As the weather is starting to improve, I’ve had more time to sit out in my yard and enjoy the spring sunshine. While I’m working from home, I have more opportunities to listen to media, but while the lockdown has progressed, I found myself keeping away from radio and sticking to checking out news on Twitter or scrolling through a couple of news apps. During lockdown I felt I needed to protect myself from information overload, so I rationed my access to music and news, only listening to occasional podcasts when I would go for a walk.
What has been drawing me back to listening to radio this week, however, has been the recommissioning of the Leicester Community Radio AM service (1449 MW). As Sam, the LCR daytime station manager has been setting up the transmitter and tweaking the settings, I’ve been listening to LCR2, which goes out on the AM service. It’s been a revelation. I’ve found it to be much more enjoyable and much easier to listen to than FM, DAB or a streamed station.
Yes AM is crackly and varies with the atmospheric conditions, but it turns out it is more interesting to listen to for longer periods. The AM waveband is mono, and it has a more limited frequency range, so it doesn’t carry bass frequencies easily. But that said, the way that Sam has set the processing means that the signal is really clear. The voices of the presenters are crisp and clear, while the vocals of the songs are perfectly legible. This is down to the choices that have been made in the broadcast chain, with an emphasis on keeping it simple and emphasising legibility as the top priority.
It is also an indication of the choices made in selecting music for the playlists and by the DJs. In the daytime the music is predominantly from the 80s and 90s. These are the years when AM radio was most widely used because it covered the greatest geographic area when compared with FM. As this was before DAB was introduced the focus on ‘quality’ drove the BBC and the commercial stations toward FM. A good radio mix of this time was primarily referencing AM broadcasting, which meant ensuring that despite the deficiencies of the AM signal, it would be possible to ensure in the mix that the tune and the lyrics could be heard. The pop single was borne from and thrived on AM hits radio for many years, before eventually succumbing to the ‘quality’ argument, with many now suggested that this isn’t a service worth preserving.
Sitting listening to the LCR AM service has reminded me of summer days when I was a teenager in the 1980s, when I would sit with my friends in their cars, or in a field, with a radio and listen to BBC Radio One. Steve Wright in the afternoon and John Peel in the evening. I really did feel that I was part of a nation-wide conversation and community of listeners. To be fair there wasn’t much choice on offer.
With the advent of FM as a national network service, and with the introduction of DAB, we saw a change and shift in tone from the ‘thin’ and ‘tremulous’ AM transmissions, to the full-spectrum transmissions of DAB. With this increase in sound quality, however, came an over-focus on music and audio that played to the strengths of the full-frequency digital systems. So music became driven more by lower frequencies and multiple channel mixes, which turned jingle makers into sound designers who produced expansive and multi-layered soundscapes, rich in orchestral accompaniment and sound effects, but boring to listen to continually all day when working in the garage, decorating at home, or washing dishes in a restaurant kitchen, as I used to do.
The problem is that listening to radio that is over-compressed and full-on is very tiring. If a radio programme is packed with constant noise and is driven by the next sweep of sounds, then the listener gets little opportunity to accommodate to the next item. We’ve seen how commercial stations such as Capital expect listeners to only tune-in for a very short time, rather than staying with a station for many hours as they used to do. This is why songs on Capital are on heavy rotation, because it’s not expected that listeners will stick around.
When this is combined with the focus on in-car listening, where the radio signal also has to compete with road and vehicle noises, stations and music are mixed in a way that they are relatively loud. The meter never swings about which shows that there is contrast and limited range of sounds. Everything is in the forefront and nothing is hidden in the quiet moments. This gets tiring for the listener, particularly as you get older.
The revelation for me is that AM is excellent when set up properly. It remains a good platform for radio, and it’s great to listen to, as it isn’t as tiring or attention grabbing. It reminds me that radio is effectively a set of voices heard from a distance, and that what we are able to do is catch those voices as the ephemeral signal sweeps out into the universe.
Is AM is the new vinyl? If the plans for content diversification on LCR2 go ahead then its also a great way to get off the beaten path and to explore and experiment by supporting new voices who have the space to develop and grow as the build a community of listeners. Long live AM.