December 09, 2023

COLUMN: No AM is not OK

“The world is collapsing around our ears. I turned up the radio. But I can’t hear it.”

from the 1991 song “Radio Song” by R.E.M.

In our country’s constant thirst to create and hype the next best technological thing, I find it sad, and troubling, there is a push to get rid of what arguably started it all.

Various car manufacturers have said certain models in the future won’t have AM radio. Some makers have already done that in some models. Advancements in the electronics within a car interfere with AM radio reception. It doesn’t matter if the car is traditionally gas powered or electric, FM will be the only choice in those models. Satellite radio and people playing their own entertainment sites from their smartphone through their car are also common while in the vehicle.

Although that is the scientific explanation, there is also a political one because we have politicized everything. Eliminating AM radio gets rid of a voice.

Conservative talk shows have dominated AM radio waves at least since Rush Limbaugh whose daily show went national in 1988. My experience with talk-show radio goes before Rush. Growing up in Colorado, Alan Berg was an aggressive, Jewish, liberal show host on Denver’s biggest AM station. If he wasn’t aggressive, his callers were as subjects and comments regularly fueled the proverbial fire. His show also was heard in other states. Berg, 50, was murdered in 1984 as those convicted were linked to groups who just didn’t want Jewish people.

A little more recent history, Air America tried to compete with Rush Limbaugh. Air America turned on in 2004 with stations, mostly AM, in big cities across the country. Ron Reagan, son of Republican President Reagan and comedy writer/actor Al Franken hosted shows. (Reagan’s half-brother Michael also had a conservative radio show.) Air America never found fifth gear. Franken quit the network in early 2007 to run for a Minnesota Senate seat. Air America had financial problems, and then financial scandal, which it never comfortably recovered. Air America turned off in 2010. There are still left-leaning hosts with their own show.

Limbaugh’s show was enormous. But like Berg, he, too, stirred the pot hard at times. After his death in February 2021, the show continued in concept but with dual hosts. There are several other conservative-based shows; some I think are more off-the-rails than others. Some hosts need to do some serious soul searching. I could listen to Michael Medved and Jim Bohannon. I didn’t listen all the time, but Bohannon seemed to me to be the most rational. He died last November, and his show format continues with another host. No one is forced to listen.

There is more to AM radio to me than just the daily dump of conservative-fueled politics. My youth in Colorado was accompanied by WHO Radio in Des Moines. It was great to hear the rebroadcast of Hawkeye football games on Saturday nights; the time when reception was usually good. While working in western Kansas, I was an occasional guest co-host on an AM station that had a Thursday late afternoon talk show featuring area high school sports. The Oakley-St. Francis football game was big. Real big. That station claimed to be heard in five states. On the FM side, stations don’t have that kind of reception potential.

I’m sure there are family farms around here that has had generations past wake up to AM radio for grain and livestock prices and weather. There is even a farm radio broadcaster network organization. I know of others who start their day with AM radio for death notices. Weather-warning interruptions are reach more area on AM stations than FM.

There is a push by many people who support or work with AM radio to keep the frequency alive in all vehicles with radios. The National Association of Broadcasters estimates 82 million listeners among 4,500 AM stations during a month. A majority of those listeners are from the baby boomer generation which makes sense because that was probably the radio during their youth.

The first AM station was in 1920, years after experiments with the technology. That was 76 years after the telegraph; a long time between techy advancements. Those AM stations deserve to be included in cars a long time more.

John Van Nostrand


An Iowa native, John's newspaper career has mostly been in small-town weeklies from the Rocky Mountains to the Mississippi River. He first stint in Creston was from 2002 to 2005.