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Music on AM: Rebel Radio

I’ve known about this station for well over a decade now. As a metalhead living in Central Illinois I’d occasionally travel north to the Chicago area or Milwaukee to see concerts and encounter banners and fliers for an all heavy metal station on the AM band called Rebel Radio. However, I can only recall hearing the station once when on the highway between Milwaukee and Chicago.

Music radio on the AM dial is nearly an anachronism now, and most of the practitioners now are either ethnic stations or easy listening. Nevertheless there are a few hold outs–mostly mom and pop operations or stations owned by relatively small groups–that program niche formats on AM stations. Being on the air for about sixteen years certainly qualifies WPJX 1500 AM in Zion, IL as a true AM music veteran.

Unfortunately, WPJZ isn’t exactly a powerhouse when it comes to transmission strength. In fact, the station broadcasts with just 250 watts from the far northeastern Illinois town of Zion, a good 38 miles from the Chicago city limits. What that means for a city dweller for me is that I simply cannot tune it in, no matter how hard I’ve tried. The stations serves southeast Wisconsin about as well as Illinois, still missing most of the major north suburbs of Chicago. Adding to the frustration is the fact that Rebel Radio does not yet have a web stream, although its website currently promises one soon.

Then, today while perusing their website again I noticed a note saying Rebel Radio is simulcast on a co-owned station, WKTA 1330 AM in Evanston, the first suburb north of Chicago, on Sundays from 4 to 8 PM. So this afternoon I tuned in Rebel Radio for the first time, thanks to WKTA.

First off, this is truly a heavy metal station, playing many examples of the genre from the more mainstream–like Metallica–to the lesser known–like Armored Saint. At least during this four-hour window there’s a live DJ spinning the tunes and talking quite knowledgeably about the bands and songs, pointing out local concert dates as appropriate. That element alone is quite refreshing and rarely heard on commercial radio, even if it also includes a too-long inane phone call from a friend of the DJ calling in from a Renaissance Fair.

In terms of fidelity, I’m not terrifically impressed. Contemporary heavy metal has a pretty broad frequency range and often is not mastered to be optimized for radio like a lot of pop and mainstream rock music. That means there’s a fair amount of sound in the high and low frequency extremes that AM radio doesn’t cover well. I think it takes some pretty good EQing and signal processing to make metal work well on AM. On the whole the station doesn’t sound bad, but the midrange and high end sounds pretty crowded and compressed. A little strategic equalization might let the high end come through a little better and make the station a little more listenable. I acknowledge that the main station WPJX might sound better than the simulcast that I can tune in. And, to be fair, on a portable radio or boombox the sonic compromises are far less perceptible.

Z-Rock logo

Listening to Rebel Radio I was reminded of the Z-Rock syndicated heavy metal format. I first listened to it when I lived in New Jersey in the late 80s and early 90s when it was broadcast on an AM station out of New York on 1480. It didn’t always come in well in Passaic County where my parents lived, but I did tune in occasionally when looking for something different on the radio dial. Even at the time I didn’t think the sonic quality of metal on AM was that great.

Nonetheless, Rebel Radio proves that there must be a very loyal audience for heavy metal on the radio willing to deal with the compromises inherent in music on AM.

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