A love letter to AM
Listen: I know it sounds fuzzy. I know it goes all whooshy at night. I know it cuts out when you drive under a bridge. Yet still, there's something I adore about the sound of AM radio.
It’s already been a monumental week for UK radio. But something arguably even more significant than Ken Bruce jumping ship is happening, quietly, at the other end of the dial: Absolute Radio is turning off its AM transmitters. And I’m a little bit sad about that.
Maybe it's nostalgia. My first radio was a tiny, black and red plastic thing that only received AM (also known as Medium Wave, Long Wave and Short Wave). You just switched it on - no need to sign in, or download an app, or ask your smart speaker anything - just… BANG. There it was. Instant. And LOUD. It was like magic (not actual Magic - that didn't launch until the 90s).
I grew up in a part of northern England before local commercial radio reached it. So if I wanted pop music, my options were BBC Radio 1 and Radio Luxembourg on MW, and later, Atlantic 252 on LW. All those glorious 80s tunes sounded big, bold, super-compressed, a bit muffled… and in mono.
Then as the 90s arrived, FM turned my head. Stereo sounded literally twice as good. Crystal clear. Crackly old AM could fuck right off: the future was here.
Over the past three decades, AM listening has dwindled, unsurprisingly. Transmitters aren’t cheap to run, they’re environmentally unfriendly, they’re not cost efficient. Broadcasters can’t wait to ditch AM.
So why am I clinging to the sound of AM?
I guess it’s… comforting. I love the warmth. The loudness. The extreme compression. The “brickwall limiter”, that raises the volume of all the quieter bits - without distortion - so that you can hear everything, even if you're driving or cooking or in the shower. In the years when I read Radio 4’s Shipping Forecast, sometimes I’d monitor myself on LW. It sounded weird… but, well, proper.
1215 khz Medium Wave - “247 metres” in old money - has been playing music, pretty much constantly, for generations. It was Radio 1’s launch frequency from 1967, succeeding the Light Programme’s MW position. Then from 1978 it was Radio 3’s MW home, until 1993 when Absolute (originally as Virgin Radio) took over this spot on the dial.
As 1215 khz falls silent, this feels like another nail in the coffin of radio serendipity. Sometimes you just want to be able to switch on without having to log on, or to face endless choices of what to listen to. Sometimes you just Want The Radio To Happen, without any faff. You might even hear something you weren’t expecting (yeah I know, scary).
Anyway… whilst I keep experimenting with compressors and limiters to try to recreate the AM sound (I won’t bore you with the results)... if modern radios and smart speakers could just incorporate an optional switch that makes live radio sound as much like AM as possible - say, a "louder" button - that'd be ace. And it’d keep me as quiet as 1215 khz will be from now on.
Listen to 1215's closing minutes on 19th January 2023, captured for posterity by David Lloyd: