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Radio AM to FM: May 21, 1999

Radio killed the radio star.

I was helping Leslie Bezich clean out some stuff from her room the other day -- Leslie is the teacher-advisor for San Pedro High School's "Fore 'n Aft" newspaper and is clearing out her room to make way for her replacement next year. Well, ok, "helping" is perhaps the wrong word. "Wildly going through carefully-stacked piles of old newspapers looking for something interesting" might be a better term.

Anyway, I ran across an interesting article from the January 19, 1979 edition by Brett Hallett entitled "'79 Music Outlook to Improve." In it, then-SPHS student Hallett talks about the music scene and how it is evolving. What caught my eye was the following:

"Yes indeed, 1978 was a great year for the local (music) scene as well as the national. Why are we then subject to the mindless drone we hear when forced to listen to AM radio?" Hallett wrote.

Keep in mind that AM radio was still king in 1979, with such stations as KHJ, KTNQ, KFI and KEZY commanding very large audiences.

"Why, with all the talent and superior music coming out lately, does radio insist on treating us like this?"

Hallett continued, "AM has become a dinosaur. In no way does the music being played on AM correspond to the music being bought or to the groups that are drawing large concert crowds. It seems amazing that no local AM station has seized the opportunity to play tunes that people want to hear. Any one station could corner the AM listening market by playing the right music. AM is losing listeners to FM progressive stations more and more all the time.

"Apparently radio programmers sit in their ivory towers, and either listen to no music at all, or their minds have been softened from listening to their own stations. AM should remember that "Pop" is short for "Popular," not "Poppycock."

That could have been written by me, although it wasn't. I don't even remember reading it back then, even though I was there. I, of course, would have mentioned that KEZY, although not officially "local" was playing very progressive music at the time.

But one thing sticks out more than anything else in this opinion piece: Hallett mentioned time and time again that it was the music that drove listeners to FM ... not the sound quality, not the fidelity, and not the interference. Not even the lack of stereo. It was the music.

Certainly FM sounded better back then as it does now. But no one except audiophiles really cared, and both AM and FM sound fine on a good portable radio or car stereo -- the type of radio most used for radio listening. It wasn't until bad programming and poor promotions pushed listeners away from AM and over to FM that owners, managers and programmers came up with the "sound quality" excuse. An excuse that rings as hollow today as it did when it was first invented in the mid 1980s.

So where does that leave us now? With few reasons to tune into anything AM and an FM band that is approaching the same stale, stagnant state that Hallett wrote about AM in 1979.

Yet there is hope. KLAC, playing what is known in the industry as "adult standards" and big band already commands an audience larger that the highly-promoted "hip FM talk station," KLSX. And it sounds good. Perhaps in the future a hip music programmer will bring progressive music back to Los Angeles using the underutilized AM band and steal listeners back from the now-stodgy FM side.

If you play the right music, people will listen, regardless of the band. Too bad owners and programmers won't take the chance to prove me right. Yet, with the junk they program now, they certainly aren't proving me wrong.


Copyright © 1999 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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