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The Aesthetics of AM Radio

When was the last time that you tuned in to AM radio to listen to music?

Although I’m a huge evangelist for the ongoing importance of terrestrial radio (especially non-commercial radio), the AM slice of the radio band is a place that I only turn when I’m in my car looking for news, weather, and traffic information. But back when I was a kid, AM radio was huge and was the home to some of my favorite DJs and music shows. So, what happened?

In a fascinating essay, “The Day the (AM) Music Died,” in the PopMattersRetroactive Listening: Perspectives on Music and Technology” series, Jay Somerset provides some historical perspective about how and why AM radio moved away from music to talk programming. He also discusses how the mono sound of AM contrasts with FM stereo and why certain styles of music were more suited to AM. He writes:

“Welcome to 1982, the oldies endpoint; the year the music froze, on the AM dial at least. Nowadays it seems ridiculous, but there was a time, before the fragmented niches offered by Internet and satellite radio came along (third-wave psychobilly radio, anyone?), the music dial was divided into two camps: contemporary hit music — almost exclusively AM’s domain — and older, or classical, or college, or jazz on newfangled, niche FM.

If you wanted a hit single, you produced it to sound good on AM radio, which meant eschewing deep bass and the low end for something that would sound best on the treble-heavy, tinny sound of an AM receiver, such as Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound production… To sound good on mono AM, you needed a dense, reverberant, everything-at-once sound rather than a dynamic, stereo recording that only sounded good on FM, which the majority of people never even listened to.”

He goes on to make the point that when music programming left AM for the cooler realm of FM radio around 1982, AM radio became the home for talk radio, sports, weather, and news. Despite the dominance of talk radio today, there are some holdout AM oldies stations that are mostly playing hits from 1965 to 1982.

As he wraps up his essay Jay talks about the trend for some modern musicians to simulate lo-fi, AM-friendly sounds and he wonders if any of these artists will ever actually get played on AM radio. He speculates that with changes to the terrestrial radio landscape, AM music radio could transform into a place that embrace these indie artists (he mentions Kurt Vile, Best Coast, and Neon Indian) who now find their homes on satellite, Internet and college radio:

“It would be interesting to actually hear some of this music that simulates the AM listening experience through lo-fi recording techniques on AM…At this point, it’s hard to imagine new music on AM. Yet now that satellite and Internet radio are kings and FM has gradually become a wasteland of oft-trotted Tom Pettyism, music may once again save the dial.”

He argues that AM radio could really open up to a variety of voices:

“AM has developed into a niche marketplace, not unlike community television from the early-’80s, with broadcasters renting out time slots for fractured audiences (religious, ethnic, federal workers, etc.). So it’s at least possible that an enterprising DJ with an ear tuned to the fringe pop…might start using AM again as a sound source, renting space, as it were, on a station and playing this music.

Why wouldn’t this music wind up on AM? Or is AM radio truly a long-gone source for music, forever frozen in the 1965-1982 period… Would people start tuning back into AM to hear specialized and contemporary AM programming that highlighted music like chill wave? It’s a possibility because, after all, the music may have died in 1982, but the sound lives on.”

Another interesting point to make is that with MP3 technology, younger ears are getting more and more accustomed to lo-fi music; so AM may actually be closer sonically to that sound coming out of iPod earbuds than to high fidelity music emanating from vinyl played on their grandparents’ stereo systems.

Do you think that certain styles of music sound better on AM radio? And what do you think the future of AM radio will be?


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3 Responses to The Aesthetics of AM Radio

  1. KFJC Cousin Mary May 7, 2010 at 10:29 pm #

    I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and in the 1960’s I listened to AM stations from Chicago, New York, Boston, Windsor Ontario (near Detroit), many more. These were my view of the outside world! So one good thing about AM is picking up distant stations late at night.

    I used to listen to WABC 77 New York – interesting to read about the switch over on that station. WABC’s Cousin Brucie was one of the inspirations for my DJ name.

    A lot of people don’t listen to music so they probably think all talk is just fine.

    Had never thought about the change to music that sounded better on FM, thought provoking!

  2. Paul Riismandel May 8, 2010 at 9:39 pm #

    Jennifer, thanks for pointing out this article. I’d been thinking quite a bit about the notions of sound quality and fidelity, and this discussion pushed me to refining my thoughts. It ended up in a blog post at mediageek: Audio, Audiophiles and the Aesthetic Experience of Medium.

    With specific regard to radio, nearly ten years ago WEFT in Champaign, where I volunteered, had some ongoing problems with our stereo generator. So for a period of time the station had to broadcast in mono. It’s strange to realize that most FM stations went stereo by the mid-80s, though there are still a few mono FMs left in existence.

    The funny thing is that a few listeners actually gave the feedback that they liked the mono signal, in part because it was different from the other stations on the dial. Also, a friend of mine who was a DJ and a jazz fanatic also kept trying to convince the station manager not to go back to stereo for similar reasons. He also liked the aesthetics of it, much the same way that some people prefer the original mono releases of Beatles records or 1950s jazz sides.

    Another friend of mine–a composer and musician–for a long time only had a mono stereo system based around an old mono console system. The thing produced a very rich sound, if not reaching out to the ends of the bass and treble spectrum. But hanging out in his living room you hardly noticed.

    Any my favorite radio in the house–a Tivoli Model One table radio–is also mono. But it sounds great to my ears, and I’m kind of an audiophile. And plenty of the time I prefer to listen to the Tivoli over an MP3 podcast on my iPhone. Somehow it can be less tiring and more soothing.

  3. Matthew Lasar May 9, 2010 at 3:46 pm #

    Great article Jennifer.

    Back when I worked at a classical music record store in New York City in the 1970s, I used to get these customers who refused to buy mono records.

    It didn’t matter who the performer was . . . Caruso, Callas, Stokowski, the early recordings of some fantastic pianist from the 1930s like Walter Gieseking. No way. Had to be stereo.

    These people drove me nuts.

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