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 PopMatters “Retroactive 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?
Just one dollar a month makes you a patron of Radio Survivor. Help us through our Patreon Campaign!