Media Index
By Richard Bruce BA, MA, and PhC in Economics

From Rock to Talk
AM the Revolutionary Medium

As television expanded in the fifties, narrative fiction: comedy, drama, and adventure, moved away from AM radio to TV. This left more room on the radio dial for music. The new music of youth, rock & roll, filled the void. Rock music was central to the youth revolution that followed in the sixties, and the liberal political movements of the era.

More recently as a number of technologies expanded, including FM radio, cassette tapes, audio CDs, and portable tape players, both personal and in vehicles, AM radio's music audience shrank. AM went into conservative talk radio both secular and religious which facilitated the Reagan Revolution, and the conservative wave that continues to this day.

Old Tech rather than New Facilitates Change

These revolutions were not carried by new technologies, instead AM radio, the older, inferior technology, made cheap by the competition from the new technologies, was repeatedly the instrument of new and fringe political messages and therefore change.

The new technologies were very successful. They took the larger, more lucrative audiences. The new technologies served those big mainstream audiences with big budget entertainment. Earning back those big budgets and keeping those large mainstream audiences forced the new technologies into middle of the road compromise, reducing their revolutionary potential.

By way of contrast AM radio, the old technology, became affordable for the smaller, less dominate groups. AM radio's smaller audiences and budgets meant that AM could be more experimental and ultimately more revolutionary.

So we have the irony that the revolutionary technology is not politically or socially revolutionary. Furthermore, AM, an old technology that first dominated America in the 1920s, was revolutionary in the sixties, seventies, and eighties, up to sixty years after its rise to prominence in the twenties.

Of course, there is the further irony that AM radio, the technology that carried the liberal message of rock & roll, also carried the conservative messages of Rush Limbaugh and Jerry Falwell.

It is Hard to be Cheaper than the Internet

It is not clear that this principal can continue to work for AM radio. We now have supremely cheap forms of media, particularly the Internet. The only challenge that I face right now is being interesting enough to keep your attention. I do not have to worry about how to pay for production or distribution of this essay.

Still we can find examples where the principle still applies. Contrast the conventional messages of the most popular big budget movies of last few decades to the considerably more edgy messages typical of Reddit. Reddit is not only free, but doesn't even require you to reveal your personal information. Much of Reddit is just text discussion. Text is the old Internet before YouTube, streaming video, and even before pictures. As happened in the earlier AM assisted revolutions, the expensive entertainments combine the latest technology with conventional messages, and the revolutionary messages often use cheaper, older technologies.

Contrary to Marshall McLuhan, the medium was not the message. The most revolutionary messages are cheap if not free.


Last edited August 26, 2015

Media Index