My first radio was a green plastic Westinghouse box (not the radio pictured above) with a big AM tuning dial on the front and tubes inside. It had belonged to my father. At some point in the fall of 1970, I scrounged it out of the basement, and it remained my radio until I got my multi-band Audiovox, which must have been for Christmas in 1972. My younger brother inherited the Westinghouse after that, although he didn’t listen to it as obsessively as I did. On a Sunday morning in the spring of 1974, it shorted out and presumably caught fire. We came home from church to a house full of smoke, and although there was no fire damage, we were displaced from the upstairs of the house for several months.
The life and death of that radio is a critical bit of my personal mythology. That mythology also includes my childhood bedroom, at the end of the hall across from Mother and Dad’s. From the time my brother and I were big enough to sleep in regular beds until I was 12 or 13, we shared the room. Sometimes we had twin beds on either side, separated by a cheap wooden toy chest on which my radio would sit. We also had bunk beds for a time; I claimed the top bunk by right of being the oldest, but it was only feasible after my 11th birthday, after I got my little transistor radio, so I could listen up there. The mythology of this blog also includes that radio. Of all the artifacts of my childhood that I have lost, it’s the one I miss the most—your basic AM transistor model, but with a little Green Bay Packers logo on the front.
I don’t think I’m writer enough to effectively explain the sensation I felt listening to AM Top 40 radio in that room. AM had a distancing aspect. It was like you were consciously listening to a performance, as you’re conscious of watching actors on a stage. You can get lost in such a performance, but there remains an unreality about it that is difficult to ignore. The better fidelity of FM radio or vinyl made it easier to suspend disbelief and imagine the artists right there in the room, but on AM radio, they were larger than life, better than real. AM radio made my sports teams seem larger than life, too. In the winter I listened to the Milwaukee Bucks and Chicago Blackhawks; in the spring and summer, the Chicago Cubs; in the fall, the Wisconsin Badgers. When I finally got to see the Bucks and the Cubs and the Badgers in person, the reality of them, there in front of my eyes, actually seemed to diminish them a little.
Many Top 40 stations processed their audio to take advantage of the sonic limitations of the AM band and the tiny speakers through which the sound would reach the listener. Some stations, including WLS, processed their audio especially for car radios. It wasn’t just loud, the way radio stations process audio today—the best word to describe it is big. There’s a YouTuber who posts audio that he claims is processed like New York City’s WABC back in the day. Although the audio isn’t perfect—there’s a distinct hum on many of the tracks—you’ll understand right away that this stuff is different. Songs sound massive, as on this version of the Raspberries’ “Go All the Way” and this incredible “Be My Baby” by Andy Kim. If I could tweak my computer speakers to approximate the fidelity of the old Westinghouse, I’d never listen to anything but that channel.
AM radio also sounded different at night than it did during the day. A distant signal would fade in and out; if there was a thunderstorm anywhere in the vicinity, you’d hear the crackle of the lightning, and a nearby storm would make listening impossible. But even when the signal was strong and clear, nighttime made me feel the distance from the origin of the signal in a way I didn’t feel it during the day. And certain songs, conceived as they were by the artist, recorded as they were by the producer, and processed as they were by the radio station, sizzled straight into my brain so that almost a half-century later, I’ve never forgotten how they sounded, and how it felt to hear them.
(For a technical explanation of why it sounded that way, read this comment from the Yah Shure, who is, as we have noted several times over the years, The Man.)