By James Lileks Star Tribune
May 21, 2023 — 2:00pm
News item: Some carmakers are dropping AM radios from their new models because electric cars interfere with the signal. Your reaction: Gosh, what’s next to go? Ashtrays?
Maybe you dip into AM now and then for sports or talk, or because there’s a big storm and some ancient Minnesota DNA lights up and commands your hand to switch to 830/WCCO, aka The Good Neighbor. AM is still alive, but it doesn’t feel as necessary as it once did.
In the old days, you went to AM for the jangly impromptu daily conversation. Local ads and network news at the top of the hour. Now, we prefer Spotify and podcasts.
The end of AM in cars is the end of a 90-year-old tradition. Car radios become popular in the early ’30s, and they cost $39. Adjusted for inflation, that’s over $9,000 today. Eventually they were integrated into the dashboard and became quite stylish. Push-button control for Jet Age motorists.
I remember squinting at the dial in our Mercury, wondering what those little triangles meant. Good thing no one told me. The answer was COMMUNIST HELLFIRE. In case of nuclear attack, you were supposed to turn your radio to the special marks (640 and 1240, if you’re curious), where you’d receive instructions, like go to your basement. Thanks! Never would’ve thought of that.
This was CONELRAD, designed to fool the Russkies, to keep them from zeroing in on a signal and flying their bombers to the transmitting tower. Different stations would broadcast on 640 and 1240 to bamboozle Ivan. I think maybe the Reds had maps and a rough idea, but it seemed like a good plan at the time.
The marks were removed in 1963, so you were no longer reminded of imminent incineration when you turned the dial to find your favorite song.
We have nostalgia for listening to songs on AM, but that’s just a sign of one’s age. FM was much better for tunes, but AM was better for voices.
And for community. AM radio gave you a sense of place in a way no streaming service ever can. People of a certain age will remember when your entertainment options on a long drive were the radio or the tape player. When you tired of listening to the same thing for the nth time, you dipped into the AM band to see what you could find.
Static. A storm of noise, a loud and angry absence. So you tuned with a careful hand. A voice emerged, but it was indistinct and overwhelmed. Tuned some more.
Ah — there. You got it. But what did you get? A station ID, telling you that you’re listening toWDDD AM 990, the Voice of Square County!The announcer might be a guy who’s playing out the end of a 35-year career bouncing from one 5,000-watt station to another, reading the hog reports out of Chicago: “Barrows and gilts are standing steady.“
Or he’s doing the daily noontime swap meet, telling you about the things the townsfolk wanted to shed:
“Well, we have an end table now. Mostly wood, except for the parts that are brass; that’d be your handle. Has a tic-tac-toe thing carved right in the wood, says here, but you could cover that with a doily if you want.
“Next up, we have Mrs. Elmer Johnson out by Augur City, she had puppies. Well, her dog had puppies. Six mutts, for good homes. She also has a card table for trade, says here it’s Samsonite. I thought they just made luggage. Learn something every day!
“We’ll be right back after this word from Northrup King. They’re going to tell you about their new corn. Maybe they’d swap some for a table, seems like we’re up to our ears in tables. Ears! Like, corn. Folks, I can’t write this stuff, it just happens.”
You’d leave the station behind soon enough, the voice fading until it was enveloped by static. Another would come along, and you’d get polka for 15 miles. You were probably so starved for entertainment that you’d listen to fizzy hissy Whoopie John for a while, and were sad to outrun the station again.
It was a way of touring the little towns, experiencing the local voices and the music they liked. Nowadays they’re probably all automated, with playlists set by distant managers. If people want to swap a table for some puppies, there’s the internet.
AM radio will never die, though. It can’t. It’s a segment of the spectrum that exists whether anyone’s using it or not. Perhaps someday it will become so vacant that the government stops regulating it, and people will start their own AM stations for fun. Low-low power, with a signal range of half a block.
You could walk around the neighborhood and listen to various homemade programs. If you saw a group of 20 people standing in front of a house, that would mean it was a good station, and no one wanted to amble out of range. “Gotta stick around and see if he gets anyone to take that table!“
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