I was born on the leading age of the baby boom and FM radio was non-existent in our part of the country when I was growing up. So my introduction to radio was on my family’s Coronado console radio with “magic eye tuning” back when soap operas, evening dramas and westerns, and variety shows still were popular on radio. When I started one-room country school in 1953, our teacher would play a story lady program from KUSD in Vermillion, South Dakota for those of us in the younger grades, so what we now call public radio on AM was one of my earliest media sources.
In my early teenage years, I collected QSL (verification) cards from AM stations all over the country, and KUSD’s towers could be seen blinking at night from where we lived 15 miles away. AM radio had a sort of romantic pull, best memorialized in the 1973 movie, American Graffiti, where Wolfman Jack spun records in the shack under a tower. My first electronic gadget was a 6-transistor AM radio, bought circa 1962 for $21 ($149 today by CPI), and on it I listened to all the top 40 music I could find on KAAY, KOMA and, of course, Dick Biondi on WLS.
When I got out of the Air Force in 1969 and needed a job to help pay for college, KUSD seemed to be a good place to look, and I landed one there. I was now sitting in the shack under the tower as a weekend transmitter operator, but rather than spinning records, all I had to do was get out of my chair every half hour and read the meters. A few years later, I did the engineering to drop in an FM station for KUSD and, quite some time after I left, they shut down the AM station and took down the towers. It’s starting to look like that will be the fate of other public radio AMs.
In the August 9 issue of the public broadcasting industry newspaper, Current, Karen Everhart has what is, therefore, for me a sad recounting of the difficulty of building an audience for public radio news programming on the AM band. She writes:
… Decisions about audience service priorities have never been easy for public radio stations that broadcast both news and music programming, but they’re especially confounding for those with AM stations. AM’s low audio fidelity and interference problems make the frequencies more suitable for news/talk than music, but listeners’ habits of scanning the left end of the FM dial for public radio are so deeply ingrained that building a loyal audience on AM would be a Sisyphean labor. …
Yes, it is difficult to build audiences there. When I took over as GM of KWSU(AM) in 1978, 70% of listening in the market was to AM, but by the mid-80s, that ratio had flipped. The AM band has been greatly compromised as ably described in Karen’s article, and that’s led to it becoming a sort of remainder store for all manner of programming that can’t make it on FM. Public radio alone won’t make a difference there because the AM band is such a rundown neighborhood. The neighborhood determines in large part the value of your property. Even if HD takes hold on the AM band, unless the band is used again for something other than political and religious screamers, cellar-dwelling baseball teams, and the like, the fidelity improvement alone won’t make a difference. --Dennis