Wednesday, February 05, 2014

In support of WZUM-AM

"I've got a '79 only gets AM/talk shows that piss you off/do you wanna ride?"
-from "Dean Complex," an unreleased song by the Smoking Pets which was written by Rico Gagliano of American Public Media's The Dinner Party.

When that song was written in the '90s, and even now, AM radio seemed like something of a wasteland, populated by nothing but conservative talk radio and the occasional ethnic heritage show on the weekends. While much of those types of shows and formats continue to live on with the AM dial, there are a few treasures among all the garbage. At least in Pittsburgh.

First and foremost is the resurgence of WZUM-AM 1550. The station has history in Pittsburgh that dates back to the early days of rock and roll in the pre-Beatles '60s. My brother's late father-in-law Mad Mike Metro was a DJ throughout its life. (For the details of the station's ups and downs, check out this Post-Gazette article.)

The station's current format is classic R&B. There are plenty of hits by the Temptations and Gladys Knight & the Pips that also get airtime on better known oldies stations like 3WS. But WZUM also plays a lot of deep cut soul songs that you would never hear on the bigger stations. These are the kind of songs that might have been small time hits, big in 1972 on little local stations that never might it to the mainstream for more than a spin or two. I've heard a lot of songs that sound like '70s Philly soul/Gamble & Huff productions with both strings and wah-wah guitars. The combination of instruments comes off sounding a little slick, and perhaps not as greasy as what Motown was doing at the time. But they still have a craft to them, from the vocal arrangements to the way the lyrics provide a new metaphorical spin on boy-meets-girl scenarios, that makes them hard to resist. In the end, listening to the station is like discovering a stack of 45s and just spinning all of them:  you know some of them really well, others perhaps not so much, some of them aren't as great but they're still fun to hear. And in three minutes, a new one will come on that might be a lot better, so don't let that short attention span get the best of you.

Right now, the station is automated, with no live DJs or commercial breaks, so the music pretty much flows without interruption, save for an occasional public service announcement. They have a series of IDs from the station's heyday, with a chorus of bright, perky voices singing the call letters and a catchphrase or two. This element of radio has gotten to the point where it's been parodied endlessly so to hear it done with sincerity gives it some extra entertainment quality.

It's funny that there are so many radio stations now that are pre-programmed, with many (or perhaps most) on the commercial band stations recording DJs breaks in advance so that there's no one actually broadcasting live in the city during the evening hours. Yet even though WZUM has no on-air personalities at all, their playlist gives them a natural and lifelike quality, like there's someone there picking out a good playlist.

The station, of course, has some setbacks currently. You can't expect a commercial station to just keep chugging on infinitely either. As much as I love the lack of advertising getting in the way of the music, I hope that they're able to generate some ad revenue so they can sustain themselves.

Also, they have to reduce their transmitter output around 6:00 pm each night as part of their license. (I think that's the reasoning. I only heard that announcement once when I was driving around, so my memory might be a little fuzzy on the exact wording.) So once the evening hits, it's reduced to AM fuzz. They stream online 24 hours, so they can be heard that way too, but anything can be found online these days. The beauty of 1550 is turning on the out-of-touch AM band and suddenly feeling like you've tapped into some lost treasure. Besides, this is the way to really hear this music: coming through a speaker or two with the low-end reduced and the tinny high-end pushed up a little higher. If it can put a listener in a better mood during the commute, offering a chuckle during "I'll Always Love My Mama" or "Bustin' Loose" (name the performers of both songs), the station has performed a noble deed.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

I just happened to come across WZUM earlier this week and absolutely love the station! Wish I had discovered it (or your posting)way before now. And I, like you, hope it generates enough revenue to keep it going for awhile.