Is this the death of AM radio?

by Cory Franklin

On its way to oblivion is another relic from an increasingly distant era. The Ford Motor Co. plans to discontinue AM radios in most of its 2024 vehicles, according to the Detroit Free Press. 

You may ask, “Who cares? What are we really losing?” As a Ford spokesperson explained, “A majority of U.S. AM stations, as well as a number of countries and automakers globally, are modernizing radio by offering internet streaming through mobile apps, FM, digital and satellite radio options. Ford will continue to offer these alternatives for customers to hear their favorite AM radio music, news and podcasts as we remove amplitude modulation — the definition of AM in this case — from most new and updated models we bring to market.”  

Today, there are plenty of platforms that offer more music, better quality and easier access. Podcasts and streaming services provide talk, sports and news, light-years ahead of what AM offered in its heyday. 

But in this case, something has been lost, something genuine that internet streaming cannot hope to capture or reproduce — a close, personal connection with the listener. 

In the AM era, there was something indescribable when you didn’t know what the next song would be because you didn’t program it. Or you heard a song for the first time, and it created new memories. I remember hearing the Byrds’ “Mr. Tambourine Man” on the car radio for the first time with its Johann Sebastian Bach-inspired, 12-string Rickenbacker opening. What was that sound? When the Buckinghams’ “Don’t You Care” first came on WLS-AM 890, I was dreaming about a girl in my class who seemed interested only in older guys. 

These sentiments might seem silly today, but they were conveyed by disc jockeys, shamans who communicated from a spiritual world and conjured powerful magic. Their medium could have been Richard Wagner, Ludwig van Beethoven, Hank Williams, Miles Davis, the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen or B.B. King. But the magician behind the curtain was that DJ. 

In the AM era, no matter where you grew up, chances are some DJ — or a whole constellation of faraway DJs — influenced your life. Was it Cousin Brucie Morrow in New York City blasting out of WABC-AM 770? Early “the Soul Man” Wright in the Delta? The Real Don Steele in Los Angeles assuring you Tina Delgado was alive? Or the radio genius Superjock Larry Lujack in Chicago? The best DJs didn’t just play music; they were artists producing indelible aural memories. 

Precious few of those shamans remain. Some didn’t have to play music at all. At WGN-AM 720 in Chicago, Wally Phillips had a four-hour program every weekday morning that many of today’s listeners would consider banal. Most of what he said in a quarter century of broadcasting is forgotten today, but thousands undoubtedly recall listening daily for his reassuring voice. 

Steve Dahl, with a special brand of sarcastic patter, entranced a generation of late boomers. Jean Shepherd, the narrator and actual protagonist of the movie “A Christmas Story,” was a fixture for countless Eastern Seaboard late-night listeners and insomniacs. 

These DJs demonstrated the emotional hold a talented radio entertainer could exert over listeners. They are gone now, and we shall not hear their like again. Future generations will miss out on one of life’s little pleasures. 

Could anything today compare with sneaking an AM radio into your classroom to listen with a concealed earphone to the World Series, when the games were played during the day? You could have the pleasure of informing the class the Pirates had just beaten the Yankees on a ninth inning homer by Bill Mazeroski. 

Those things, dear reader, represent an intimacy no new technology can ever re-create, one that transcends generations. 

Dr. Cory Franklin is a retired intensive care physician.