Minneapolis Star Tribune
March 22, 1998

For niche music lovers, AM is where it's at

Kristin Tillotson

The tape player in my car fritzed out a few months ago and I couldn't be happier. It's led me to a refreshing discovery: the musical renaissance of AM radio.

Out of habit, I used to keep my car-radio band set on FM. But my sound system's electronics went haywire, forcing me to re-press the "store" button every time I launched a new search-and-scan foray. Which was often, since it's getting harder and harder to find an FM music station I can hang with for more than a few minutes besides the eclectic KFAI.

The more the top FM chain stations tout their "variety," the less of it they provide -- unless you consider Tom Petty to be a drastic departure from John Mellencamp on the musical spectrum.

One rush hour, while blindly swatting at the control panel for something of interest, I accidentally punched the band button to AM -- and heard the light.

You want to hear variety? Tune in to rock that's truly modern on Radio K. Bolt out of bed to Freddie Bell's Solid Gold Soul. Run errands to the rhythms of Radio Rey. Cool out on the commute home with Club 14. And for your nighttime listening pleasure, the techno-dance programming of Beat Radio has set up camp from dusk to dawn on the former Radio AAHS frequency (when it's not pre-empted by a money-generating hockey tournament or infomercial).

You can't hear most of these stations after sundown, depending on your location. And yes, there's more static than on FM. But as Freddie Bell says, "FM is an expensive, conservative suit. AM is the comfortable old clothes you want to wear all the time."

When it comes to music, FM is still king of ratings and revenues. The Twin Cities is what's known in the broadcasting biz as an undersignaled FM market, meaning that FM owners can't afford to take as many format risks as AM can: Maximum-power FM stations can sell for as much as $40 million, compared with $3 million for a small AM station. To keep their value up, they have to grab as broad an audience as possible to make it, which means giving most of the people what they want, most of the time.

"Stations have been sold for such high prices that the owners have no choice but to try to be all things to all people," said John Kuehne, general manager of KLBB or "Club 14," an AM nostalgia station that has been attracting young fans of lounge music with Sinatra and swing-band staples.

"And that works for them. To a lot of people, the radio is like a toaster: It's an appliance. You turn it on and something with mass appeal pops out," he said.

But there's growing evidence that people with special interests -- or wide-ranging musical appetites -- will switch to the generally inferior sound quality of AM to hear the music they want: Ad revenues for Solid Gold Soul rose 81 percent from 1996 to '97. Radio K's Arbitron ratings doubled after the demise of FM alt-rock station REV 105.

Those ratings remain minuscule, as do those of most AM-music stations, but they may signal a larger loyalty shift down the road: Most of the music listeners decamping to the AM band belong to advertising's favorite demographic -- young adults. And most of the listeners who have made AM talk radio such a success (baby-boomers and seniors) skew older, with no guarantees they'll be replaced in sufficient numbers to justify the talk format's higher operational costs.

The hip-underdog status of AM music is ironic, in that it's the same place FM was 25 years ago, before superior sound quality brought rock and pop over to its side.

"FM was this renegade hippie thing when it started," said former REV deejay Shawn Stewart, whose popular weekly "Moonlight Meditations" show can be heard these days on Beat Radio. "Now that it's turned corporate and inaccessible, people are looking back to AM. Freedom of expression on the airwaves will always find a way; you can't stop it."

Everything still boils down to money and market share, however. "On AM, you can 'super-serve' niche markets that aren't big enough to support on FM," said Dan Seeman, general manager of Solid Gold Soul.

The rise of AM is pairing up strange bedfellows, like KLBB and the rock club First Avenue. "Most of our listeners are old enough to think that 'First Avenue' refers to the old downtown bus terminal. We promoted a Patsy Cline revue at the club recently, and a lot of the older listeners went. The First Avenue people said, 'We love them -- they buy drinks and tip!' "

Most radios today have substandard AM receivers. Nonetheless, "AM has never sounded better," said Seeman, crediting improvements in studio technology. And technology can only be AM's friend: Though digital radio is probably a decade away, it's bound to improve fidelity, as will Internet and satellite radio developments.

Back in the early '70s, when AM was still top dog, Joni Mitchell sang, "Who needs the static? It hurts the head."

That may be. But I'll keep on tuning in to those scrappy little AM music stations whenever and wherever I can. Compared with FM's maddeningly monochromatic color scheme, they're playing a rainbow for the ears.

AM stations in the Twin Cities

A sampling of AM music stations in the Twin Cities:

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