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Radio AM to FM: December 12, 2003

Where AM means "Freeform"

Years ago, when AM radio ruled the airwaves -- when stations such as KHJ, KRLA and KFWB were playing the hits -- that band called "FM" was a desolate place. Sure you could find a few stations: the manual for my 1960s-era Citation III tuner lists about 20 in the Los Angeles area, but FM radios were so few and far between that most FM stations were huge money losers.

Tom Donahue, in fact, used this to his advantage as he began spreading the idea of freeform FM radio. The antithesis of formatted top-40 AM music radio, Donahue brought his idea first to San Francisco and later to Los Angeles via KPCC (now KROQ) and then KMET (now KTWV). Legend has it he found the stations to pitch his idea by calling them on the telephone ... those that had disconnected numbers, that couldn't afford to pay the phone bill, were his first attempts.

Whether that story is true or not is immaterial: Donahue's influence helped move people over to FM. No, it wasn't a perceived difference in sound quality, it was the programming. "Underground" music and album cuts not played elsewhere, low-key disc jockeys who didn't talk over the music and an antiestablishment attitude that disagreed with traditional thinking on war, government, sex and drugs all combined to attract baby boomers away from the band that served America well since 1922. By 1980 or so, FM became dominant.

Unfortunately, something happened. Freeform FM stations got too popular. While ratings and revenues were up with the new format, owners quickly realized that they could make even more money with research. Slowly the choice of music left the control of the DJ and moved over to the program director ... and eventually consultants and callout research. Progressive stations gave way to "album-oriented" formats; eventually even those would be gone as research "proved" that people want only one kind of music on their favorite station. Variety? Out. Songs that all sound the same? In.

So in 2003 we now find ourselves with an almost mirror-image of the 1960s: Today it is the FM stations that are overly-researched, formatted and predictable, while the AMs lose money.

For years I have wondered why someone doesn't take a lesson from history and bring people back to AM by playing progressive music. The stations are generally money-losers, running low-rated talk shows or brokered formats, surviving only because the owners put so little money into the station in the first place. Play what people want, I believe, and they will come.

Enter KCUV/Denver. The brainchild of Tim Brown, KCUV is a little AM station trying to duplicate the essence of freeform radio, playing folk, bluegrass, progressive rock and country ... songs you won't hear on FM any more.

"You say eclectic, we say AMericana," Brown told Radio Business Report. (The capital AM represents the broadcast band). On the station website, Brown says "Welcome back to the way radio used to be." He's right. It is special. Hear it for yourself at

Now ... any Los Angeles-area stations have the guts to give it a try?

Good News

Don Barrett has announced that will live on for at least another year. Single subscriptions for one year are $39; add a gift subscription for someone who has never subscribed are half price: $58.50 total. Well worth the cost for the best radio resource anywhere. Go to for more details; write to Barrett directly on the main page for information on the special holiday offer.

Benson in Long Beach

This Saturday, Arrow 93's morning man "Uncle" Joe Benson will be hosting the 23rd Annual International Motorcycle Show at the Long Beach Convention Center. Benson will be shifting gears from his normal four wheel racing duties and putting on his "leathers" with the Arrow 93 crew for a good old fashioned "Uncle Joe Meet and Greet" from 6 to 8 PM.


Copyright © 2003 Richard Wagoner and The Copley Press.

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