Reading that automaker BMW eliminated AM terrestrial reception from one of its new car models was a “Hold everything!” moment for me. The hazy future of AM is generally troubling to someone my age [cough], who grew up listening pretty evenly to the AM and FM sides of the dial. But there is something more sharply distressing in seeing AM ripped out of a car.
Part of the distress harkens back to a childhood time when FM radios were not yet standard on car dashboards. Just the other day my eyes widened when I saw a vintage Chrysler in a Whole Foods parking lot (and it looked antique, too, rusty and unkempt). I peered through the window and saw that old radio unit, the big knobs, the giant chrome tuning buttons. The nerves in my fingers were activated, feeling the long-ago sensation of pushing in those buttons. That old radio was AM-only. I could practically hear Dan Ingram’s wisecracks, and Bob Murphy’s play-by-play of the Mets.
Today, most of my total listening is conveyed via Internet. My personal “share of ear” is substantially migrated to IP delivery, and has been for many years. Some of the content originates from broadcast producers, and enters my brain either in a real-time webcast or in archived and time-shifted programs. And I am neck-deep in music apps of all kinds.
But on the edge, there are three terrestrial signals that I receive in special moments: my local NPR station, a local college station, and an AM sports station.
There are two things to note about those edge cases. First, they are deliberate, program-intensive uses. I never turn on a radio casually. It is for a certain program at a certain time, so important to me that I actually remember the broadcast schedule and don’t want to wait for time-shifted listening. It’s not about the station, it’s about a program. For example, the college station (whose call letters I can’t even remember as I type this) runs a Saturday afternoon show called “Bonjour Africa” that has been a golden fountain of music discovery (really, Afro-pop genre discovery) for years. I adore it and look forward to it as a weekend staple. (See my interview with Doc Searls for more about program vs. genre.)
Second, my terrestrial reception of the AM station is all in the car. There, too, it’s about one program: Radio coverage of Durham Bulls games. The Bulls are my local team, beloved in my town, and I am rabid. Meet me on a weekend, and I’m sure to be wearing a Bulls cap (one of several) and t-shirt (one of dozens — many of which represent championships, I might add). I go to a lot of games, sometimes whipping down to the ballpark after dinner for a few innings, leaving in the eighth, and listening to the ninth in the car. Evening errands? It’s all Bulls in the car during the season.
I know that being sad about BMW’s product decision is sentimental foolishness. After all, when at home I listen to the Bulls station on TuneIn, using a phone or tablet paired to a wireless speaker via Bluetooth. That maneuver is more natural to me than turning on a radio. Likewise, I plug my phone into my car dashboard for most listening … except Bulls games.
The car. AM radio. Baseball. Youth. Habit. Sentiment. All combine into a poignant suspended moment in the rushing stream of change.