Going back the last 100 years, AM radio has played pivotal roles in U.S. history.
The static-y medium that brought Americans FDR’s fireside chats, first prominent sporting events, popular music and church sermons was an integral part of the country’s media for the better part of the last century.
Before television broadcasting became a major player in most Americans’ homes in the 1950s, people would gather around a radio and listen to dramas like Orson Welles’ “The Shadow.” Ultimately, those dramas went away or went to TV, radio’s eventual substitute.
However, even the arrival of TVs in homes didn’t completely make AM radio obsolete. With the advent of the more portable transistor radio, particularly in automobiles as more and more were manufactured in the decades to follow, AM radio managed to survive as music and the spoken word were something that drivers could listen to in their vehicles to pass the time.
In the 1970s AM radio suffered another blow with the arrival of FM broadcasting, which delivered a quality that the narrow bandwidth of the AM signal could not provide and music-only stations transitioned to what has become the standard today for what most Americans think of when they hear “radio.”
The medium, however, survived as an outlet for the spoken word, where the quality of sound was less important than the content of the broadcast. Sporting events and talk shows therefore existed largely on AM radio.
AM radio also offered something FM could not. Where FM is clear, its reach is short. On the other hand, an AM signal has the ability to carry for hundreds of miles at night. For example it’s possible to listen to a St. Louis Cardinals night game on the 50,000-watt Clear Channel radio station – a licensing which permits its signal to be heard in most of the United States – in Mobile. Other AM stations like WSB in Atlanta, WSM in Nashville, WGN in Chicago, WBT in Charlotte and WWL in New Orleans also can be heard throughout the area, which offers listeners unique content they don’t have access to anywhere else locally.
While today we think of AM radio as the home for political talk radio, politics really did not have a heavy presence on AM radio for decades due to a 1940s policy known as the Fairness Doctrine. The policy required the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to regulate broadcasters to ensure they provided equal time on controversial hot-button topics – making them reluctant to embrace political-type formats on radio.
The reasoning behind the Fairness Doctrine was that radio was the “public’s airwaves” and therefore the federal government had license to regulate the speech in a way it could not with print.
But by the end of the Reagan administration the federal government did away with the Fairness Doctrine. The end of the Fairness Doctrine gave rise to conservative talk radio – most notably Rush Limbaugh – and a policy change that extended the life of AM radio by at least 20 years.
Love him or hate him, Limbaugh made AM radio profitable again. Stations could center their entire broadcast day on Limbaugh and offer other similar programming.
But along the way broadcasters have realized they can be even more profitable if they offer the same political-oriented content on a clearer FM radio signal, a realization that has taken place over the past two decades.
According to the Los Angeles Times, as recently as 1990, AM radio accounted for about 45 percent of stations licensed with the FCC. But in 2014, FM counts for around 10,700 outlets, or more than twice the 4,700 AM licenses.
Add satellite, Internet radio and podcasting as competitors and it’s hard to imagine how AM radio can continue to survive at all.
It would be sad if AM were to disappear. There is just something about hearing a talk show or sporting event on the scratchy AM airwaves. Russ Hodges’ 1951 call of the New York Baseball Giants Bobby Thomson’s famous “Shot Heard Around the World” would not be the same without the crackly sounds with Hodges screaming, “The Giants win the pennant! The Giants win the pennant!”
Closer to home, there’s a certain historic quality in hearing the old radio broadcasts of Auburn and Alabama football broadcasts. Before every game was on pay-per-view or now the SEC Network, Alabamians relied Gary Sanders, John Forney, Jim Fyffe and Eli Gold to keep up with the state’s passion of college football. Like political talk radio, they’ve made the transition to FM radio but AM is where it started.
These days, it’s likely some younger people don’t even know the AM stations exist on their car radios. To them, talk radio stations are the shows down the dial on National Public Radio affiliates.
The way it is trending now, AM could be a soon-to-be-forgotten format that will go the way of the typewriter, cassette tapes and the rotary phone.
But there is one thing that revitalizes AM radio. There are indications it could be Spanish-language broadcasting. With the roughly 38 million Spanish speakers in the United States, they will need a place for news and public affairs information.
Both political parties are fighting for the lion’s share of that demographic, with the Democratic side holding a distinct advantage. But the next big opportunity could be Latino-centric programming, including sporting events, talk shows, etc.
If the Republican side wants to make inroads with Hispanics, maybe it’s time to groom the next Rush Limbaugh, but in Spanish.