Recently, I drove from Linden, Tennessee to Nashville between 10:00pm and about 11:30pm and as I do often at night, I scanned the AM radio band. Through the magic of amplitude modulation (hence “A.M.”), I heard live humans speaking from Iowa to Louisiana and from Atlanta to Chicago. It still amazes me that signals come into my car radio in Tennessee from WHO AM, Des Moines, the station where a young announcer named Ronald Reagan hit the airwaves in the 1930s; KWKH AM, Shreveport, the launching pad for the national careers of Hank Williams and Elvis Presley on its Louisiana Hayride; WWL AM, the station I listened to most often from New Orleans when I was growing up; and of course WSM AM, the home of the Grand Ole Opry, where I live now in Nashville. No satellite subscription or special adapter needed. Just filter through the crackle of the weaker signals until a 50,000 watt-er booms your way.
Little red transistor
My first AM radio was a little red “6 Transistor” Realtone given to me by my grandparents when I was a child in Jackson, Mississippi. I would sleep with that radio under my pillow at night. On summer days, I would strap it to the tall handlebars of my blue, banana-seat Schwinn Sting-Ray bike and tune into WJDX or WRBC. Wailing along with Ike and Tina, Zager and Evans, and John, Paul, George and Ringo, I rode through Jackson’s Belhaven neighborhood from our house on Myrtle Street, zooming down the hill on Laurel over to Linden to the lake at Belhaven College. Or to Parkins Pharmacy by Jitney 14 for a fountain coke or milk shake. Riding back up that hill on the way home was a chore, especially after a milk shake, but the songs coming from my little red radio seemed to make it easier.
When we moved to Pascagoula on the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I was a teenager and my musical tastes were expanding, thanks in great part to the AM radio. I listened to the Charlie Douglas Road Gang country music show for truckers on WWL out of New Orleans as I went to sleep. My friends and I would also tune into WLAC’s R&B in Nashville and New Orleans rocker WTIX, the “mighty six-ninety (followed by an explosion sound effect).” And there was a small cult of followers in Pascagoula High School that religiously listened to KAAY AM’s “underground” Beaker Street show from Little Rock, Arkansas. All of these stations we could get on our car radios at night, and did, because FM car radios were a few years away from being common.
Standing out from the crowd…way out
I have often joked about the number of girls who chose to only go out with me once because I would tune into the Grand Ole Opry instead of a cool rock station like KAAY or even the “local” WTIX as we drove to the Ritz Theater to catch a movie. They never seemed to be impressed that we could hear Ernie Ashworth sing Talk Back Trembling Lips, Grandpa Jones talk about “putting on a little toilet water but the lid fell down,” or Roy Acuff sing Wabash Cannonball the moment it was happening direct from Nashville! I was country when country was, well, way uncool. But I had a button on my dashboard set to quickly get back to “TIX” to sing along with The Hues Corporation’s Rock the Boat to which I could resort in an attempt to salvage the evening.
Turn on, tune in
All radio has changed since the late 1960s and early 1970s, the period of these reminiscenses. Some of the changes have been pretty dramatic. Many of the the great old stations I just mentioned don’t play music at all anymore. However, if the talk is local and you can get a sense of what the stations’ listeners have on their minds, listening can be a pretty interesting diversion. After Hurricane Katrina, I listened a lot to WWL because all of the stations in New Orleans used its powerful 870 AM signal collectively to get news out about what was happening in the wake of the storm. The fact that the stations cooperated with each other was, in itself, proof that there is still a sense of community in AM, despite the usual day-to-day competitive nature of radio.
So while the AM band tends to have less music on it these days, I’ll leave you with this: There’s a whole world out there waiting for you every night and all you need to tune it in is an AM radio.
Do you have a favorite radio memory from your past (or present)? Please share in the “Leave a Reply” section below – thanks!
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All text & photos ©2012 Les Kerr