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AM Radio, Signing Off
By DANIEL J. FLYNN from the JULY-AUGUST 2013 issue
An autopsy of a great American medium.
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, andGunsmoke, 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.”