With the future of AM radio hanging in the balance, we take a look at what effect it has had on the music industry over the decades.
Along with memories of years spent making tea and coffee, another familiar trope among Boomer-era audio professionals is the recollection of listening to their musical inspirations under the covers with a transistor radio, as they discovered rock & roll for the first time on some clear-channel station late at night. While vinyl remains emblematic of that era, AM radio was truly the format that projected rock & roll and R&B music from their marginal niches, like 'race records' and Southern rockabilly, into the mainstream.
Unlike vinyl, AM radio never went away, making it hard for it to stage a comeback. But that's what it may have to do, depending on the findings of a committee formed recently by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) and tasked with tackling the future of that broadcast band. The NAB group, apparently, are looking at two main options to 'revitalise' the AM band: phase it out completely and migrate all AM stations to new spots on the FM dial, or convert AM broadcasting from analog to digital via AM-HD.
Neither route seems likely to be a panacea for the ailing format. AM-HD would likely fare no better than the high-def FM initiatives of more than a decade ago, and costlier FM-band operation seems unsuited to AM's current dodgy economics. Until 1978, AM claimed more than half of all hours spent listening to radio, according to FCC data, but more recently, AM's share of listening hours has dropped to below 17 percent. And who's listening anyway? Not the key advertising demographics; among those aged 12 to 24, AM accounts for only four percent of radio listening, while for persons aged 25 to 34, AM listening rises to only nine percent.
The AM band today is mainly the domain of 'talk radio,' a broad category covering mainly topical interests like sports, but heavily populated by ultra-conservative broadcasters (a few of whom are certifiably bat-shit crazy). The talk format kept AM radio from collapsing over the last 40 years, but now even its numbers are declining. A 2011 estimate suggested that talk radio has lost 30 to 40 percent of its ad revenues since 2009.
So this might be a good moment to look back on what AM radio has meant to recorded music. For starters, AM radio was a Petri dish not only for broadcasting, but for record production, which sought to keep up with fidelity increases in the format throughout the 1920s, '30s and '40s. It was in AM radio that the modern (though currently faltering) infrastructure of promoting records on the radio was built, in large part because, by law, terrestrial radio in the US didn't have to pay royalties to recording artists or musicians (and still doesn't, though that position is under considerable political fire at the moment), only to composers.
Even as sound for film was in its infancy, radio drama and comedy productions in the 1930s and '40s were establishing sound design and sound effects as huge technological and business categories. And what engineer of a certain age has never built his or her own crystal set? Al Schmitt, who has engineered most recently for Paul McCartney and Leon Russell, remembers building low-power AM transmitters to check mixes on his car radio in the 1970s.
The introduction of the 45rpm single in 1949 was a huge boon for niche music genres like country and R&B, and also for AM radio, whose relatively low operating costs allowed independent entrepreneurs to get into the business and use these niche genres to differentiate themselves. It also hosted the original 'pirate' stations — the so-called 'border blasters' — like XERB, once home to DJ Wolfman Jack, which set up massive transmitters in Mexico just south of the US border and played the suggestive R&B records that terrified commercial radio in the '40s and '50s. Without AM radio, we wouldn't have had Elvis, Little Richard or Bill Haley, or any number of other seminal rock, blues and pop pioneers.
FM radio was around since the 1950s, but got its big boost in 1965, when Federal legislation mandated that FM stations had to generate original programming, and not just be a second outlet for the major broadcasters who dominated the AM networks. This led to experimental stations that could play the longer-running tracks on LPs, the format that spurred FM to become the leading one for the music business. AM began its long decline in the 1970s, and now we've reached the point where an NAB working group are pondering whether or not to pull its plug.
One of AM's biggest failings was its inability to carry a useful low-frequency component. Rolling Stones and Bonnie Raitt producer/mixer Ed Cherney agrees, but says it was a hallmark of a great recording if it could cut through on AM anyway. "You didn't bother with subharmonics — we high-passed them to get rid of 'extraneous' low-frequency information back then,” he recalls. "It wasn't going to be heard anyway and took up [space]. But if you could make a record that worked under those conditions, you had a great record, and there were tons of them.”
Another way to look at it is that AM's lo-fi nature smoothed the edges of a lot of those niche recordings, many made under circumstances less than acceptable to, say, EMI's engineering corps — records that, under the sonic scrutiny of a Macintosh amp and great speakers, might otherwise have wilted. In many ways, AM radio was the forerunner to today's file-based universe: you sacrificed fidelity for the convenience of portability. It let you take the Beatles to the beach. And now earbuds and 128Kbps MP3s are getting their own pushback as consumers search for quality.
We'll see what happens with AM in the future. In the meantime, let's remember it for what it was: a cheesy-sounding, static-filled road to some great music.