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The Web's Spiritual Grandfather: AM Radio

The flat voice of a police officer reading off the blotter contrasts starkly with the smooth introduction from the professional announcer who precedes him on the air: "8:09 p.m., report of juveniles setting fire to a pile of papers behind an apartment complex; 3:14 p.m., Annapolis police respond to report of an argument. The man violently resisted efforts to place him in the police car."

It's the morning police report coming to you "from Radio Park" on Annapolis's hometown station, WNAV (1430 AM), one of a dwindling number of intensely local voices of the sort that used to dominate the AM dial.

The digital revolution threatens to render irrelevant or unprofitable many of the most prominent old media, whether they be newspapers, books, magazines or television and radio stations. As each of those industries struggles to hold on to audiences or attract young consumers, the medium that has fallen farthest and fastest is probably AM radio.

AM is where radio was born, yet its static-plagued, low-fidelity stations seem to have lost an entire generation of listeners. Paradoxically, however, AM -- from tiny small-town stations specializing in farm reports and high school sports coverage to booming big-city outlets that pioneered the concepts of all-news, sports talk and Top 40 pop hits -- is where much of what's popular on the Internet got its inspiration.

The swap shop call-in shows that once filled the midday airwaves on many local stations are the spiritual godfather of Craigslist and other online classified sites. The sports phone-in shows that have long been an AM staple spawned the fan message boards that have proven so popular on the Internet. And although the great American tradition of ranting -- passionate political tirades, righteous religious preaching, get-rich-quick financial schemes -- surely dates back to Colonial times, it was first propelled into a mass, coast-to-coast culture on AM radio, and has found a happy new home on the Web.

Only two AM stations show up in Arbitron's latest ratings of the audience for the top 21 radio outlets in the Washington area, illustrating a steady decline that began three decades ago but has accelerated in many cities over the past few years. Washington's longtime top-rated AM station, all-news WTOP, moved over to the FM dial two years ago, giving up AM radio's superior geographic reach to be where the listeners are.

The two AM stations that do show up in the top 21 -- conservative talk WMAL (630) and sports talk WTEM (980) -- have significantly older audiences than the most popular FM stations. (The next three AM stations in the local ratings are all Spanish-language stations, with much smaller audiences.)

But to spend a week listening only to AM radio, as I recently did, is to explore a world not unlike that of the Internet, where what's dominant is not reasoned and careful conversation, but the wild and woolly, voices crying out to be heard in a soundscape of plenty.

"Is masturbation okay?" talk host Marsha Sumner asks her panel on Heaven 1580 (WPGC), a gospel and Christian station. "If God is not getting the glory, something is wrong. Sin is sin, boo."

Another Christian station, WFAX (1220) in Falls Church, features a preacher breathlessly explaining why he's reluctant to pay his taxes. "We Christians are taught to pay our government for good leadership, but the Bible nowhere tells us we should pay our taxes for evil," he says.

A motivational speaker on one of several brokered-time stations -- stations that sell their airtime by the hour to all comers, but mainly to people selling stock schemes, preaching some manner of gospel or hawking conspiracy theories of a certain extravagance -- spends half an hour urging employees to learn the way to their bosses' hearts.

And on three different signals in Virginia, Maryland and the District, syndicated talk host Laura Ingraham asks her guest to please "tell us about the connection between Darwinism and Nazism."

"I'm so glad you asked, Ann," replies guest Ben Stein, an author who has apparently slipped and confused Ingraham with another blond conservative firebrand, Ann Coulter.

Syndicated talk shows make up most of the English-language programming on any scan of the AM dial these days. It's vastly cheaper and easier to carry nationally syndicated shows than to produce original programming.

So big stations carry Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage and the sports guys from ESPN and Fox, while scratchier signals beam in second-team conservatives such as Michael Medved, Michael Reagan and Bill Bennett. Over at WWRC (1260), what's left of the attempt to create a liberal alternative to right-wing talk radio struggles on, with Ed Schultz, Bill Press and Thom Hartmann finding a tiny audience for their daily menu of complaint about the rest of the media, plus Bush-bashing of the awkward-presidential-sound-bite school.

And then station managers wonder why listeners have migrated to live, local programming over on the FM dial. The ratings say the audiences for many AM stations number only in the low thousands or perhaps even lower.

Yet from a spot in Northwest Washington, it's possible to hear 35 AM stations by day and dozens more at night, when signals from clear across the country come sailing in.

At least six of those 35 stations broadcast in Spanish, three more in Korean or Chinese, a couple of others occasionally in Amharic or French. These are the proto-Facebook groups of an earlier era, subcultures invisible to much of the population, yet thriving in their own little corners of the culture.

The voices on AM radio are too often canned and delivered by satellite from distant places, saying nothing about life in the Washington area. Once-great local stations such as WAGE in Leesburg and WMAL in Washington now rely largely on talk shows pulled off the satellite.

But whether it's a Spanish station in Manassas offering listeners a chance to vent their views on Prince William County's crackdown on illegal immigrants, or longtime local talk host Bernie McCain talking D.C. politics on WOL (1450), there are still a precious few spots along the dial where the programming sounds like the place from which the station is broadcasting.

A comeback for AM is a long shot, but it is only possible with programs that cannot be heard anywhere else, not even on the Web, with the daily recitation of the police blotter, the triumphs of local high school athletes and the voices of the places where we live.

By Marc Fisher |  May 3, 2008; 8:36 AM ET
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Comments

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as soon as the FCC dismantles analog TV broadcasts, they will do the same with analog radio. 50 years from now those frequencies will be used by others as entertainment is delivered over a Wi-Max-style system.

Posted by: DCer | May 3, 2008 9:17 AM

My father was a DJ for a little more than 15 years back in the 50s and 60s, so I grew up listening to him and other AM radio. And during the summers, I could usually pick up KMOX out of St. Louis way over here on the East Coast at night and listen to Cardinals games with Harry Caray and Jack Buck.
AM radio is the home of some of the all-time great radio voices, too; names like Wolfman Jack, Murray the K, Cousin Brucie, William B. Williams, and yes, even Don Imus.
It's sad that AM is just a shell of what it once was, but unfortunately, the times, they are a-changin'...

Posted by: Bruce | May 3, 2008 12:22 PM

I loved WUST-AM 1120 when it was a Gospel station, with studios where the 9:30 club is now, but the successor to WUST, New World Radio, is a wonderful time-brokered mélange of programming in 17 languages.

Posted by: Mike Licht | May 5, 2008 8:15 AM

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Posted by: tdskhngqp6 | May 9, 2008 9:26 PM

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