Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Radio Daze 2: Bye-Bye AM Radio

Bob Ufer behind the WJR microphone
This is not about the demise of AM radio really but rather me no longer listening to it.  In the past few weeks, I realized that the last AM radio station that I listened to advertised an FM version of the same.  Since the 1980s, about the only AM radio station I have listened to is CBS News Radio; weather and traffic every ten minutes on the 8s, sports every half hour on the 15s, and news updates at the top and bottom of the hour.  The only time I listen to News Radio is when I am in the car.  I began listening in Detroit.  I continued to do so when I moved to New York.  When I moved to Chicago in 2006, the first preset I programmed in my car was 780 AM CBS New Radio Chicago.  I learned last week that the same station
From the days of my crystal radio, I listened to AM radio.  It was natural, it only received AM stations.   When I got my transistor radio, it also was only AM.  So, I listened to AM radio.  As I entered my teen years, I began listening to pop music.  There were two stations in Detroit that catered to teens.  One was not actually in Detroit.  In fact, it was not even in the state of Michigan or even in the United States.  CKLW was based in Windsor, Ontario across the Detroit River.  It was 800 on the dial.  The other, more popular, station was WKNR commonly referred to as Keener 13.  It was 1310 on the AM dial.
We all listened to Keener.  We listened to the countdown every night.  We would discuss which song was #1 and what we thought might be or should be #1 instead.  It was the heyday of the Beatles, Motown, and the Monkees.  They even published a little handbill of the  that we all seemed to have copies  There was lots of excitement and lots for us young teenagers to talk about.  I remember when Louie Louie from the Kingsman hit the charts.  It skyrocketed to #1 and stayed there awhile.  It was a great three chord song and the, oh boy, all that controversy about the lyrics.  It was one of those stations where the DJs were all high energy talking the "hot new single" and "the hits keep coming." There is a website dedicated to the memory of this station www.keener13.com.  I just found it when I was looking up the frequency of the station.  They even have the weekly top hit charts on this website.  Here I am longing for the old days of AM radio, but I have to admit that the internet is awesome.
There were other cool things about AM radio back in those days.  During the day, all one ever got was the local stations.  At night, for reasons I do not fully understand, you could dial in radio stations from other cities.  It was kind of exciting back then to be able to tune in to a station in Chicago, Cleveland, Nashville, and at times New York, Boston, and Philadelphia.  The reception was often staticky and the game was to figure out what city the station was based in. My father's side of the family were mostly from Boston.  We used to visit there for a few weeks every summer.  It was a cool and wondorous place in my view.  It was a place I thought I wanted to go to college.  So, it was really special when I could pull in a Boston station.
It sounds totally lame these days of internet and satellite radio, youtube, skype, and everything else available to us in this information age.   Today, as a ten or twelve year old, I  would have probably been playing video games instead of trolling for AM stations from other cities.  I probably should have gotten into short wave radio to easily pickup and listen to radio stations from all over the world. What can I say, I never thought that was worth the money to do so.  I guess I was just an AM radio guy.
Even today, I occasionally try to get stations from far away. If I am driving from Chicago to Detroit late at night.  I will go to the AM dial, punch scan on my car radio, and see what I can pick-up.   Most of AM radio is syndicated.  There are a lot of talk shows, Spanish stations, and religious stations.  The local content is almost non-existent.  It is not the same.
When I was until I got a little older, into my teens,  my taste in music became more serious and changed from pop to more hard rock or alternative rock.  Around the 1967-1968, we got an AM/FM portable radio.  Just about at that time, WABX started broadcasting heavier rock with less commercials very low key DJs and the better sound that FM brought to the airwaves.   It quickly and quietly grabbed the attention of the teens and college aged young people in Detroit.  It was way cooler than Keener.  No more popular music on AM radio.  That was the beginning of the end.
There was still sports. I remember listening to the Detroit Tigers, Lions and Red Wings on the radio.  TV was, of course, great but there was something special about radio.  The announcers for the Red Wings and the Tigers made the game magically come to life. on the radio.  WJR, the Great Vocie of the Great Lakes, broadcast these games.  I remember in 1967, my father and I were painting a rental property we owned  It was early September the weather was pure glorious late summer weather in Detroit.  The Tigers was playing the Boston Red Sox.  The winners of the series would win the American League Pennant.  They were great games in great weather painting a house listening to George Kell and Ernie Harwell make the game live for father and son.  What a magnificent memory.  We listened on the portable radio.  The Tigers lost to the Red Sox.  The outcome hardly mattered.  The experience and memory of it was and still is special.
In 1968, I became a Michigan Football fan.  I listened to their games on AM radio when they were not on TV.  In those days, every game was not on TV like they are today.  Radio, AM Radio, was a huge part of my Michigan experience.  It became even crazier where a little known broadcaster on a small Ann Arbor radio station became all the rage for his unbridled flagrantly biased passion for Michigan and fiery quirky broadcasts.  Bob Ufer became unbelievably popular in the mid 1970s.  WJR picked him up.  This ex-Michigan track star who owned his own insurance agency was so admired, many Michigan fans would turn up the radio and turn down the sound on their televisions.  Bob Ufer was that good and that love by Michigan fans.  Here is a youtube of Bob Ufer calling what is called one of the greatest plays in the history of Michigan Football and with argument Bob Ufer’s greatest call.  It is vintage and classic Bob Ufer:  

It was October 27th, 1979, the homecoming game against Indiana. And with six seconds left and the score tied at 21-21, the greatest play in the history of Michigan football was about to take place. It has been 30 years since that play, and 30 years since what is often considered Bob Ufer's greatest moment in the booth at Michigan Stadium. 

There are other sound clips and youtubes of Bob Ufer.  He passed away in 1981.  With him went some of the magic of AM radio for me.  Bob Ufer was not a TV guy.  He was made for radio and he used that medium to the fullest just simply by being him.  You lived the games with Bob.  His broadcasts were giddy and intoxicating when we won and a funeral dirge when we lost.  Now the best broadcasters go to television.  That is only natural.  That is where the big audiences and big money are.  Not for Ufer.  He was a radio man all the way... an AM radio man.
Change is part of this world.  The accelerating pace of change with regard to electronics is at the leading edge of change.  A short hundred years ago there was no radio, just telegraph.  Look at how far we have come and how small the world has become simply due to the ability to broadcast instantaneously around the world on television and internet.  We take it for granted.
It is funny how nostalgic some of us can become for something that was barely a blip in the span of human history.  We long for the days when radio was the only on-air broadcast media.  We long for the early days of black and white television shows that were aired live.  It is a longing for the days of some of our best memories.  That is all I am doing.
I am going to youtube to listen to more of Ufer’s broadcasts...

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