The Buggles: One-Hit Wonders or Prophets of the Modern Age?

For every technology that has outlived its usefulness, there remains a (usually) small but highly committed band of enthusiasts who advocate for, preserve, and curate it (primarily by going on Internet forums and comparing doubters to Hitler). For example, the LP has had its best year in a long time, selling more than 2 million units. Yes, that’s roughly 0.01 percent of the number of CDs and downloads Lady Gaga sells in any given week, but still, sales are on the rise. And just dare to tell a fan of old-fashioned mechanical watches that your old $13 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles digital keeps better time than his. He’ll likely threaten to gut you like a fish. If you go on a search for fans of AM radio, you’ll find vanishingly small numbers and a distinct lack of passion. While a large number of stations still broadcast AM, their programming is generally limited to the unglamorous world of sports talk radio, local coupon shows, and the lesser songs of Bobby Goldsboro.

Due to its relative lack of fidelity, AM has always had limited appeal, first to hi-fi fans and then to home theater fans. The quality really hasn’t improved much since the first broadcasts in Canada in the 1906. (The audience consisted of several Mounties, a couple of trappers, and a half-disinterested moose.) The frequency response is somewhere in the neighborhood of 40 hertz to 5 kilohertz, and the signal contains a great deal of noise. At its best, AM sounds like the signal is broadcasting from a refrigerator box and is filtered through wax paper. Any music played over AM, no matter how contemporary, becomes indistinguishable from a jug band recorded on a shellac 78, circa 1894.

As the home theater of its day, radio ruled from the 1920s clear through the ’50s. American families sat around the wireless listening to programs like “Amos ‘n’ Andy,” “Burns and Allen,” and “Fibber McGee and Molly.” There were also the less well-remembered hits like “National Barn Dance” (yes, barn dances were once popular enough to have gone national), “The Red Foley Show,” and “Meet Corliss Archer” (having met her, the nation promptly forgot her name and what she looked like). Of course, television ended this theater of the mind, as a restless public demanded with one loud voice, “We want to see our entertainers, and we want them to be named Gilligan, and, in some bright day in the future, Urkel!” And so it came to pass.

As the golden age of radio came to an end and the medium became increasingly dominated by music stations, people naturally demanded better sound. FM answered the call. It had been around for some time but failed in its first go-round, as people were reluctant to replace their gear. That’s understandable when you’re talking about a piece of equipment the size of a typical bathroom vanity. FM offered better frequency response, and starting in 1961, stereo. But these advances ushered in the darkest chapter in the history of America: the rise of the wacky morning DJ. “Fuzzy and the Bean,” “Chompie Bob and the Breakfast Flakes,” “Pigman’s Morning Zoo.” Whatever the name, the shtick was always the same: a mix of flatulence humor, sound effects, and phony calls to unsuspecting people where Fuzzy (or occasionally Bean) pretends to be someone else, usually disguising his voice with a terrible Southern accent. In response, the American public naturally wondered if there wasn’t a better way to get their music, and many also began to doubt the existence of a loving God.

Still, despite the ascendance of a superior technology, AM soldiered on, largely thanks to Art Bell, Larry King (who first broadcast in 1957, when he was still in his early 90s), Rush Limbaugh, Major League Baseball, and severe-weather announcements, a top ratings getter. It’s remarkable that this ancient technology is still going (more than 90 percent of the country listens at least once a week). It’s even more remarkable given the fact that it’s nearly impossible to buy a radio dedicated to the AM frequency! There’s a scant handful, but most are weather radios. These are meant for use in your homemade bunker, to be set near the ammo reloaders, water purifiers, and #10 cans of generic Beef in Sauce. To my mind, if survivalists are hoarding it, it’s probably not on the cutting edge.

Could this be the death knell, that no mainstream manufacturer is committing to the format? Sort of like putting off buying great-grandpa that badly needed set of new eyeglasses because, well, you know. Yes, nearly every new car that rolls off the line still includes an AM tuner, but it’s the most condescending of afterthoughts. The engineer who’s responsible for the AM radios in high-end automobiles must have to endure the contemptuous snickers of his fellow engineers. “What surprises have you got in store for us this year, Bob?” “Well, I’d originally thought of making AM accessible through the Bluetooth connection.” “Uh-huh?” “But then I realized there’s not a single chance in hell that that would be useful to any living human being.” “So...?” “Well, I’ve made it so that when you press the AM button and tune in the station, um, AM radio comes out of the speakers.” “How’s the sound?” “Bottomlessly terrible, as always.” “You’re an embarrassment to our profession.” “I know.”

In the age of Blu-ray, streaming movies, video on demand, music downloads, and access to almost every form of entertainment on phones, tablets, laptops, and the backs of car-seat headrests, the fact that AM is still hanging around is kind of embarrassing, like having your Uncle Dave show up at your college party because he “really gets along with your roommates.” Video, kill the radio star, will you? Thanks.