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    Thursday, December 20, 2018
    AM Radio

    These days radio seems to be almost the forgotten technology. When I was a kid, AM radio was the thing and FM was just starting out. The superior sound quality and reception of FM broadcasting soon ensured that AM was left behind in the dust. Then of course tape decks came along, then CD players, then satellite radio... now radio has been reinvented as the podcast and we have come pretty much full circle.

    The humble AM broadcast band still has its points, though. If you're interested in learning a foreign language, listening to many of the Los Angeles stations might help you along. We have stations broadcasting in Spanish, Cantonese, Mandarin, Persian and probably other languages as well. There are also the all-news stations (Los Angeles used to have two, now we're down to one) and the many religious stations. These all seem to sound alike to me, though occasionally I catch part of a decent sermon.

    And then there are the low-power public alert ratio stations, which I find fascinating. These usually are the property of cities, universities or other public institutions and broadcast to the immediate surrounding area. Reception is limited to three to five miles. They cluster either at the top or bottom of the AM dial. If you drive through West Los Angeles you may hear several: Santa Monica, Culver City, UCLA and Beverly Hills all have their own radio stations. Some are more elaborate than others: Santa Monica updates every week with information about street construction and other traffic problems. Beverly Hills talks about their farmers' market a lot, as well as parking on Rodeo Drive (the main shopping street) and upcoming city events.

    Culver City, on the other hand, is what I call the zombie apocalypse station. It's nothing but a thirty-second loop of a man with a cheerful voice saying "Welcome to Culver City" and to stay tuned for information about emergencies and traffic issues. I've been listening for years and the message has never changed, which I find more than a little creepy. Sometimes when I'm driving through the area late at night I like to pretend that some unimaginable disaster has occurred and this endlessly repeating loop is the last remnant of civilization. Then I shudder and change the station.

    Even freeways have a station reserved for (presumably) emergent issues. The 405 freeway, for example, has a looped "test" message which fades in and out depending on where you are. The most recent update is two months old, dated November seventh, and doesn't say much of anything other than the date. It's a close runner up for the title of Zombie Apocalypse Radio Station.

    This website contains information about stations broadcasting alerts and public information around the United States, as well as an interesting bit on the history of such stations. Apparently it took the tragedy of September 11 for the government to sit up and pay attention to their potential in emergency situations.  They can now be found around the country. In my reading I found that low-power FM stations also exist, but these I think are mostly run privately rather than by governmental organizations. They seem to be synonymous with political ranters and conspiracy theorists, or maybe just people who want to run a radio station.

    Lastly, under Part 15 of the FCC rules homeowners can apparently operate a tiny broadcasting station without a license on low power radio. (Range is something like 200 feet.) Imagine the opportunity to play Christmas music 24 hours a day! Or 1940s big bands, or anything else that tickles your fancy. The opportunities would be endless. Someday this could be a project for my retirement. The all-Esquivel station comes to mind...

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