Like losing contact with an old friend, AM radio seems to be disappearing from its familiar frequencies. Not just from headlines, but from relevance itself. AM Radio is slip-sliding away.
Sadly, the internet and social media have become the main sources for the American public to discover and understand current events. Television weakly occupies third place with radio, in particular AM radio, and newspapers essentially invisible to the average American under sixty.
Once upon a time, but not that long ago, by 7:00 AM every morning about 40% of the driveways in our neighborhood would be occupied by one two or even three morning newspapers delivered by different drivers. Today a single driver delivers newspapers to fewer than 10% of these houses. Granted, many former print customers seem to now read the E-edition of these papers, but at most, the total readership of both print and e-editions is less than 25% of traditional subscribers. The absence of printed newspapers is all too apparent, but the loss of listeners to the AM Band radio stations is far more subtle.
The New York airwaves remain filled with the sound of major stations like WMCA, WFAN, WOR, WABC, WCBS and WINS, but they no longer rely on listeners to tune into to their broadcasts on traditional AM frequencies. They broadcast simultaneously on FM outlets, and Internet radio. A casual listener probably could not identify the original source.
Recently, I discovered that station on-air identification has changed to lessen the identity of their AM frequency, or eliminate it altogether. WFAN identifies it’s call letters as “WFAN 101.9 FM” eliminating 660 AM. The all-news 1010 WINS now tells us we are listening to “1010 WINS all news 92.3 FM” and its sister station, all news, WCBS identifies itself as “WCBS News
radio 880, 101.1 MHZ.
Peter Funk recently reminisced in The Wall Street Journal: “When I lived in Denver in the early 1970s, Sunday nights included an audio excursion of my hometown of New York, a trip only AM radio could provide. At 770 on the dial, I listened to WABC, with its distinctive disc jockeys, rock music and ‘news at :25 and :55’ via a signal traveling more than 1,600 miles.”
After, World War II, the major AM stations, by then, long established, continued to broadcast personality shows like Martin Block’s Make-Believe Ballroom (WNEW) and live studio broadcasts featuring prominent performers. Almost all of the major stations kept their music mainstream, safe, and middle of the road.
Enter Alan Freed, who, I believe is the prime mover who influenced Rock and Roll’s take-over of AM radio content. If you question my belief, I recommend you visit the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. When you enter the hall’s tribute to rock and roll radio and who set it free, you will be attracted to a silver box set on a pedestal in the center of the room bathed by a spotlight that highlights the room. Alone, under that bright light, the silver box contains Alan Freed’s ashes.
Alan Freed’s career began in in June of 1945 at WAKR in Akron, Ohio. Freed was the bad boy of his era and faced several fines and suspensions from management including a five-year fight to leave WAKR that he lost in court. In 1950. Freed joined WJW (850 AM)) in Cleveland to host their midnight program. Prior to his arrival at WJW, he met Leo Mintz, owner of Record Rendezvous, one of Cleveland’s largest record stores. Mintz told Freed that he had begun selling black music, then called soul or rhythm and blues (R&B), and that he noticed increased interest in these records in his store by white customers.
Freed peppered his on-air speech with hipster language and on July 11, 1951, began playing R&B records on a main-stream radio station. He began calling his show “The Moondog House” and described himself as the “King of the Moondoggers.”
“He addressed his listeners as if they were all a part of a mythical kingdom of hipsters united in their love for black music. He also began popularizing the phrase, ‘rock and roll’ to describe the music he played.”
The following spring, Freed was one of the organizers who created, “The Moondog Coronation Ball”, a five-act show that exceeded the capacity of the Cleveland Arena, an event that now is considered the first rock and roll concert. Over-crowding almost led to a riot and Freed’s popularity soared.
In July 1954, Freed followed his success to New York City and WINS (1010 AM.)
In 1956, he produced a major rock and roll show at New York’s Paramount Theatre, but once again overcrowding again led to a near riot. Unfortunately, badly behaved American youth, rioted at the same time Hungarian youth were dying in an unsuccessful fight to free themselves from the USSR. Life Magazine produced side-by-side pictures of our youngsters battling NYC policemen while Hungarian youngsters shed their blood under Russian soldiers AK-47s.
Freed went on to WABC 770 (AM) another of New York’s powerhouse rock and roll station.
He became embroiled in the federal government’s investigation of payola by disc jockeys. Payola scandals appear from time to time. Payola in broadcasting is defined as an induvial or an FCC licensed radio station accepting money to play a specific song, or anything else. Payola is always with us. In 2006, the latest settlement, four major radio monopolies, CBS Radio, Citadel, Clear Channel and Entercom paid Uncle $12.5 million to settle payola charges.
Alan Freed refused to testify or to plead so WABC fired him on November 21, 1959.
He died a year later, but his legacy had already been established. Part Two will explore that legacy.