I was seriously thinking about hiding the receiver, when the switch broke ’cause it’s old

The experience that turned me into a radio ne’er-do-well happened when I was about 7 years old. Sony Walkmans were the hottest electronics item anyone could have. For my birthday, my grandparents … didn’t get me one. (A real Walkman wouldn’t have been an appropriate gift for a 7 year old anyway.)

Instead, they got me a tiny AM radio disguised as a Walkman, complete with headphones. My grandmother probably got it from Murphy’s Mart or Woolworth for $10 or $15.

I say it was probably from one of those stores, because if I remember correctly, it didn’t even have a brand-name. If it did, it was something like “Randix” or “Yorx.” (Amazon didn’t invent the practice of making up brand names from random combination of letters.)

The first night I had the radio, I tuned around the dial and to my astonishment, picked up CKLW in Windsor, Ontario. A radio that could tune Canada! From Pittsburgh! Then, I picked up KMOX in St. Louis! Another miracle! And WLS in Chicago!

Wow! I had a magic radio!

What I didn’t know then — but would soon find out — was that even the cheapest AM radio from the five-and-10 could pick up an AM station such as CKLW or WLS at night.

They’re part of a class of stations in the U.S., Canada and Mexico known as “clear-channel” stations — nothing to do with the media company formerly known as “Clear Channel” (and now called “iHeart”).

“Clear-channel” means they’re AM stations that broadcast at 50,000 watts (or more, in the case of some Mexican stations), and that at night, they have a certain frequency all to themselves — or, at most, shares the frequency with one other station. They’re also on very low frequencies — kilohertz, or thousands of cycles per second, unlike your cell-phone or wi-fi router, which is transmitting at gigahertz, or billions of cycles per second — which enables them to bounce off the layers of the atmosphere at night.

KDKA is a clear-channel station — it has 1020 AM all to itself in the United States at night. Same thing for its sister stations, WBZ (1030) in Boston and KYW (1060) in Philadelphia, which is why you can often hear them in Pittsburgh after dark.

Or at least, you used to be able to. When Rush sang “invisible airwaves crackle with life,” it had positive connotations. But these days, “all this machinery making modern music” is also generating electrical interference that crackles over AM radio, and it’s increasingly difficult to hear anything — not even the echoes of the sounds of salesmen.

Interference has always been a problem for listening to AM radio — old-time radio magazines from the 1920s and 1930s are full of advice about eliminating noise from passing trolley cars, electric irons and lightning storms.

But about 20 years ago, radio hobbyists started to notice that the problem was rapidly getting worse and worse. Computer power supplies, LED light bulbs, electronic light dimmers, battery chargers, and yes, wi-fi routers are throwing off so much static that AM radio was becoming almost unlistenable in some cases. It was always hard to pick up an AM station inside a steel-framed building, such as a skyscraper — now, the electrical noise created by gadgets and appliances is blocking out AM radio from wood-frame and brick buildings as well.

I bring this up because of a story in The Washington Post lamenting the fact that many car manufacturers are dropping the AM band completely from new automobiles. Ford, VW, BMW, Mazda, Volvo, Tesla, Polestar and Rivian — the last three manufacture electric vehicles exclusively — have already ditched AM radio. The companies say AM radio appeals to a dwindling number of listeners, and that the same content can be found, static-free, on FM, satellite radio and Internet radio.

(Increasingly, car companies say, what buyers want in their dashboard isn’t a conventional radio, but Internet capability.)

According to the Washington Post, the National Association of Broadcasters claims that “82 million Americans still listen to AM stations each month.” I’m not sure I buy that. AM radio stations are now allowed to broadcast over the FM band using what are known as “translators.” 

I’d be willing to accept that 82 million people may be listening to content originated on an AM station … but they’re hearing it over FM.

Ford Motor Co. says its own studies indicate that less than 5 percent of in-car radio listening happens on the AM band. I have a feeling that’s much closer to reality.

Like I said, I love AM radio. I still tune the AM dial at night to see what I can find, and during the day, at work, my office radio is often tuned to WZUM (1550), the Pittsburgh Jazz Channel.

But consider this: Back in 2014, I started hosting a weekend talk-show on a couple of AM stations. Very few people mentioned it. Then, one of the stations got an FM translator that re-broadcasts its programming.

Suddenly, people started saying, “Hey, I heard you on the radio on Sunday.” The show might as well have not existed when it was only on AM.

I have more to say about this, but the truth — and it pains me to say this — is that if automakers stop putting AM radios in their cars and trucks, the average motorist is going to miss them as much as they miss ash trays, vent windows, running boards and the button on the floor to turn the high-beams on and off.

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