Today Merida has six FM stations and five AM, with two more FMs to open in 1995. The market clearly can not support this many stations. A similar situation exists in each of the cities I visited. Small El Vigia has one AM and two FMs, San Cristobal has six AMs and seven FMs, and the Valera/Trujillo area also counts six AMs and seven FMs. In each place, more FMs have been licensed to come on in 1995. From what I was told, this is also a problem in other nearby cities, such as Tovar and Barinas.

In yet another erosion to the old law, according to Orlando Suarez of Ondas Panamericanas, the government has just created a new FM classification, "Class D" stations, which will allow broadcasters with as little as 50 watts and in towns with populations as small as one thousand. No such stations have been licensed yet, but the presence of local small-town FM stations may well impact listenership of city- based AM stations in more remote areas that city-based FM stations do not reach.

Dr. Dubuc at Radio Universidad frankly called the over-saturation of broadcasting stations the biggest crisis ever to face Venezuelan broadcasting, and pointed out that it couldn't have happened at a worse time, as the country is going through difficult economic times, cutting down on advertising revenue even more. However, except for her, staff members I talked to at AM-only stations said they felt that AM was holding its own against FM and/or that AM had its own particular audience, different from that of FM. However, in each case there was also a seriousness in tone that made me suspect that I had touched upon a delicate subject and that nobody was really as hopeful as was claimed. And no one stated that AM would outdo FM in listenership in either the short or long run.

This is not to say that only AM stations will fail, should it come to that. When the crunch comes, the weakest of both AM and FM will probably go. However, as AM stations are more expensive to operate (at least as they are traditionally programmed), they will be most likely to go first, unless they have established a niche with a loyal audience and loyal sponsors. In fact, there are clear signs that stations are pursuing this route by becoming more specialized, as AM is boosting its role as a purveyor of information and news, while FM is becoming more a source of music.

In Valera, Domingo Tedesco of Globo FM believes that FM is overtaking AM mostly as a result of superior sound quality, but also because of there are fewer ads. Globo FM is cheaper to run than a typical AM operation because announcers contract the station for a certain time slot. The announcers then must sell their own ad time (within certain restrictions as to quality and quantity of ads), eliminating the need for a salesforce and business office. As the announcers can charge whatever the market will bear for their ad time, they have an incentive to make their time slot as slick as possible, so that advertisers will be willing to pay more. In this format there is no room for newscasts, although they do carry some ballgames on weekends. But, the station is attracting a large audience for its soft music with few interruptions.

A few blocks away at AM-only Radio Valera, manager Roque Torres Aguilar believes that his station has a loyal audience that won't desert the station. The station is very rural and low-class in its programming - lots of tropical and folk music with lots of DJ chatter, brassy ads, and paid personal announcements from listeners. The latter, Señor Torres says, are very popular (as they usually are on such stations). The only news on Radio Valera is what the announcers read out of the local newspapers. For locally-oriented semi-literate or illiterate peasants, this is an appropriate format and the peasants will likely be the last part of the population to discover FM (assuming that FM has something in terms of programming that appeals to them), so Señor Torres is probably right in believing that his station will survive. However, the format is very labor-intensive and advertising revenue is probably low since the audience is so poor financially. Radio Valera will never be a wealthy or major station.

Radio Sebastian in San Cristobal is an interesting case of AM and FM at the same facility. The AM station plays a certain amount of music, but functions largely as an information station. There are two announcers in the studio at all times, and they give local announcements and ads and read interesting items from that day's newspapers between songs. The station also has a large in-house news department that produces three in-depth newscasts each day (see below). Such an extensive staff costs money and the two co-owned FM stations help pay for this. The two FMs are located in small rooms, barely more than closets, but have all very modern, mostly automated equipment. All ads and announcements for the FMs are prerecorded in advance, eliminating the need for a live announcer. As little payroll goes into supporting them, the FMs are highly profitable - and some of that profit subsidizes the AM operation.

Radio Trujillo takes another approach. Although the co-owned FM station is located in another part of town, the two stations share some announcers and also simulcast during parts of the day.

Several people told me that FM was beginning to sound more like AM in terms of programming. From my own monitoring, I don't particularly agree with that, as FM is clearly much more the music medium. However, I suspect this perception exists because there may be more talk, mostly in the form of ads, on FM than a few years ago due its commercial success. Domingo Tedesco of Globo FM seemed to confirm this. He noted that when FM started there were few stations and they had very few ads (maybe two per half-hour) because there were few listeners. "Now," he says, "FM is almost like AM in the number of ads. Sometimes a half-hour period will seem to be almost all ads." And, this is not because FM airtime is necessarily cheaper, but because the demand for ads on FM has increased with listenership.

Also, while FM listenership has increased in all groups, FM has become especially popular with youth, according to several sources. Ivan Escobar of the Ecos del Torbes group says that FM announcers are becoming less serious and more juvenile in what they do to appeal to the young audience. This sounds similar to what has happened at many pop stations in American cities.

Of course the best way to research AM versus FM is to see what people are actually listening to. I paid close attention in shops, markets, offices, and restaurants. A further good source was public transportation. I did not rent a car while traveling, but instead relied on local buses for transportation within and between cities. On a few occasions I took a taxi.

In Merida, FM was heard almost exclusively in public places, although no particular station seemed to have a dominant place in the market. Curiously tropical music seemed to be somewhat more common than popular music. This is curious in that Merida is a big university town with a large youth population. On the other hand, I was there during Christmas break and most people working in these public places were not students. When AM was heard, it was almost always Radio Mundial Los Andes with its heavy (but not exclusive) news and information format. I was even twice on city buses which were playing the station during the late-afternoon Radio Mundial network national newshour. Radio Cumbre, 1570 kHz, a tropical music station, was heard in a few buses. The other three local AM stations were never heard in a public place (or at least I never identified them).

Outside of Merida, however, AM seemed to be holding up better. In my short visit to the Valera/Trujillo area, it seemed that AM and FM stations were heard about equally, although I was not there long enough to form as complete of an impression as in Merida. Considering that Trujillo state is more rural in character, media changes there may lag behind more cosmopolitan Merida. San Cristobal seemed to be somewhere between Trujillo state and Merida. FM was clearly more common in public places, but not overwhelmingly so. In neither Trujillo state nor San Cristobal did any station seem to hold a dominant position in what was played in public places. I did not use any public transportation while in El Vigia, but the two restaurants I ate in were both playing an FM station. I wasn't in any stores or other places there long enough to identify what was being played.


After returning to the US, while reading Jeff White's study of media in the Caracas area done in mid-1992. I was surprised to see how few stations had satelite dishes at that time. Especially significant was that Radio Mundial, the flagship station of the Mundial network, did not have a dish and Radio Rumbos, the other big network anchor station, had just gotten one, but was only using it for limited receiving purposes.

How things have changed in a very short time! Almost all the stations that I visited had satelite dishes - and this in the interior, well away from metropolitan Caracas. The only stations visited that did not have satelite dishes were Radio Trujillo and Radio Valera, with their very local-oriented lower-class formats, and all-music FM stations. Those stations with a use for a dish had one.

Radio Mundial and Radio Rumbos in Caracas are no longer simply potential recipients of satelite fare, but providers. Both stations are uplinked 24 hours a day to a satelite service. All of their interior affiliates (or at least those in the three states I visited) have satelite dishes for receiving the anchor stations.


Twenty-four hour satelite service from the anchor station provides Radio Mundial affiliates with an important source of programming. The primary use of the satelite service is relay of the three major Radio Mundial daily newscasts from 0800-0900, 1100-1300, and 1700-1830, local time. Radio Mundial is feed into the control room at the affiliates twenty-four hours a day and is constantly monitored by the control room operator. This allows smooth mixing of local and network programming as the operator switches in the main station throughout the day for sports scores, short features, etc. Indeed, I was very impressed watching them switch back and forth between four different program sources - recorded music, the live announcer, ads on cartridges, and the satelite feed. It really is very complicated and takes a great deal of split-second precision. Short live clips are taken by the affiliates throughout the day and night. From my monitoring, however, Radio Mundial affiliates do carry locally- produced programming in the overnight slot, unlike Colombian network affiliates which normally relay the anchor station from Bogota.

Unlike the Mundial network, in which affiliates are network-owned and operated, Radio Rumbos affiliates are privately owned and independently operated. Radio Rumbos owns no other stations, but has agreements allowing many to rebroadcast its lengthy newscasts. There does not seem to be any sense of market control to this at all. For example, in Merida three of the five AM stations carry Radio Rumbos news, as does Ondas Panamericanas in nearby El Vigia. Like Mundial, Rumbos has lengthy in-depth newscasts in the morning, at midday, and in late afternoon. Some stations carry other items from the Radio Rumbos network, such as Radio 1560 which relays "micros" every twenty minutes during certain times of the day.

There are other smaller news networks in Venezuela in addition to Radio Mundial and Radio Rumbos. For example, the Radio Informativa network has several stations, but none in the Andean region. In fact, none of them were even well received, even with my relatively sophisticated Sony ICF-2010 and outboard amplified loop. Radio Cumbre, in a distant suburb of Merida, announced an affiliation with Radio Continente of Caracas. However, I was unable to visit the station and heard no specific Radio Continente programming. Espectacular FM in Merida carries two short newscasts a day from the Union Radio network in Caracas.

Most stations rely on outside sources, such as Radio Mundial and Radio Rumbos for their primary coverage of national and international news and do not operate their own news department, except for coverage of local events. One of the two exceptions which I visited is Ecos del Torbes, which both relays Radio Rumbos news between 0600-0700 and 1700-1800 local time daily, and has a seven person news department for in-house production of both short and long newscasts, including international and national events. For example, they follow up the morning Rumbos newscast with an hour-long one of their own which includes telephone connections to other stations around the country for regional news coverage. A wire service provides them with national and international items, which they supplement by monitoring Television España on the local cable network.

An even better on-site news department was at Ecos del Torbes' cross- town competitor, Radio San Sebastian. News department personnel monitor the news from various sources on PanAmSat twenty-four hours a day. Their main satelite sources are CNN and the Mexican Eco network on video and audio feeds from Radio Programas del Peru and CARACOL from Colombia, plus they monitor Television España news on another television connected to the local cable system. A wire service provides national news and they have a network of stringers who cover events throughout Tachira state. A newsvan allows them to visit specific important events and report back directly. There were two shortwave receivers in the news office - a very dusty multi-bander on a high shelf and a Hallicrafters SX-110 being used as a telephone stand (the front of the receiver was facing the wall). I asked about these and was told that they used to monitor shortwave but hadn't since the satelite service was installed.

All Radio San Sebastian newscasts are original, produced by the station's own news staff. There are three daily hour-long in-depth newscasts (the usual morning, mid-day, and evening) plus short reports of late-breaking items throughout the day. Despite the impressive work of the news department, however, Radio San Sebastian has not wholly left behind the old style of radio new-reporting. During regular programming (outside of the news department produced newscasts), two announcers are on duty at all times and besides announcing songs and live ads (most ads are prerecorded) they read news and sports items out of the local and national newspapers. Perhaps this is just a sign of how seriously Radio Sebastian sees its role of information- provider.

There are two very different types of stations which carry little if any international or national news. First, stations with a lower class audience take news in a less serious manner. Radio Trujillo has two five minute international/national newscasts daily which come via telephone from a news agency in Caracas. Otherwise, all non-local news comes from newspapers purchased by the station. Radio Valera relies totally on newspapers for its news. Manager Roque Torres Aguilar told me that they used to subscribe to a wire service but dropped it because it was too expensive and their audience really wasn't interested in that sort of news anyway. Likewise, FM stations, with their emphasis on music and little talk carry little news.

Having mentioned the use of television news in compiling newscasts at Radio San Sebastian and Ecos del Torbes, it also bears pointing out that about half of the stations I visited had TV sets connected to the local cable system in their control room where the control operator could see them. One announcer told me that he likes to have the TV on so that he can girl-watch, and I suspect that is the case everywhere as every control room TV I saw was tuned in to a soap opera (a good source of attractive actresses) with the sound turned down. Girl- watching aside, I assume that if an urgent news bulletin came on, the operator would notice the difference in what was on the screen and investigate.

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This article is copyright 1995 by Don Moore. It may not be printed in any publication without written permission. Permission is granted for all interested readers to share and pass on the ASCII text file of this article or to print it out for personal use. In such case, your comments on the article would be appreciated.

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