The rise and decline of AM radio

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Radio, as we know it, may have begun on a bet.

Frank Conrad, assistant chief engineer for Westinghouse in the early 20th century, wanted to see whether a new watch was keeping correct time. In 1912, he made a $5 wager with colleague Thomas Perkins. But how to verify his claim?

Tinkering with materials in his Wilkinsburg garage, Conrad created a small receiver capable of picking up time signals from the U.S. Naval Observatory in Arlington, Va.

He won his bet and went on to design bigger and better radios for Westinghouse. In turn, Westinghouse became a key player in turning the hobby of a few radio enthusiasts into an industry that changed the world.

Pittsburgh's radio history is the history of modern radio.

Next week: Talk radio

For AM radio -- and the radio industry in general -- the hits just keep coming. Rapid technological changes, government legislation, aging demographics and a shifting media landscape have combined to erode AM's once massive audience. Better clarity through FM, HD and satellite, and more diverse programming have resulted in AM leaning heavily on two formats: talk and sports.

Still, it all started here.

"Most people don't know the name Frank Conrad. He's not thought of like Edison or Marconi or Bell," said Forest Hills' Rick Harris, whose drive to create a permanent radio museum has spanned decades. "It just so happened that Conrad worked for Westinghouse from around the 1890s as a boy and worked his way up. He didn't invent radio, essentially, but I think you could really say he pioneered the broadcasting industry.

"He brought all the concepts that were in existence at that time and added them to others, like the transmitter."

Using a crystal set -- basically copper wire wrapped around a cylinder and connected to a crystal that allowed the user to troll for signals without need of electricity -- Conrad "was an unsung genius," Mr. Harris said.

Conrad built a transmitter, then obtained an amateur license in the summer of 1916. In 1919, his station, 8XK, played music from phonograph records. A Wilkinsburg record store sponsored his show.

"The store owner says, 'You can have anything you want as long as you tell people where they can buy the records,' " Mr. Harris said. "In effect, that created the first [radio] advertising."

A KDKA program honoring the 50th anniversary of the station included ad copy from a 1920 edition of The Pittsburgh Sun. Beneath a Joseph Horne Co. advertisement for folding chairs (a steal at 40 cents each) was one describing the "wireless concerts" from Conrad's garage, mentioning that readers could join the fun by purchasing their own Amateur Wireless Sets for $10.00 up.

Who was manufacturing those sets? Westinghouse, of course. The company had been involved in radio equipment during World War I and owned many patents.

But it wasn't until the autumn of 1920 that Conrad's successful little radio show would inspire something even greater. Westinghouse vice president H.P. Davis pushed for the company to obtain a commercial license, which it received Oct. 27.

With Conrad helping to quickly put together an equipment room -- just a shack on the roof of a Westinghouse East Pittsburgh Works building in Turtle Creek -- the newly christened KDKA read results of the presidential election between Warren G. Harding and James Cox.

In between readings, KDKA played music.

A photograph -- often reprinted but occasionally misidentified as a shot of that first historic broadcast -- shows operator William Thomas, announcer L.H. Rosenberg and telephone line handlers R.S. McClelland and John Frazier.

Two men most responsible for this historic achievement -- chief engineer Donald Little and Conrad -- are not in the picture.

In the photograph, it is daytime. In reality, the world's first commercial broadcast took place in the dark of night, and it's possible McClelland wasn't there.

Radio takes off

Two months later, according to KDKA sources, a live broadcast from Calvary Episcopal Church in Shadyside became the world's first regularly scheduled church service and the first remote pickup.

In the choir loft were Westinghouse engineers -- one of them Jewish, another Catholic -- dressed in surplices for anonymity.

Edwin Jan van Etten, rector of Calvary, was quoted as saying, "Even now, as I think of their presence there, it seems to me that they symbolize the real universality of radio religion."

Early adopters listened to radio broadcasts via fairly complicated receiver units sold by Westinghouse for $65 to $125. But home use really took off in 1921 when KDKA designed a small (6 inches by 6 inches by 7 inches) wooden box housing a crystal set.

The Aeriola Jr. cost $25 and required headphones. Within the year, Westinghouse began manufacturing home radios incorporating vacuum tubes, and two years later, the first thermionic vacuum tube sets that could run on electricity instead of batteries.

Broadcast radio was off and running. In 1926, Westinghouse, RCA and General Electric formed the National Broadcasting Co., which would spin off into two separate channels, Red and Blue.

Although KDKA dominated the early years with its programming and superior signal and marketing, it wasn't alone on the airwaves.

KQV-AM was another early pioneer. It signed on as experimental station 8ZAE in 1919. In 1921 it took the call letters KQV, which stood for "King of the Quaker Valley," and was licensed as a commercial station in 1922.

In the next two decades, stations such as KDKA, WCAE and KQV would broadcast scripted dramas, boxing prizefights, newscasts, symphonic concerts from KDKA's Grant Building studio, church services, and even Dilworth's Little German Band, with its canine mascot, Schnitzel.

If Westinghouse was busy developing its broadcast technology during World War I, WWII brought drives to raise money for war bonds and a heightened sense of duty.

Declaring "radio too important to victory," a wartime advertisement read: "At KDKA, high on a commanding hill, visitors are challenged by a searchlight, a directionally amplified voice and a gun, and they state their business into a microphone before they come near the tower."

Pop goes the station

TV displaced radio as the main form of home entertainment in the 1950s. But AM radio found a new lease on life with the pop music explosion that began in the '50s. The repeated playing of top hits launched the Top 40 format. Music gave rise to a new kind of radio star -- the disc jockey. Starting with Porky Chedwick at WHOD-AM and later WAMO-AM/FM and other Pittsburgh stations, the Pittsburgh airwaves were filled with the voices of radio hosts who not only played the hits, but in some cases helped make them.

Mr. Chedwick is credited with breaking some of R&B's earliest radio hits. He's also remembered for his one-of-a-kind on-air patter and for coining nicknames for himself such as "Platter Pushin' Poppa," "Pork the Tork" and "Daddio of the Raddio." Now 95, Mr. Chedwick remains a beloved icon in Pittsburgh broadcasting.

An African-American woman -- Mary Dee Dudley -- broke race and gender barriers with her popular "Movin' Around" show on WHOD. Other African-American hosts such as Bill Powell and Sir Walter (real name John Christian) had solid followings on the former WILY-AM and WAMO.

Rege Cordic's popular morning show on KDKA redefined radio as an entertainment medium during the '50s and '60s. "Cordic & Company" started on WWSW-AM and moved to KDKA in 1954. Cordic, along with Robert McCully, Sterling Yates, Bob Trow and Karl Hardman created memorable comedy sketches starring a zany cast of characters: space alien Omicron, Louie the Garbage Man and domineering station manager Mr. Murchison. The show was a ratings hit for KDKA.

Pittsburgh native David Brown was a big fan of Cordic and as a kid used a reel-to-reel recorder to tape some of the host's programs. Over the years, he has encountered others who loved Cordic's madcap humor.

"Because it was AM radio, people would be listening to Rege's skits and they would pull off the road. They would not go through the tunnel at Mount Washington, because they knew they would miss the signal.

"Another fellow who worked at a lab told me he would pull into the parking lot just before 8 o'clock, when Rege was doing one of his skits, then wait until he was finished.

"He said 'When the skit was finished, car doors would open all over the parking lot with people getting out, having also waited.'"

Cordic left for Los Angeles in 1965 and was replaced by Art Pallan and Bob Trow, and in 1968 by Jack Bogut. KDKA remained the dominant player in morning radio.

The '60s start swinging

During the '60s, hosts on some of the smaller AMs -- such as Mad Mike Metrovich on the former WZUM-AM and Terry Lee on the former WMCK/WIXZ-AM -- developed loyal teen followings.

The advent of FM radio was a game changer for AM. In 1967, the Federal Communications Commission required station operators to have different programming on their AM and FM frequencies. Music formats moved to the FM dial, where the sound was better and where programmers weren't limited to playing short two- to three-minute pop songs. WAMO-FM host Ken Reeth, better known as Brother Love, was among the first to play records by Jimi Hendrix, Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention and The Doors.

Veteran radio programmer Ed Salamon launched a successful career that started in Pittsburgh. He went on to program WHN-AM in New York and later became president of programming at Westwood One. He was hired in 1970 to work on KDKA's 50th anniversary, and then moved into programming music. He's the author of "WHN: When New York City Went Country" and "Pittsburgh's Golden Age of Radio."

"It was an exciting time to be in radio in Pittsburgh," Mr. Salamon says of the 1970s. "You had these AM stations that were king and trying to hold on to what they had, and FM stations were looking for something new, creating opportunities for young guys like me."

Opportunity knocked on the AM side for him. WEEP-AM, a country music station that was at the bottom of the ratings chart, hired him in 1973.

"I thought the audience for country music could be broader than it was -- less of niche and more mass appeal," Mr. Salamon said. He added artists who weren't traditional country -- like The Eagles and Olivia Newton-John. The station rocketed to second place.

In 1975, KQV dropped Top 40 and switched to the all-news format it still has today. KQV-FM played music: it later switched call letters to WDVE.

By 1978, FM's listenership overtook that of AM.

The future of radio

With music migrating to FM, AM turned to talk radio. In 1987, the FCC repealed the Fairness Doctrine, which required radio operators to give both sides of an issue equal airtime. That opened the doors for a lineup of opinionated political talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh. These shows became ratings and revenue generators and gave AM a much needed boost. By the 1990s, many of those shows migrated to FM talk stations, leaving AM with a programming vacuum once again.

April 10, 1992, is known as "The Day the Music Died" on KDKA: the station played Don McLean's "American Pie," and switched to all news and talk. Local talk hosts flourished here in the '90s, with Mike Pintek and the late Fred Honsberger on KDKA and Lynn Cullen and the late Doug Hoerth on the former WTAE and WPTT-AM.

By the time radio moved into the 21st century, powerhouse AMs such as KDKA, WBZ-AM in Boston and KYW-AM in Philadelphia no longer topped the ratings charts. By 2011, AM listenership dropped to 15 percent, according to a survey by the investment firm Veronis Suhler Stevenson.

In 2001, the introduction of satellite radio and Apple's launch of the iPod further eroded AM's audience. SiriusXM Satellite Radio offers listeners a wide range of channels for every taste, along with conservative and liberal talk channels that carry most of the top syndicated radio hosts. iTunes, Internet radio services and mp3 players let people create their own playlists.

The car is where most people listen to radio. With satellite and Internet radio available in cars, AM began to lose the battle of the dashboard that started years ago with the introduction of cassette and 8-track players in cars.

AM radio faces new competition from devices such as smartphones and other consumer electronics, which interfere with the AM signal.

These days, the local AM band is a mix of news, talk, sports talk, ethnic and religious programming. There are only a handful of music stations, including WJAS-AM, with a standard hits/nostalgia format, WDDZ/Radio Disney, which is aimed at the teen/preteen audience and WZUM-AM, which plays classic R&B.

Mel Check was the chief engineer at KDKA for 34 years and has a radio museum at his home in East Brady, Clarion County. "It's to the point now where teenagers and kids coming through here, they don't know they have AM on their radios."

Yet there are those who believe in a future for AM. FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai is committed to keeping AM alive.

"I'm often asked why we should care about the future of AM radio ... . If you care about diversity, you should care about AM radio. If you care about localism, you should care about AM radio," he said in a speech at the 2013 Radio Show in September. "Many AM radio stations provide a vital forum for discussing the issues of the day."

The FCC has proposed efforts to help AM operators, including access to translators, which would simulcast their programming on the higher quality FM band.

Robert Dickey Jr. and his sister Cheryl Scott own KQV and are committed to keeping the all-news format their late father Robert Dickey launched 35 years ago.

"The AM band is under a lot of strain," Mr. Dickey said. "Sound has been compromised terribly on the AM dial. It's a struggle for us as well as others."

KQV's strategy has been to adapt to new technologies -- such as apps for mobile devices and streaming online.

"You have to continue to explore other platforms that allow you to extend," Mr. Dickey said. "We have to move forward. We have to keep our minds open to any and all new forms that allow us to do that in the most cost-effective way."

"My concern is not so much for AM radio, but the free over-the-air radio that allows information and entertainment at no cost to everyone," Mr. Salamon said. "I don't want to see that disappear. I don't want to see a gap in this country where people who can afford it are able to have more than they can watch or listen to, and other people have nothing."

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Adrian McCoy: or 412-263-1865; Maria Sciullo: or 412-263-1478. First Published October 12, 2013 8:00 PM


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