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The Avenue Offers Chicago a New AM Music Format

One night last week I was tuning around the AM dial here in Chicago before going to sleep when I happened upon a station playing a nice, but unusual mix of vocal jazz standards. The music set was long, interrupted only by an ID for “950 the Avenue.”

The next morning I googled the station and learned that it’s a relatively new one, debuting August 2009 in Chicago after starting on the FM dial in Osh Kosh, WI in January 2009. Since then I’ve tuned in a number of times intrigued both by the introduction of a new radio format and the fact that it’s a new music station on the AM, rather than FM dial. In particular my interest in piqued since this discovery came just a week after Jennifer’s post on the Aesthetics of AM.

When I initially encountered the station it was playing an Ella Fitzgerald number that I can’t recall. So at first I assumed it was an adult standards / nostalgia format station that I’d somehow never heard before or that was coming in from a more distant market due to the luck of nighttime AM propagation. But a couple of songs in they played Steely Dan, which might qualify as classic rock, but is way too recent and rocking for an adult standards playlist.

The Avenue bills itself as “timeless cool,” drawing on artists who seem to have classic jazz elements as a point of commonality, but otherwise might fall more solidly into rock or adult contemporary camps. The website’s masthead features pictures of Norah Jones Diana Krall, Ray Charles, John Mayer, Nina Simone and Harry Connick, Jr–a somewhat more eclectic array than I would normally expect from a commercial station. Even if all these artists have each sold millions of albums none of them are big radio mainstays.

At the same time, many of the artists heard on the Avenue, like Ray Charles, were once radio mainstays, especially during the heyday of AM popular music radio in the 1960s and 70s. So their music sounds quite at home in the restricted audio bandwidth of AM. Many of these other artists, however, came to prominence in the FM and CD era of high fidelity and low noise. I haven’t heard any John Mayer on the Avenue yet, but music from Norah Jones and Harry Connick sounds pretty well at home on this AM station.

Interestingly, the Avenue is only heard at night, signing on at 6 pm and signing off at 5 am. During daylight hours 950 AM is Relevant Radio, a syndicated Catholic format. Both Relevant Radio and the Avenue are owned by Sovereign City Radio Services.

Location map for the Avenue's nighttime transmitter

My listening experience shows that the nighttime-only aspect of the Avenue definitely has an effect on its sound quality, even though its licensed for five times the power at night–1 kilowatt daytime vs 5 kilowatts nighttime. Part of the reception difficulty is likely due to the fact that the station’s nighttime transmitter is actually located on the far south side of the city, almost in Indiana. However, I live on the far north side of the city, nearly 30 miles away.

Also, the nighttime AM dial is notoriously noisy due to overcrowding of stations and an infestation of electrical interference coming from all sorts of appliances from fluorescent lights to computer monitors. All this adds up to making the Avenue a frequently frustrating listen. Even when using a very good receiver with a tunable AM antenna the music is often marred with buzzes, hums and other interference that is too annoying to ignore. Although I’ll attempt to turn off every offending appliance in the apartment, I’m sure my neighbors’ appliances still interfere. Yet, some evenings I’m lucky enough to secure a nice clean signal that shows off how pleasing the rounded off edges of AM fidelity can sound.

Beyond sound quality I find myself actually enjoying the mix of music the Avenue has to offer. To my delight the station steers way clear of smooth jazz, a genre I have little tolerance for, while embracing the intersection of jazz with pop and rock music. The evening mix of music can still be a bit too soft and adult contemporary for my taste, but livens up closer to midnight mixing in more classic standards and be-bop alongside jazz-rock. It’s not a challenging station to listen to, but one I’d feel confident playing in the background during a nice dinner party, feeling assured that it would never get too smooth or too dissonant.

One way to avoid the interference and noise of the nighttime AM dial is to tune in to the Avenue’s web stream. The fidelity there is definitely more FM like, even if it suffers from compression artifacts like a lot of online station. But to me, the station suffers online. There are hundreds of vocal jazz or similar classic jazz and rock stations on the internet, and the Avenue’s isn’t quite special enough to stand out. It’s in the context of the AM radio dial that the Avenue is such a breath of fresh air, ready to accompany someone on a late night drive or settling down for the night.

The Avenue does feature some very Chicago-centric programming that certainly makes the station more unique. In particular Friday nights feature “Live from the Green Mill” which has live recordings from this legendary Chicago jazz club in the city’s Uptown neighborhood. I have yet to hear the program, but I plan to tune in soon.

It will be interesting to see if the station survives to breathe some more life into Chicago’s AM radio dial.

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