I like sports, and I enjoy sports talk radio. That’s one reason I have five car radio buttons set on stations carrying games or sports talk: four on AM (WRKO/680, WEEI/850, WAMG/890, WZZN/1510) and one on FM (WBZ-FM/98.5). The other is that sports talk is about 50% advertising, so I like to punch around.
But I wasn’t surprised to read ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate set to sign off, by Chad Finn in the Boston Globe. It begins, “ESPN Radio’s Boston affiliate, WAMG-AM 890, will go off the air Monday after four years plagued by a weak signal and limited local programming.” In fact, “weak” doesn’t cover it. By day WAMG’s 25,000-watt signal covers the Boston metro pretty well. But at night the station drops to 6,000 watts and a pattern that excludes the whole north side of the metro. The map at that last link doesn’t show how much like a headlight that pattern really is.
Yet that’s not the worst of it. WAMG was able to “drop in” to the market from nowhere in 2005, thanks to a change in FCC rules that protected what were once called (literally) “clear channel” stations. Because signals on the AM band bounce off the ionosphere at night, powerful ones can be heard up to thousands of miles away. Since there were then only 106 channels (every 10KHz from 540 to 1600KHz), a handful were granted “clear channel” status, making them the only stations on those channels at night. Thanks to this rule, I could hear KFI/640 from Los Angeles in New Jersey and WBZ/1030 from Boston in Palo Alto. Here’s the whole list of “clears” as they stood when their status still held.
Since long-distance listening had mostly gone away by the late 1970s, the FCC in 1980 reduced protection for the old “clears” to 750 miles from their transmitters. WLS/890 in Chicago was one of those clears. So you might say that WAMG appeared through a new loophole. Problem was, WLS had not gone away. It often still reached Boston quite well at night, pounding WAMG’s already-weak signal.
This last week I was down in the South portion of Cape Cod, where WAMG puts no signal at all. As a result I could hear WLS quite well on a portable radio, along with other Chicago giants.
The Globe story suggests that WAMG will probably go dark. Given the coverage realities, that might not be the worst thing.
A thought. WAMG is licensed to Dedham, not Boston. It might not be the worst thing for Clear Channel (the name of the company that owns WAMG and a zillion other stations) to sell the licesnse to somebody in the Dedham community, who could cut the power back (to save electricity) and just try to serve the local community itself. Provided, of course, that local radio of the AM sort (which has changed little since the 1920s) still makes sense.
[Later…] Following up on 10 October 2009, WAMG has been off the air for several weeks.