In Praise of AM Radio Photo

In Praise of AM Radio

I love AM radio. Always have. Always will.

As far back as I can remember, AM radio played a special part in my life. For most of the mid-to-late 1960s, I received a late-night stealth visit from my father, who crept into my room so as not to wake me, carefully reached under my pillow, and pulled out and turned off my small transistor radio.

Many of those late nights found me having fallen asleep to Dan Daniels’ and John MacLean’s play-by-play broadcasts of Washington Senators games on WTOP-AM radio. I recollect that I generally made it through five innings before nodding off. If it was an exciting ballgame and the Nats were still in it or if Frank Howard was due up in the next half-inning, I’d sit up in my bed to stave off slumber and extend my listening time.

Clad in my pre-teen PJs and tucked in tight (not letting the bedbugs bite, of course), that little transistor and the broadcasters’ magical imagery would take me into the stands through my mind’s eye to follow the at-bats and hurling of my heroes Hondo, McMullen, Brinkman, Epstein, Casanova, Pascual, Coleman, Bosman, and the other Nats.

The Joy Boys & DC Commuting

On off-nights, west-coast games, or during baseball’s off-season, WRC-AM’s Joy Boys of Radio “chase(ing) electrons to and fro,” sent me to la-la land with the frolicking hijinks of Ed Walker and Willard Scott. (Yes, that Willard Scott.) On a different, irreverent wavelength, Walker and Scott’s many characters such as Robin Hood of Rock Creek Park, society reporter Lotta Lip, and Bal’mer Benny, combined with their marvelous sound effects, their ad-libbed and sidesplitting ads for the show’s sponsors, and parodies such as the Washer-Dryer Report (spoofing the Huntley and Brinkley news team), kept my ear pressed to the pillow as I inevitably drifted off.

Post-driver’s license, I continued my late-night listening — Senators’ broadcasts remained a staple until they sadly vamoosed following the 1971 season, and the Joy Boys stayed on the air for 17 years. At some point, I discovered the angst of commuting and the Capital Beltway but was saved by the morning banter of Frank Harden and Jackson Weaver on WMAL-AM, another mischievous duo who rollicked, tickled our funny bones, and gave traffic reports to the greater Washington, DC metropolitan area’s listening audience. When their wit gave way to afternoon programming, I discovered, principally through WTOP-AM, what would become a lifelong love affair with news, politics, and oldies (but goodies).

Old-school and boring by today’s standards, AM radio informs, entertains, and importantly, underscores a sense of community amongst listeners. It provides valuable outreach to religious and ethnic populations and does a dynamite job with local news, sports, weather, and traffic. Often, too, talk shows, some nationally syndicated, are featured.

AM Radio Was King

Just before us baby-boomers and television came along in mega-numbers, AM radio — the embodiment of terrestrial radio — was the go-to form of family entertainment, pulling everyone around the tube-constructed radio and its stations after dinner. AM was King, led not by survey research and demography utilized to assess thoughts, opinions, and preferences to shape programming, but by a wonderfully talented group of freelancing, record spinning disc jockeys. AM rocked and rolled with radio giants such as Murray the K(aufman), Wolfman Jack, Casey Kasem, Alan Freed, John R, and Dick Clark introducing every artist, in every genre, to national audiences.

Sadly like another previously dominant communication institution, newspapers, AM stations slowly but surely became less relevant, closing their doors at an alarming rate. Listeners moved on to stronger-signal, better-sound-quality FM radio. Then came along digital, satellite, and Internet radio, and then iPods and smartphones chock-full of pre-selected songs and podcasts.

With more listeners available, advertisers swung their dollars to other “radio” opportunities. Sans advertisers, the handwriting was on the wall for countless, once-strong AM stations, which closed shop and were often bought up by stronger stations. It didn’t help that AM stations, already with lower audio fidelity, lost listeners after dark because the FCC made them cut power or shut down completely to avoid hindering other stations’ broadcasts on the same frequency. AM stations basically go to bed with the chickens.

According to the FCC, there are 4,728 AM stations remaining in the USA (of 15,330 US radio stations, including 6,613 commercial FM stations and 3,989 educational/nonprofit FM stations). According to Wikipedia, there are less than 500 AM radio stations in the United States that are authorized to run 50 kW (50,000 watts) of power, which is the highest power authorized to any AM station in the USA.

If you’re anything like me, you’re a relentless radio-dial turner (or, today, more often a dial scanner). It’s been years since I stayed put on a station to listen to a run of commercials because there are always other pre-sets and one can always find or return to appealing content.

Delivering A Strong Sense Of Community

Except for local AM radio. Such stations’ advertising nearly always features local businesses, oftentimes delivered by the proprietors themselves or the announcer. There are some gems amongst those local promos.

I rediscovered the joy of AM radio a decade ago when we moved to the North Carolina High Country, off Route 421 between Boone and the Tennessee border. In either direction, a handful of rural AM stations with limited bandwidth (see partial list below) regale me with, as one broadcaster recently put it, “old geezers remembering stuff.” Broadcasts often feature banter between two guys seemingly sitting on the front porch poking fun and telling stories.

Segments reflect local culture and a quieter pace of life that is the Appalachians. Varying from station to station, a programming list might include a Wednesday morning segment with the director of the local Chamber of Commerce; the daily obituaries report (sponsored, of course, by the local funeral home and mortuary); an adopt-a-pet segment; an auto-mechanic’s show; local farm sales and investment shows; being knee-deep in bluegrass; and, on one local station, an afternoon segment featuring locals calling into the station to provide, live on air to their good-old-boy neighbors, descriptions, prices and phone numbers of stuff that they have to sell. No B2B sales here. You can’t move the product any better than by telling your neighbors that you have for sale a set of tires for a pickup truck, a rocking chair that’s hardly used, a set of adjustable wrenches, or fresh-picked blueberries.

One of my favorite broadcasts is a Saturday morning home-repairs program. These two contractors wax country-strong about their construction experiences, laughing and educating through the lost art of story-telling. It’s a local call-in show, and I’ve listened through entire back-to-back-to-back segments without a single reference being made to the telephone number that listeners need to call to seek advice. These two unpretentious, convivial friends are so wrapped up in their sawdust-and-splinters stories they forget the call-in aspect of their broadcast, which, I suspect, is perfectly fine for their loyal audience and their single local hardware store sponsor.

And then there’s the regional news, complete with a rundown of local high school and college scores, awards, and coaching changes. I get the impression that there is some sort of weather radar being consulted by the anchor; however, conditions and forecasts are hardly delivered in the manner of your 6 pm newscast — they’re often accentuated with stories of local flooding, being unable to get out and mow or plant this year’s vegetables, and cautions associated with driving in that morning’s heavy fog or low-hanging clouds or early morning snowfall. There’s no traffic report, of course, but announcers get the word out of local accidents that “are slowing up things” around town.

Unfortunately, some local AM stations don’t stay in tune for even dozens of miles driven past their broadcast tower. That’s where station-scanning dexterity comes in handy if you’re on the road or, if you’re a local, you set a handful of stations on your car radio.

Worth the Search

AM radio is a local joy, worth a listen, and an institution worth saving. Give it shot. If you can pull away from your iTunes or Sirius streaming for a spell, you’ll have a hoot.

I’m pleased to give a closing nod to a few AM stations set on my pickup’s radio dial, with thanks to radio-locator.com. The distance signals below can often be stretched depending on which High Country road you’re traversing and the direction you’re headed.

  • WATA / 1450 AM, news/talk, broadcasting out of Boone, NC, with a distance signal of 1.9 miles.
  • WKSK / 580 AM, country, broadcasting out of West Jefferson, NC, 16.8 miles.
  • WETB / 790 AM, news/talk, broadcasting out of Johnson City, TN, 41.2 miles.
  • WIGN / 1550 AM, folk, broadcasting out of Bristol, TN, 36.6 miles.
  • WHKY / 1290 AM, talk, broadcasting out of Hickory, NC, 39.3 miles.