Better Than Real

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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.)

11 thoughts on “Better Than Real

  1. Gary

    “…AM radio also sounded different at night than it did during the day.”

    Indeed it did! I have strong, fond memories of listening to the modulation monitor after the first station I worked at — a daytimer — signed off and another station from far away (Paducah, KY) immediately took over the speakers. Also memories of hearing certain songs float in from a distance when it got darker earlier, and I’ll always associate those songs with cold weather.

    Great post, Jim!

  2. Yah Shure

    AM radio has its own signature sound. “Big” is an excellent way to describe the feeling, and I would add “electrifying.” There’s an energy level to mono amplitude modulation that can’t be duplicated, and it brings out a level of excitement that FM and even CQUAM AM stereo can’t match. That signature sound is the product of intelligent audio processing and the transmission and reception characteristics of monaural amplitude modulation, which brings everything into sharp focus. When you listened to a Cubs game on WGN-AM, everything was in the forefront, like you were sitting in the front row box seats. Crowd noise, cracks of the bat, the play-by-play announcer… it was all right in your ears. It sounded big, electrifying, exciting and focused. Little wonder that it fueled what Stan Freberg loved to call the theater of the imagination.

    The WABC youtuber has his heart in the right place, but the only way to capture that lightning in a bottle is through actual broadcast. I was having a discussion about the subject with my buddy, the late ARSA Jim not quite two years ago, and he was as passionate of a fan of AM sound as they came. At the same time, Doug, a fellow Pat Downey board pal of ours, asked if there had been a dedicated mono promo 45 for the Friends of Distinction’s “Grazing In The Grass” (there hadn’t), because the horns during the intro didn’t sound as prominent to him as he’d remembered them back in the day on WLS. I took both of their cues and coupled an “89/WLS” jingle into the song, then fed it through my Part 15 AM transmitter via the StereoTool multiband processor, and recorded the output from an AMax Sony AM stereo/FM stereo Walkman with wideband AM capability. I then folded the original raw (unprocessed) jingle and song to mono and pasted that after the AM-captured one, to create an A/B comparison between the mono AM and raw results.

    StereoTool has a neat feature that takes into consideration the center-channel buildup for stereo recordings that have elements panned hard left or right and brings those side elements up when mono output is selected. The comparison between AM and raw wasn’t even close. The horns during the intro Doug mentioned are panned hard right, and they’re already beginning to recede significantly in the mix several seconds ahead of the vocals. In the raw (unprocessed) audio, they get pretty well buried in mono, but on the AM-processed audio, they’re up-front and out there right up until the vocal. The drum break in the middle of the song absolutely cooks over AM, and just sort of lies there on the raw audio. When I sent the comparison to Jim, he said it was exactly as he’d remembered hearing it on the New Haven AMs, right down to the “sock-it-to-me”s, which drove him to fits of paroxysm, much to my amusement.

    AM could do the job in the same way most singles were mixed into sharp focus for mono up until the early ’70s. No wonder they were the perfect match.

  3. mackdaddyg

    The other day I heard the Flamingos’ “I Only Have Eyes For You” on an AM station, and it really sounded like it was transmitting from a whole different time. The signal was crystal clear, but hearing that song (which always sounds other worldly to me) on AM makes me imagine that, for a moment, a stray AM signal from 60 years ago somehow made it to my car radio.

    A bit of romanticizing, for sure, but isn’t that what music is supposed to do?

  4. Scott Paton

    Great post, JB. I’ll refrain from redundancy as the prior comments, along with your essay, describe the AM experiences of our youth perfectly. Thanks for the link to the “processed” Raspberries. One of my most indelible AM radio memories was hearing “Go All The Way” for the first time on CKLW, one of the great powerhouse stations, situated in Windsor, Canada, but serving the Detroit metro area. That YouTube rendition is the first time I’ve heard the record as I first did 46 years ago.

  5. I’ll echo the other comments–this post triggered distant, fond memories, be it of listening to the Big Red Machine on WLW, tuning in stations hundreds of miles away at night, or of other things akin to what you describe above. I must have gotten a radio with an FM band for Christmas in 1976, because my first close-up encounters with FM stations were the following January. I still remember the jolt of how different the music sounded (maybe sterile is an appropriate word?). Thanks much for writing this up.

  6. spiritof67

    I will echo the other comments and add my own.

    Both WABC and WLS used reverb in their audio chains. While WABC had a big, warm style reverb, the reverb WLS used had more muscle to my ears. They both sound great too.

    As for AM at night, one of my favorite radio memories was camping in southern Missouri listening to WLS in the summer of 1977. The audio chain and skywave was a one-two punch that gave Heart’s “Barracuda” a sound that was amazing.

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