Feature

AM Radio, Signing Off

An autopsy of a great American medium.

By From the July-August 2013 issue

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BILL HEYWOOD, a fixture on Phoenix’s AM band since the 1960s, checked into a room at the Scottsdale Homewood Suites with his wife a few days after the 2012 New Year. The inseparable pair checked out shortly thereafter. The disc jockey, morning guy, talk show host, and broadcast jack-of-all-trades consummated a suicide pact with his wife with matching gunshot wounds to the head. 

After a career that approached the top of the ratings heap across five decades, and boasted interviews with everyone from John Kennedy to Ronald Reagan to Frank Sinatra, the flailing talker had departed the flailing industry in 2005 for a field that looked more promising: real estate. Phoenix homebuyers didn’t see it that way. The bubble, real estate’s and Heywood’s, soon burst. In 2006, a local home section reported that “the Heywoods have succeeded marvelously” in their “redesign and renovation of their cozy villa in the Biltmore neighborhood.” But after downsizing into that “cozy villa,” the bank foreclosed. The bad news didn’t stop there. The couple filed for bankruptcy. Susan Heywood, living with a heart condition at 70, was diagnosed with breast cancer. Seventy-five-year-old Bill Heywood loved his wife even more than he loved the microphone. It appeared that he would have neither. So, with professional, financial, and medical problems looming, the couple meticulously planned a nightmare ending to their storybook marriage. They left detailed instructions for their funeral and even a warning courteously posted on the door for the hotel maid. 

It’s hard not to see Bill Heywood’s demise as a metaphor for the industry that helped make and break him. The talker’s fall wasn’t split-second sudden, but glacial. A single bullet killed him but no simple single-bullet theory can explain his complicated end. AM’s self-inflicted death has been similarly slow, with many causes but only itself to blame. Some say it started on September 30, 1962, when Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar and Suspense, the last of the radio dramas, signed off. Others point to the emergence of FM, which became the natural migration point for music during the 1970s and for talk and sports over the last decade. Still others blame the web, which provides users a departure from focus group-approved music with the algorithm-approved playlists of Spotify and Pandora, and whose podcasts and Internet radio mimic the talk-radio format.

Guglielmo Marconi, Karl Ferdinand Braun, Lee de Forest, Edwin Howard Armstrong, Reginald Fessenden, and still others could lay paternity claims to wireless mass communication. The list of the possible culprits for murdering AM runs at least as long. But as painful as it is for industry insiders to admit, AM bears responsibility for its demise as surely as Bill Heywood does for his end.   

A perusal of the April ratings for the nation’s biggest media markets shows that just 11 percent of the stations populating the top 10 reside on the AM band. In Washington, D.C., for example, the top-rated AM station ranks 20th among all stations. AM’s dwindling appeal to young people helps explain its dwindling overall ratings. Bill Heywood lost his last radio job by aging himself out of the coveted listening demographic. But the desired demographic and the one actually listening remain far apart. Calcified formats, sonic limitations, and automated programs, more so than any geriatric host, has aged AM out of the demographic targeted by advertisers. More than three-fourths of AM listeners exceed 45 years of age. Surely stages of life—when young people reach 45 they too will inevitably show more interest in the talk and news that dominate the AM band—explain the AM/FM generation gap. But the perception that AM is to radio what black-and-white was to television plays a huge role. Apple does not offer AM on any of its iPod devices. Car manufacturers, a group especially mesmerized by modern gadgetry, increasingly think of AM in such terms, too. Later this year, upstart automaker Detroit Electric plans to be the first to the future by rolling off its assembly line a car sans AM radio. Today foreshadows a tomorrow of radio existing only in yesterday. 

THE DELINKING of cars and radios is an ominous sign—and not for the automobile industry. Since the 1920s, when the two commodities fueled the postwar boom, the kings of the highways and the airwaves have shared a similar history. The market penetration of the transportation and communication devices closely mirrored one another. In the U.S. through 1927, radio had sold 13 million sets and drivers traveled in 16 million cars. Both introduced Americans to the rest of their country. Later, when radios became a standard feature of automobiles, the luxuries morphed into necessities. Now radio, particularly AM radio, has morphed from essential to superfluous. It’s easy to blame advancing technology. It’s just not correct. Listener indifference comes not from technological changes but from programming ones. Rather than use the period of its greatest success as a model for revival, AM stubbornly clutches the failure before it. Nevertheless, yesteryear offers valuable lessons to today. 

The golden age of radio was the dark age of airwave efficiency. When CBS and NBC employed house orchestras, and the Blue Network broadcast such unsponsored “sustaining” fare as Town Meeting of the Air and the Metropolitan Opera, AM flourished. Rather than concentrate on a focused format, radio offered variety. Stations invested in quiz shows, comedies, soaps, news, music, sports, variety, and simulcasts of local happenings. Record profits came from seeding the airwaves with money that ultimately grew listeners. Content mattered. 

The competition for profits came by way of growing the audience rather than streamlining the costs. The industry chieftains grasped that profits required investment. This mentality encouraged broadcasters to fund excellent original programming and supply a range of choice. The variety stemmed in large part because local stations produced their own shows. The horror noir classic Lights Out, for instance, started life at midnight on Wednesdays in Chicago before garnering a broader audience on NBC’s Red Network. The first incarnation of Bob and Ray began on Boston’s WHDH during the 1940s before finding a national home on various outlets for the next 40 or so years. Detroit’s WXYZ introduced the world to The Lone Ranger and The Green Hornet. Radio from the bottom up enjoyed more success than radio from the top down. 

Unlike the movies or today’s television, radio aired live. This was a key ingredient in the medium’s success. The taboo against transcriptions—prerecorded programs—proved so strong that until mid-century actors regularly delivered a second West Coast performance after their initial broadcast aired on the East Coast. Unions, fearful that recorded facsimiles of their members’ voices (or sound effects!) would put them out of work, negotiated agreements with broadcasters that made the rerun rare. Up until midcentury, for instance, programs regularly aired live repeats. The goal, surely pursued with excessive zeal, may have been to protect talent. But the result benefitted listeners, who almost always found fresh material.  

Transcriptions proved especially contentious with regard to music. The American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) regarded the playing of recorded music on the air as a threat to their members’ livelihoods, akin to the way many in the music industry now view illegal downloads. The Federal Communications Commission, at least until 1940, agreed. The government issued licenses to stations agreeing to forgo the airing of recorded music for their first three years. Gerald Nachman explains in Raised on Radio, “In the 1930s, each record had to be identified as a recording (that is, an ‘electrical transcription,’ or ET), which carried a stigma for networks that prided themselves on being live; delayed rebroadcasts were rare. All that changed in 1940, when the FCC relaxed rules on announced transcriptions, which caused ASCAP to boycott stations; the only music that listeners heard that year was in the public domain.” Whereas contemporary musicians lament stations’ offering “jockless” automation as an offense against the medium’s integrity, they then regarded disc jockeys as tools of automation streamlining them out of work. Early DJs pawned off records as live performances and simply ignored the “Not Licensed for Radio Broadcast” warnings on commercial albums. As strange as it seems 75 years later, the music listeners heard over the airwaves was almost always live. 

The Federal Radio Commission, and its FCC successor, persistently, if not often tenaciously, encouraged a diversity of programs on the finite number of stations. The Supreme Court even took an interest in “chain broadcasting,” what we refer to today as syndication. In doing so, they unwittingly created ABC by forcing NBC to divest itself of its more highbrow and experimental Blue Network, whose life was saved by the co-founder of the Life Savers candy corporation. “The ‘public interest’ to be served under the Communications Act is thus the interest of the listening public in ‘the larger and more effective use of radio,’” Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote for the court in 1943’s NBC v. United States. “The facilities of radio are limited and therefore precious; they cannot be left to wasteful use without detriment to the public interest. ‘An important element of public interest and convenience affecting the issue of a license is the ability of the licensee to render the best practicable service to the community reached by his broadcasts.’” Cluttering the AM airwaves, whose 96 channels have since expanded to 116, with the same programs on competing frequencies didn’t meet the referenced threshold established by FCC v. Sanders Bros.  

The policies and agreements that helped unleash radio’s golden age were surely paved with bad intentions. Unions protecting dues payers against technology’s advance, Franklin Roosevelt’s heavy-handed bullying of the “economic royalists” who owned the networks, and capitalists investing in their on-air product to put competitors out of business all unwittingly combined to provide a higher quality and quantity of choices over the airwaves. The glory days lasted five presidential administrations—from Calvin Coolidge to Dwight Eisenhower—and then vanished never to return.  

Radio didn’t simply die when television appeared. In fact, the golden age of radio’s golden age, one could argue, occurred after it ended. Dragnet, a police show minus the gun fights, and Gunsmoke, a cowboy show without the seemingly obligatory adversarial relationship towards Indians, both arrived on radio after Milton Berle arrived on television. The ’50s allowed for more experimentation to meet the challenges posed to the aural from the visual. “The last man on Earth sat alone in a room,” Dimension X’s “Knock” reported. “There was a knock on the door.” Are any two hours on AM today as good as those two lines? 

AM’s apologists place blame on societal trends and changing technology. “This is a simple situation,” contends Michael Harrison of Talkers magazine. “It’s not like AM has been doing something to drive away listeners or has been doing something wrong.” If AM hasn’t made mistakes, then what lessons has it to learn? Harrison points to the “economic considerations” of broadcasters. “Things get old. Things get efficient. Things get corporatized.” Indeed they do.  

WITHIN TODAY'S rigid format constraints, and the replacement of familiar voices with distant taped ones, a few still prosper. Dan Rea, whose NightSide program airs from 8 p.m. to midnight on 50,000-watt heritage station WBZ 1030, reaches 38 states on a clear night. “I call my show ‘North America’s back-porch,’” the former television reporter explains. “The idea is that it’s like people climbing up on the back porch and interacting with their neighbors because I often have situations in which someone in Virginia says something that someone in upstate New York is commenting on two or three calls later. There’s a certain intimacy to AM radio and to talk radio that doesn’t exist with FM.” 

On a night in May, I tune in to Rea asking hard questions softly to the resigning lieutenant governor of Massachusetts. “If I’m wrong feel free to tell me—and please do tell me,” he adds as a postscript to a query to the beleaguered Tim Murray on the wisdom of his administration’s appointing as highway safety director a fundraiser whose driving record boasted a slew of accidents, speeding tickets, and a propensity to see red as green. Rea’s reserved demeanor doesn’t give potential guests reservations, so he enjoys a dialogue as competitors stick to the monologue. 

He treats callers even more hospitably. When Rea switches topics to the not-so-peaceful coexistence between cyclists and motorists on Boston roads, David, a cabdriver who cites Donny Osmond as the most famous person occupying the back seat of his taxi, goes back-and-forth with the host for more than four minutes. There’s no stopwatch-wielding program director demanding that the host ditch callers after a designated number of seconds. The relaxed cadence that keeps callers on the line keeps listeners on the airwaves, too. WBZ ranks third in Boston’s ratings, and Rea beats everyone else on at night, save for an FM pop music channel. He does this by standing out from, rather than fitting in with, the rest of the dial. He eschews formula: “We don’t do four hours of Obama-bashing every night.” But he indulges now and again.  

But where (and when) Dan Rea really differs most from the competition—a spin through the dial reveals three Mark Levins, two Michael Savages, and a Roy Masters—is by broadcasting in real time from the place where his target audience resides. “We’re the only live and local show in my time block,” explains Rea. A few years ago, when CBS attempted to replace the midnight to 5 a.m. host with a syndicated talker, listeners rebelled and persuaded corporate ownership to restore the friendly voice they knew. The victory remains one of very few for devotees of overnight radio. AM, which boasts its greatest advantage (signal strength) in the darkness, strangely hoists the white flag after hours with paid programming, repeats, and syndication. It’s efficient radio. It’s just not good radio. 

Rea’s placement in the ratings says as much about his broadcast-booth prowess as it does about AM’s broadcasting failure. Simply by showing up for work, Rea offers something novel—a nighttime host conversing with listeners in the same city (and beyond). In a world of exploding choices, AM presents listeners with a menu of news, talk, and sports. And increasingly, the voices discussing the limited fare come recorded and from far away. One-size-fits-all radio unsurprisingly fits into the lives of fewer and fewer Americans. Whereas AM once thrived as a potpourri, it now struggles through its blah sameness. People value entertainment more than information. So long as AM focuses on the latter, listeners will continue to say “so long.” 

THAT GOODBYE is a painful one. Listeners habituated to AM’s greatness keep going back expecting to find what they did long ago. They instead find disappointment. But with the migration to FM, automation and syndication driving out live and local hosts, and calcified formats that envision AM as strictly a conduit for information rather than art or amusement—one Radio Ink article pathetically points to emergency broadcasts as a cause for mandating AM in cars—AM slowly loses its loyalists as it fails to condition younger listeners into tuning in. 

That’s a shame. Competing communications technologies such as TV owe their existence to very smart people unwittingly dedicated to making the masses dumber. “In radio there was never a term equivalent to boob tube or couch potato,” explained the late Norman Corwin, the radio legend whose first broadcasts came on WBZ. “The eye is so literal, whereas the ear makes a participant of the listener. The listener becomes the set designer, the wardrobe mistress, the casting director.” Radio, particularly AM radio, isn’t a passive medium. On its wavelength, nighttime is the right time. When the lights go out, the light bulbs above our heads go on. That’s why the decision by broadcasters to pull the plug on overnights hurts most. Radio’s picture comes into sharpest focus when listeners close their eyes. There, relaxed in the dark, imagination goes into overdrive. AM at its best, whether Rush Limbaugh making a polemical point or Orson Welles making an artistic one, stimulates rather than anesthetizes thought. 

With hosts, expert guests, and callers waiting their turn on the line, talk radio truly constitutes “social media” in ways that many of the anti-social pastimes perversely claiming that label do not. “You can be anywhere in your home basically using your phone to broadcast to America,” Dan Rea explains. “No one’s doing that on TV.” But talk radio increasingly lacks an element that makes the mislabeled social media of Twitter and Tumblr so alluring: a diversity of voices. Our antennae don’t receive the human element. If you listen closely enough to the chorus of George Noorys across the dial you can hear the subliminal message: fewer voices to pay equals more dollars to keep. It’s pennywise and pound foolish, and it’s what’s killing radio. 

Loving radio, like loving a strung-out old friend,  means hating it in its present condition. 

THE MAGIC box that unleashes the imagination remains on a leash held by suits devoid of imagination. One can hardly fault Talkers’ Michael Harrison for exculpating the industry that he’s paid to promote for its own demise. But even radio’s boosters can’t help but show pessimism. “AM is facing an existential problem,” Harrison concedes. “It is fighting for its life.” 

When radio began, other media viewed wireless mass communication as the challenge. “A man who, while living in the present age, reverts to the ways of antiquity, is one who will bring calamity on himself,” a 1921 print advertisement for the state-of-the-art device quotes Confucius as saying. Perhaps the editor didn’t grasp the subtlety when he accepted the advert. But quite a few understood the threat that electromagnetic waves posed to the printing press. Some newspapers reacted by refusing to print daily programming listings. Others took a more fruitful if-you-can’t-beat-them-be-them approach. By 1937, newspapers owned a quarter of America’s radio stations. A vestige of print’s successful gambit to adapt and overcome exists in current call letters—WGN (World’s Greatest Newspaper), WTAG (Worcester Telegram & Gazette), KRNT (Des Moines Register and Tribune). Newspapers did something then that radio isn’t doing particularly well now: They exploited new media to strengthen the old. 

The 1921 technology tycoon using a 2,500-year-old Chinese philosopher to hawk the latest gizmo appeared not unlike the fledglings behind Facebook and Tumblr. Born in 1895, Alfred Grebe received a radio kit at age 9, a broadcaster’s license at 15, and printed his first sales catalog at 19. A few years after he returned from the Great War, the twentysomething demolished his home to build a factory. If he’s known for anything today, and he’s not, it’s founding WCBS, a stop on the AM dial that stubbornly continues as a top-rated station in America’s largest media market. The boy wonder’s advertisement concluded: “What terrible fate must be in store for him who, knowing the worth of the CR-8, persists in using ancient apparatus—which Confucius would have cast into the muddy depths of the Yang-Tse-Kiang.” 

Radio relied on a keeping-up-with-the-Joneses marketing to turn on listeners to its sets. It now uses that rationale to explain why listeners turn off. But Grebe didn’t sell sets because of his gadget’s amazing technological prowess. The field remained a haunt of hobbyists until commercial broadcasters began airing interesting content. The year after Grebe’s ad appeared, manufacturers like him sold 75,000 sets in America. After commercial broadcasters offered Americans something worth listening to, sales increased to 35 million by 1928. The likes of Amos & Andy, not the superheterodyne, moved radios. 

FOR NEARLY a half century, Bill Heywood’s humor and welcoming voice moved Phoenicians near their radios. KOY, where he plied his trade for more than a decade, now airs loops of music programmed from afar. Under a heading “AM 1230 KOY Personalities,” the Clear Channel website list displays blank white. 

Before a bullet passed through the veteran Phoenix talker’s brain, thoughts about his bad luck assuredly did. His nonexistent radio career, sick wife, and troubled finances may have brought him to that Scottsdale hotel room. They didn’t pull the trigger. Bill Heywood did. Blaming the victim is generally bad form. But when the victim doubles as the perpetrator, it’s important to admit this hard truth before nothing can be done.

It’s too late for the Heywoods. Is it too late for the field in which Bill so excelled? That 7-second delay may mask the reality that AM has already died. 

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About the Author
Daniel J. Flynn, the author of The War on Football: Saving America’s Game, edits Breitbart Sports.