There was a time when AM was king.

And for good reason. It was the pioneer. It set the standard. For the first time in history, people from around the country could all hear the same voice, “attend” the same event or listen to the same announcement.

From the turn of the 20th century through the 1970s, a majority of U.S. radio listeners were tuned to an AM radio station. By 1971, of Maine’s nearly 50 radio stations, only 11 could be found on the FM dial.

But, as Dick Gleason will tell you, “it all changed in the ’70s.”

By the end of the decade, AM had been eclipsed by the upstart FM format, with its enhanced sound quality and imperviousness to electrical interference. And by the early ’90s, AM station revenues and audience numbers were waning, even as FM and broadcast TV saw major growth.

And yet, AM radio is still alive and, according to some, thriving. AM stations still abound and broadcasters are experimenting with new strategies and programming mixes to attract listeners.


That’s part of Gleason’s story. His WEZR is one of two AM radio stations currently operating in Lewiston-Auburn, the other being WLAM, whose call letters stand for Lewiston-Auburn Maine.

“I’ve always maintained that AM radio is alive and well,” Gleason says with a pause, before continuing, “to anyone that wants to hear it.” He maintains that success is “a question of finding out what (the listeners) want to hear.”

Gleason should know. He’s worked in radio for 50 years, starting at the campus radio station at the University of Maine. He purchased his first station (he now owns six in central Maine, three AM and three FM) in 1975. It was an FM station, today’s WOXO out of Norway, because he could “see the writing on the wall.”

Between 1971 and today, the number of AM stations in the state shrank from 36 to 30. In the same period, the number of FM stations jumped from 11 to 108. The numbers represent more than simply a shift in technology. AM radio of yesteryear, because of its expansive broadcasting range and scant competition, was more than just a way to pass the time in traffic. AM radio programming was a major form of entertainment in and out of the home, bringing listeners local news, sports coverage, original programming and carefully curated musical programming.

“AM was my choice . . . over FM because I liked listening to the personalities,” Rick Davis, who goes by Rick Alan on the radio, said in an email. Davis, a radio fan from the age of 2, began a 10-year career with WLAM when he was just 17. “They seem(ed) to have more fun than the jocks on FM back in the ’70s. I found that I could get more information from AM too. Whether it was what was happening in the community, the local news, sports, weather.”

The ’60s and ’70s represented “the era of big-name disc jockeys,” said Gleason. “These were big personalities,” with large, local fan bases.


Davis, like many fans, can remember his favorite DJs and programs. “I loved listening to Don Zihlman in the morning,” he wrote, as well as “Mark Ericson, Chuck Begin and night guy Tim Nicholson.”

In the 1970s, AM stations were popular regional fixtures and their DJs became local celebrities. Which might explain why, for listeners who grew up during or before the 1970s, AM radio holds a certain nostalgia. It represents not just a medium for broadcasting, but an entirely different way of broadcasting, one that emphasized diverse, original and local content over the modern conventions of continuous music, continuous news or continuous punditry. (It may also explain why many AM stations today play oldies music programming, tapping into the nostalgia of their listeners.)

AM gets static

Nostalgia has probably surrounded AM radio for decades. It was one of the earliest nonprint forms of mass media and it dominated in radio’s heyday.

The technology dates back to before World War 1. In 1914, turn-of-the-century experimentation led to the development of the first inexpensive vacuum-tube transmitters, which soon ushered in the era of widespread broadcasting. First envisioned as a form of person-to-person communication, hobbyists and amateurs took the new radio technology and began broadcasting around 1920, with entrepreneurs quickly picking up on the potential to commercialize the medium.

For the next 25 years, during the Golden Age of Radio, AM radio was broadcasting. The AM radio was a fixture in the home, entertaining and informing with reportage, performances, teleplays and serials, and musical programming. In fact the very term “broadcasting,” borrowed from the agricultural word for casting out seeds, was first applied in 1921 in reference to radio.


After World War II, FM frequencies came into use. Though the new technology offered better audio quality with less interference, it required a specialized receiver and thus was slow to attract listeners content with their existing AM sets.

But the growth of an entirely different communication format, broadcast TV, did outpace that of AM. In the 1950s, TV became the dominant format, though AM would enjoy a second-place seat for the next 20 years.

AM’s decline in relation to FM is bound closely to its compromised sound quality. While its system of amplitude modulation can send its signal much farther than FM’s frequency modulation, the AM signals can carry a lot of noise — meaning interference and static — not to mention AM frequencies are more prone to disruption from things like tall urban structures. FM, with its ability to deliver high-quality audio even in metropolitan areas, slowly became the mode of choice over the last half-century.

Take WEZR 1240 AM in the Twin Cities; it is simulcast with its FM sister station Z105.5. “If 5 percent of our audience is (listening on AM) 1240, I’d be surprised. Everyone is on the FM,” Gleason admits. In other words, of his two stations playing the same content, Gleason sees about 95 percent of his audience on the FM side of the dial.

But he doesn’t seem discouraged by that large gap, and he says there’s still a place for AM stations. Asked about the benefits of AM radio over FM and he points to the fact that AM can be transmitted over greater distances. It is also less expensive, he says, meaning that when it comes down to the economics of AM versus FM, “it’s a toss up.”

Gleason is clearly a pragmatist. He is also live streaming WEZR online and the station can be received using the TuneIn radio app. Like other station operators and broadcasters, Gleason is incorporating new technology while preserving old forms — a show of horizontal integration that’s making him less of a technician and more of a content creator, using any available platform for distribution so long as it’s economically viable. And, it seems, AM is still economically viable.


“There are four ways that you can listen (to WEZR),” said Gleason. “And if we could have five ways, then I’d have five.”

It’s obvious that as the technology changes, no format — AM, FM or otherwise — is bulletproof. The current feeling: “I think the internet is the future,” Davis wrote in his email. In 2009, long after leaving WLAM, he and another station alum, Bob Perry, began discussing internet-based radio. By the spring of 2010, Lisbon-based WQRY was on the air, er, ‘net, “with help from Dan Philbrick, another WLAMer,” as well as other former radio personalities.

“Our station is a lot like WLAM of the ’70s and ’80s,” says Davis of the internet-only WQRY, and not just for its classic oldies tunes, but also for its live coverage of local happenings.

The benefits of streaming online? “The sound quality is as good as HD and you can reach your audience all around the world,” wrote Davis. “We have made a lot of friends from Japan to Katmandu.”

Experiment to stay alive

Still, as with any medium, the secret is giving the people the content they want. And that’s a question that’s still plaguing many broadcasters, as stations have sometimes drastically experimented with programming in an attempt to find listeners.


In the ’70s and ’80s, droves of AM station owners put their records into storage (FM was where the music was at) and began offering news, religious programming, sports and talk radio. Others toyed with “narrowcasting,” offering local or regional content, or content aimed at niche markets. Syndicated programming, cheaper than music, became increasingly common.

In September of this year the Los Angeles-based AM station KFWB made waves when it announced it would switch to an all-sports format after years of programming changes and declining audience share. In the station’s 46-year history it had been one of the largest radio stations in Los Angeles and the country.

Many AM stations now rely on syndicated programming aimed at specific demographics. “One of the top stations in the state, WGAN in Portland, has local segments in the morning but the rest of the day is syndicated,” Gleason said. Syndicated programming is relatively inexpensive and can attract the sort of die-hard fans that help bolster a station’s numbers.

But Gleason is among a small group of broadcasters who are bucking the trend and offering live, local and original content. In addition to classic and contemporary popular music, WEZR hosts a local morning show, regular local news and coverage of area political events, and regional sports updates.

At a time when news and talk radio is second only to country music broadcasting in the national radio spectrum, Gleason says that his formula is working just fine.

“The programming mix has been surprisingly popular,” he says. “In our situation in Lewiston-Auburn, it’s been wonderful. But we have a very localized signal.”


Gleason notes that while he’s found a programming mix that seems to work in the Twin Cities, he admits it might not work for every station.

It is a precarious time for AM radio. While the number of stations has been steady for a decade, revenue continues to fall. A majority of people listen to the format in the car, where it faces increasing competition from broadcast sources, satellite radio and devices that would have been inconceivable when AM radio was being developed. Not to mention that all those devices contribute to the static that is a hallmark of AM. (Last year BMW released its electric car without AM capability — much to the consternation of the broadcasting industry — because of signal interference from the vehicle’s battery technology.)

But some broadcasters continue to find profit in AM, which is really all it needs to survive. And the technology has become endeared to microbroadcasters, hobbyists and pirate radio operators, who prefer it for its greater range.

And while AM has more competition than ever from other audio formats, it might have just gotten a very beneficial ally in Washington. Late last year the Federal Communications Commission began making moves to aid the format. Commissioner Ajit Pai, an AM radio advocate, made it part of his priority to enact changes that support AM, including removing regulations that affect AM hardware, dismantling burdensome requirements on AM broadcasters and removing rules that make AM station owners turn down their power at night.

And, as of last year, five of the top 10 radio stations in the country, in terms of advertising dollars, were on the AM side of the dial. Nearly 100 years old and still as vivacious as ever; don’t count this format out quite yet.

AM radio by the numbers




AM stations: 36

FM stations: 11


AM stations: 30

FM stations: 108




AM stations: 3

FM stations: 3


AM stations: 2


FM stations: 4

Broadcasting stations nationwide (percent of total)


AM stations: 63%

FM stations: 47%



AM stations: 51%

FM stations: 49%


AM stations: 45%

FM stations: 55%



AM stations: 21%

FM stations: 44%

Streamed online: 35%

Audience share AM/FM nationally


AM: 51%


FM: 49%


AM: 15%

FM: 85%


AM: 11.5%


FM 88.5%

FM receivers in homes nationwide


Have an FM receiver: 48%

No FM receiver: 52%



Have an FM receiver: 93%

No FM receiver: 7%

Sources: Statistica Dossier 2013: Radio in the U.S. (Statistica, February 2013); New York Times: “F.C.C. Plans Sweeping Changes to Bolster AM Radio” (Nov. 1, 2013); Pew Research Center’s “The State of News Media 2012”; LA Times: “KFWB switching to all-sports format as AM radio fights for survival” (Sept. 2, 2014)

AM love

We asked three local radio aficionados about their recollections. Below are excerpts from their answers.

* Dick Gleason, owner of six stations in Maine including WEZR 1240 AM and 105.5 FM in Auburn.

Did you always want to go into radio? Oh, yes. Always.


What attracted you to the format? There’s only one word . . .  to describe my feelings about radio. It’s magical. It affects people. People respond to it. It’s very much a part of everybody’s lives. . . . It’s free and it’s local. We’re doing a lot of research on this . . . and we brought in some college students to talk about the future of radio. They admit that they’re listening, but they want it in a certain way. . . . Radio is alive and well.

* Rick Davis (aka Rick Alan), former WLAM employee and current owner and operator of Lisbon-based online radio station WQRY.

How old were you when you started listening to the radio? When I was 2 (in 1965) my sister would take me just about everywhere with her and her friends in a stroller with a transistor radio in my lap. I have pictures of me at that age playing records on a small turntable. . . . My first memories of radio were at the age of 5. I still remember dancing to “Wedding Bell Blues” by the 5th Dimension and singing (trying anyway) to “Downtown” by Petula Clark.

Do you remember any favorite AM stations, programs or disk jockeys? My favorite station was WLAM. They were the station to listen to until FM got popular in the late ’70s. . . . Crazy as it may sound, I didn’t mind the static that would creep into the audio from time to time.

* Dan Philbrick (aka Kevin Daniels), WLAM alum and current web guru and DJ at WQRY

How prevalent was AM radio, compared to FM, when you were growing up? I would imagine it was mostly AM and (specifically) WLAM, as that was “the” station for L-A. I don’t think I started listening to FM until late in the ’70s and early ’80s.

Do you remember any favorite AM stations, programs or disk jockeys? My all-time favorite was Don Zihlman. Mornings with Zihlman were great. I even taped a bunch of his shows, which I still have today.

Any interesting memories related to AM radio? I was working the night Samantha Smith died in a plane crash at the Auburn airport. I received a call from someone inquiring about a plane crash and I then called the police, who verified there had been a crash. I then had to call our news director. I think we (WLAM) were one of the first news crews on the scene. That’s something that I still find interesting. Here we were in Lewiston-Auburn with two full-time radio stations with news on the hour — LOCAL NEWS! — with reporters and everything. Now, radio is all automated. It’s amazing how it has changed in such a small amount of time.

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