"Gonna drive past the Stop 'n' Shop with the radio on ... I got the AM ... RADIO ON!" -- Jonathan Richman, Roadrunner
So it's official. Some as-yet-unannounced date around the vernal equinox will be known as the day the music died at 1050 CHUM -- a local institution that spent the last 15 years of its life playing the same songs it played in its first 15.
On that day a few months hence, songs will be replaced, as they have at AM stations across the continent, by people blabbing. In this case, it will be people blabbing about the ludicrous trades necessary to turn the Leafs/Jays/Raptors into a contender.
You'd think one station in town doing that -- The FAN 590 -- would be enough. But I guess you can never get too much of something nobody asked for.
With crystal-clear FM a longtime reality and digital radio looming, it's not hard to see why AM radio has come to be regarded as the discount outlet of broadcast. The signal fades in and out in tunnels. If you happen to be driving down Queen or King Sts., static from a streetcar two miles away makes the station produce a sound that cracks glass and makes your fillings fall out. And the AM signal is capable of turning the most expensive car sound system into the two-inch transistor radio of your childhood.
Which, from where I sit, is part of the charm.
At least it is for anyone who spent part of their youth fiddling with the dial to pull in WLS Chicago (easily available in Winnipeg) or, as I understand it, CKLW here. The big Top 40 station in The Peg, CFRW, put out poster-size charts weekly with which I plastered my room.
I am a CHUM listener, or I am when I can wrest control of the car radio. On the way to school, it's KISS 92, where I get my fill of Eminem and NSYNC. My wife's pre-set is CJRT, especially now that it's all-jazz.
On my own, I hit CHUM for some Guess Who or Byrds or Five Man Electrical Band, until they play that first Paul Anka record, at which time I try 1150 Hamilton for more of the same, until Bobby Curtola sends me screaming back to the FM band (where I might catch some R.E.M. on The Mix or Tragically Hip on Y-95). I am, according to the ratings, one of about a dozen people who hear Henny, Nancy and Doug crack each other up in the morning.
Well, at least The Bear's got somewhere to continue making his dubious NFL picks.
If I were interested in stations that don't shut up, there'd be a lot more keeping me on the band these days. There are, of course, two all-talk outlets -- the august CFRB, where my old pal Ted Woloshyn has been in Wally Crouter's chair long enough to finally mould it to his contours, and the we'll-try-anything Talk 640, which gave us Dr. Laura and which is bringing back the whacked-out Art Bell and his UFO conspiracies in the wee hours.
There's all-news 680 and the aforementioned all-sports The Fan. Soon there'll be Team CHUM, which sounds less intimidating to the opposing teams if you consider that chum is a word for slimy, gooey fish guts. And no, nauseated is not the same as intimidated.
Which is not to say all is atonal on the AM. I notice the former CBC frequency 740 has been taken over by the music of your grandpa's life -- a weird mix of big band music, '50s sh-boom and the occasional '60s hootenanny-era folkie stuff. Station brass will be rubbing their hands thinking about all the living-will and funeral home ads that will be looking for a home after CHUM switches formats.
I suppose the thing about AM radio is you always know you're listening to the radio when you hear it -- whether it's the lo-fi or the endless babble. There will be aspects of it, the texture of it that will eventually be lost, even if AM saves itself by going digital.
The content, however, will adapt. Some years back, I eulogized the death of Top 40 when AM 640 went all-talk (with the same quote above from unheralded poet/songwriter Jonathan Richman).
That certainly was the "alternative" industry wisdom at the time -- pop, short for "popular," was unpopular. A few years later, KISS-92 proved us all wrong as pop hits became a hot format again, courtesy of Britney, Christina and the Backstreeters.
Just not on AM.