Friday, October 21, 2016

The Open Forum: Remembering AM Radio...





Redartz:  The years since the "Bronze Age" have seen quite a few changes in popular culture. Some of the most common features of daily life back then are all but forgotten today. Think rotary telephones, handwritten letters, and black/white televisions. Other elements of today's life were unknown in the 70's, such as smartphones and the internet. You may have noticed that manyof the changes revolved around science and technology. Although it still exists today, AM radio was a victim of technology as well, beginning with the rise of FM broadcasting. By the time digital music became common, AM had been largely relegated to talk radio and sports. And like most, I gravitated away from AM listening as FM offered cleaner music ("no static at all", as Steely Dan put it). That said,  AM radio offered quite a lot of listening pleasure during the 70's, and today we will recall a bit of that.


My first exposure to AM was the local Anderson, Indiana radio station: WHUT. During the early 70's the station played top 40 hits, and was the station of choice on our school bus. Riding home after classes we would strain to hear Three Dog Night, Elton John and Grand Funk over the usual cacophony of yelling schoolkids. During the summer months, at the public swimming pool, I remember Paul McCartney's "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" would echo across the water, courtesy of the dj at WHUT. 

It wasn't long before my burgeoning love for pop music found greater fulfillment , via Casey Kasem and American Top 40. The same middle school friend who introduced me to comics also opened my ears to "AT40".
Every weekend through the rest of the decade and well into the 80's, I'd tune in to hear Casey count 'em down. Starting on Muncie, IN station WLBC, and later on several Indianapolis stations, the Billboard chart came alive every week, along with Casey's trivia and long-distance dedications. And the music was the big draw, even though there was somewhat greater static from the more distant Muncie broadcaster. Yet that fuzziness was part of the charm, and didn't seem troublesome at all.

By 1975 I'd gotten heavily addicted to comics, just in time to catch another treat on AM radio: the Fantastic Four Radio Show. Again courtesy of our local Anderson station, each week Stan Lee himself brought the FF to my ears through those little speakers on my clock radio. It only ran for 13 episodes, but somehow it seemed longer. The show featured a young Bill Murray as the Human Torch, and adapted some of the classic Lee/Kirby epics. I never missed it. 

At about the same time period that I was tuning in to the FF, another radio show grabbed my attention and kept me glued each evening: the CBS Radio Mystery Theater. 




This show  premiered in 1974 and ran until 1982, totaling 1399 episodes. Being a tv kid, I had no prior experience with radio drama. This was a whole new reason to stay up late after bedtime, on school nights when I should have been studying or asleep. It was perfect: lying alone in the dark, late ( I think the show ran locally about 11:00 pm), listening to the creeeaaaky door intro and creepy music, followed by narrator E.G. Marshall's introduction. Quite a variety of themes were presented- mysteries, horror, science fiction, and some classics. Somehow everything seemed more convincing in those darkened late-nights, even the commercials. And when the news came on after, it sounded like the Chimes of Doom...

And speaking of the commercials, that was another unique part of AM radio. The preponderance of local ads and low radio budgets made for some amusing (and sometimes pretty cheesy) commercials. I can still clearly recall an ad from the mid-70's that ran very frequently on Anderson and Muncie stations. It was for a local drive-in theater that showed, shall we say, more adult-oriented fare. But the commercial opened with the Surfari's "Wipeout" intro, and surf guitar line. This was followed by an invitation to visit the "Blackford County Drive-In; 9 miles north of Muncie on highway 3. Our inner car heaters make winter feel like summer". I'll be hearing that commercial in my head until my dying day, and maybe after. 

One more little feature I'll mention about AM radio: a personal eccentricity, perhaps. During the evenings, when many local stations went off the air, the AM band became a place to pick up vague bits of broadcast from exotic locations all over, such as Des Moines, New York and Windsor, Ontario. WABC, CKLW, WLS and countless others. Again, the action of listening in the dark to these ghostly voices made them all the more evocative. Hearing those speakers, commercials, tunes, local newscasts- all fading in and out among the distant static was almost haunting, and very fun. I always heard you could pick up Mexican radio ( as per Wall of Voodoo), but never could myself...
Incidentally, you had to have an old analog tuning dial to do this best. Digital push-button tuning skips over too much, and you miss the fun of sweeping back and forth up and down the dial. Plus, you get the cool blue-green light illuminating the dial!

Hmmm, maybe I'll go upstairs late this evening and drag out that old transistor. Bet I can pick up WLW...



18 comments:

Humanbelly said...

"Double-you-ELL-ess... Chi-CAAAH-go!"

Just wanted to get that in real quick, before Doug beat me to it!

HB

Doug said...

The Big 89, yessiree! I can still name the classic line-up of DJs and features, such as Animal Stories in the mornings and Let's Talk Softball in the afternoons, about Chicago's 16-inch softball craze. Fun memories!

Doug

Anonymous said...

Ah, AM radio. What a blast it was living in NY and hearing one great track after another in the early 70s.
My favorite?
That's an easy one. https://youtu.be/M_LQ4_MhDu4

Kenn said...

I grew up on a.m. radio back when formatting didn't segregate genres of music. We all developed our own individual tastes, but the playlist was the menu we had to choose from. For some reason that I can't recall we could get f.m. radio on the stereo in the living room, and there was a station that played "album rock" and had all the "obscure" artists and songs that were not available on a.m., and, when my parents were out, we'd turn that up loudly! A.M. was portable, though, and I used to carry a radio with me when I started long-distance running! This was before headphones and even cassette players! It's no wonder I have unbalanced arm strength! This was 1971 I believe, and my fave rotation song was Maggie May by Rod Stewart. I even bought the album!
Eventually cassettes and/or 8tracks took me away from radio until I discovered a.m. again with college radio. I was a DJ on WUSB for a few years, and wherever I moved I tried to find college radio stations. Also discovered Phil Hendrie, and, between bouts of retirement, Art Bell!

Anonymous said...

Yeah, AM used to be the way to go, but where I am all the AM stations have gone to either talk or country, so if I want some rock, I gotta go FM.

Mike Wilson

Humanbelly said...

For Doug:

"Animal Stories-- with your charming and delightful old Uncle Lar, and his sidekick, Li'l snot-nose Tommy! Hiya Taah-mmy!"

"Hiya Uncle Lar!"

Yep, we even had the two LP's of collected segments that they released. Might still have them, in fact.


We lived a solid two hours from Chicago proper, around the southern tip of Lake Michigan and into the rural SW corner of Michigan-proper. But that station still had the strongest signal of anything else in the region and. . . I don't think anyone in our town (well, of the "youth", at least) listened to a different station. It was a communal experience that we were completely oblivious to. And man, I still miss that station's broad pop/top 40 format. Current chart-toppers could easily be put into 2x (or even 3x) per hour rotation-- which ultimately killed my enjoyment of more than a couple-- but they would also play any Beatles hit when they felt like it, or hits from two, three, five, ten (or more) years before. Even as a kid, you'd find yourself nostalgic about an "oldie" from two summers past-- thinking, "oh, I LOVED this song! Yeah!".

Mind you, the Disco era was as hard to live through there as it was anywhere. They milked it thoroughly and relentlessly.

This'll sound like an old coot talkin', but-- "Help!", "Hey Jude", and "Uncle Albert/Admiral Halsey" are songs that should only be heard in mono on an AM car radio. It's the purest, most aurally-affecting format in which to experience them!

HB

Redartz said...

Anonymous- great link to a great tune!

HB and Doug- "Animal Stories" was (were?) Well worth the effort needed to hear them clearly in Indianapolis. It tended to fade in and out a bit, but you could usually hear the show unless you were right downtown and all the buildings blocked the signal.

Mike W.- Daytime AM is pretty sparse now, but you can still go 'exploring' the dial at night...and sometimes find some decent music...

Edo Bosnar said...

Eh, all you guys with your Midwest AM radio anecdotes...

The only AM radio station I recall listening to was KGW, which was based in Portland, OR and was super-popular back in the 1970s especially (and although I didn't know it at the time, it was where Mel Blanc got his start back in the late 1920s). It mainly played top 40 hits and easy-listening type music. I remember before I started going to school my mom often had it on in the morning when she was doing housework. But that's about it - I got turned on to the various FM rock stations, also based in Portland, by my older brother before I hit my teens, and basically never looked back.

Humanbelly said...

Heh-- edo, yer crackin' me up-- "you guys with your Midwest AM radio anecdotes"-- ha! Yep, things wuz sparse fer listenin'-to out there in America's heartland. . .

Some may remember the horrific Flight 191 crash in Chicago in '79? The first report of it was on WLS's traffic report, just moments after it occurred. There was something terribly unsettling about hearing that story unfold from such a innocuous starting point.

Man-- so many of my summers can be marked by what was playing on the radio at the time. Activity and event are intertwined with the music that was on heavy rotation. . .

HB

Steve Does Comics said...

My main memory of AM radio was that, after dark, it was all but impossible to listen to, thanks to interference from stations in places like France, the Netherlands, Turkey and Russia. On one hand, it was spectacularly annoying that your favourite records kept getting drowned out. On the other, it really was a window on the world that you were normally denied and there was something heart-achingly mysterious about it all. Tom Robinson once released a single called Atmospherics that perfectly captured the frame of mind it created.

From what I can remember, AM slots were allocated to low-brow Pop Music stations, while high-brow Classical Music and news stations were given FM status. Fortunately, that changed with time, and more populist stations like Radio 1, Radio 2 and local commercial stations were allowed to use FM.

I'm not sure if AM still exists in Britain or if it's been turned off like the non-digital TV frequencies have.

Steve Does Comics said...

Ooh, one thing I'd forgotten about is that, at night, you could always hear Morse Code signals on it. I have no idea who was sending the Morse Code or what it was saying but it always seemed exciting.

Anonymous said...

@Redartz: Well, I'm in rural Saskatchewan, so my options are somewhat limited ;)

Mike Wilson

Anonymous said...

I grew up in northwest Iowa and on very rare occasions we could pick up WLS.
I think that's where I first heard The Immigrant Song.
That one in Des Moines was pretty good, too, but we only got it at night.
M.P. (Valhalla I am coming...)

Humanbelly said...

In the winter of 1988, while on tour, in a motel in upstate New York, late at night, I put on my Walkman headphones in an effort to drown out the apocalyptic snoring of my roommate. And what should come, zephyr-like, through the static-- sounding far away and haunted, as if it were the radio on the Flying Dutchman? My old, old long-missed companion--- WLS from Chicago. You know the feeling that Queen's " '39 " gives you? That's the sensation it gave me. . .

HB (yet again-- but goin' to bed now--)

Ward Hill Terry said...

In the early mid-70's here in the greater Boston area the sound of WRKO came from every pre-teen's transistor radio! They played rock music, but at home Mom and Dad would listen to WBZ and WHDH for news, personalities and easier-listening music. I enjoyed night time car rides home from Maine tuning in different stations from New York or Canada. I still often explore the band. In the early 90's at grad school in South Carolina, I could occasionally pick up some old-time radio programs late at night from Chicago. Even as recently as six or seven years ago, before I got a little "smart" device, in order to listen to Randi Rhodes, I would tune in a station in Buffalo, as I drove home from Boston. This was only possible in the winter. As the sun had set by the time I got to my car, the small day-time station in Massachusetts was off the air, leaving the frequency open for the Buffalo station.

johnlindwall said...

Oooooooh! What a great topic! I have vivid memories of staying up late to listen to "CBS Radio Mystery Theater" ... a standout memory involved sleepovers at a Junior High School pal's house. His dad built him a "tree house" in the backyard ... ok so not really built in a tree but on top of some kind of shed. We would sleep up there in our sleeping bags in the mild Southern California summers. We'd eat junk food and goof off. My super-power was always staying up late; at least later then anyone else at the sleepover. Me and my pal would chat until I was the only one left awake. Then I would turn on the AM radio and listen to Radio Mystery Theater until I feel asleep.... Ooooh the creeps I would get listening to those stories! So much fun!

Regarding Mexican radio: not a big deal for us living less then 50 miles from the border. We could listen to all kinds of crazy radio shows that were incomprehensible (to me at east). Better then that was the uncensored mexican TV shows we could sort of see by holding the TV dial just so and holding it "in between channels" to tune in some inappropriate mexican variety shows. Chespirito!

I still listen to AM now; am I the last one? Sports radio during baseball season. Some financial shows on the weekend. There is a show called "Coast to coast" with George Nori which is super entertaining typically: it centers around unexplained phenomena, UFOs, alternate dimensions, lost civilizations, etc. Really fun.

Redartz said...

Johnlindwall- that treehouse sounds like a perfect place to enjoy Mystery Theater! Not only dark, but outside as well! Very cool...

And you're not alone in tuning in AM. During baseball season I frequent WLW for the Reds. And it is still possible to find some eclectic music stations here and there. "Coast to Coast" sounds worth hunting down...

johnlindwall said...

Redartz,

Yeah -- the treehouse was very appropriate and scary!

Baseball is a very good radio sport, right? In a short sentence or two the announcer can summarize the game situation or a play, and the listener gets a good mental picture. Of course, hearing descriptions of the amazing plays is not a good as watching it, but it is still fun to follow a game on the radio. Not always so fun when you are a Padres fan like me, but still...

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