Once Upon a Midwest: AM, your neighborhood frequency

Tuesday, July 2, 2019 - 5:33pm

There are 480 million acres of Midwest, filled with 68 million unique human beings. Hundreds of rivers and lakes amble through plains and forests. No one Midwestern state is quite like the other. For that reason, it can be difficult to understand the Midwest as truly one territory. Were there a library to mythologize the Midwest, the images and ideas of what we are and want to be might astonish you. This series wanders through the stories and imagery, the myths and legends, woven into the fabric of our identities.

Albany, Minnesota is a sleepy little town of about 2,500 souls, nestled just outside St. Cloud. Aside from the highway, one main road runs through the middle of it. If you tune your radio to 1150 AM, you’ll catch KASM, a news-talk radio station out of Albany. Somehow, KASM sounds both exactly as you think it would, and yet nothing at all like you’d expect. Whether you’re nearly a thousand miles away or just up the road, KASM transports you fluidly and immediately into the streets of Albany, as clear as if you were there. You’ll learn the local price of soybeans, wheat and oats as they change from month to month. If that doesn’t interest you, then you’ll hear clever anecdotes about the broadcaster’s high school reunion. Peppered throughout the broadcast are agricultural tips, chestnuts about the weather, conversations with the locals and the day-to-day happenings in Albany in brief.

The Midwest is home to innumerable towns and cities, many whose names go unheard except by those who live around them. For many midwestern towns, what they lack in traffic, they make up for on the airwaves. The radio stations characteristic to small midwestern towns are not the frequency modulation behemoths that dominate the cabs of every car in every town, state and province. Instead, AM radio — FM’s estranged sibling — is the slighted champion of the Midwest. These small stations that dot the airwaves, like stars in a neglected sky, transmit a kind of authenticity and charm that could only be found in the Midwest.

An hour south of the Canadian border might find you in Minot, North Dakota — the “Magic City.” Legend has it that the city materialized in the world the moment the first bit of railroad track had been laid in the area, after a tent appeared overnight, as if by magic. There appears to be almost nothing of note about Minot, except perhaps its radio station. KCJB-AM serves Minot and the surrounding area. While settled at the western edge of the Midwest, KCJB doesn’t sound very far away. Much like KASM, KCJB occupies itself with the crop prices and abbreviated versions of national news, or local happenings and information, the weather being reported on twice an hour. Between all this, classic country rambles on through.

WNBY-AM hides out in Newberry, Michigan, a small town of 1,500 people in the Upper Peninsula. WBEV-AM is a station focused on “hometown news” out of Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, a two-light kind of town in the southeastern corner of the state. All these towns are modest, faraway little places. Yet, their charm and earnestness aren’t lost through the airwaves. Through the hundreds of hours of small-town AM radio that I’ve listened to, I’ve become quite attached to these little towns. In many ways I feel like I know them as well as anywhere. The same locals call in day in and day out; the same familiar voices carry on about oat prices and all the rain they’ve been getting.

The AM radio of the Midwest has a sound that isn’t found anywhere else. The voices radiate a folksy wholesomeness that reminds one of home. They’re your neighbors, your friends and the cashier at the grocery store. These sounds are distinctly midwestern: genuine and real, humble and honest. You can know these people through the radio because it sounds exactly like us. On a dying broadcasting method, you can go just about anywhere in the Midwest. Much the way that it’s in a Midwesterner’s nature to help, AM radio broadcasters are always out there, with calming voices for stories and reports that sound closer to home than you might think. All you have to do is listen.