For decades, AM radio has felt as commonplace as a utility, such a basic fact of life that it’s taken for granted. But that’s changing: Across America, AM radio stations are dwindling in number and profitability, as better-sounding FM signals become cheaper to broadcast and would-be listeners turn to the internet for entertainment.
Yet even in decline, it has a strength that politicians and media insiders who want to understand America would do well to heed. In 2019, thousands of AM stations remain on the air, many of them thriving—in part because they serve unique sets of people whose voices aren’t always heard loudly. For generations, it was considerably cheaper to buy or start an AM station than any other form of mass media, making ownership more accessible to people of color, immigrants, non-English speakers and those with political views outside the mainstream. Without the line-of-sight restrictions of FM radio, AM radio can also cover vast geographic areas, and so remains a staple of rural media. Even now, if you tune into the right frequency on a clear summer night, you can hear a broadcast from half a continent away—listening in on the kinds of conversations that shape identity and politics far outside the Beltway.
For devotees eager to preserve the format, AM has a would-be savior in Washington: Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai. Better known as a free-market “net neutrality” deregulator, Pai launched an effort to revitalize AM several years ago, shortly after becoming an FCC commissioner. Growing up in Parsons, Kansas, in the 1970s and ’80s, Pai has said he listened to AM radio with his parents, who had come to the United States from India with “little more than $10 in their pockets and a radio.” But purists are concerned that in his efforts to save AM radio, Pai might be inadvertently killing off what makes it unique, potentially curtailing long-distance AM broadcasters and moving more of its broadcasts to FM.
Over the past few months, Politico Magazine has drawn on radio ratings and conversations with broadcasting experts to identify some of the most distinct voices on the AM dial. They include a sheep farmer who reports on the agricultural industry for a vast rural audience; an icon of inner-city Baltimore who inspired a character on “The Wire”; and one of the only on-air personalities who broadcasts in the Navajo language. Some are conservative, some are liberal, some avoid politics altogether. In these photos, by Politico’s M. Scott Mahaskey, we glimpse what is being lost when AM radio stations disappear: not just call signs, but places where community is built.