If you’re at all like me, when you’re in the mood to listen to music, radio is one of the least likely places you turn. There was a time (1983 till around 2000) when the radio was the primary source of my exposure to new music. When I moved to LA in 1999, I flipped around the FM dial stopping whenever I heard something I liked. Before the introduction of Shazam, I had to rely on memorizing snippets of lyrics and then looking them up since it seemed like DJs rarely announced what they were playing. That’s how I discovered B.G., Los Dandys, Duncan Dhu, Enanitos Verdes, Los Freddys, Juvenile, Lil’ Wayne, Mikel Erentxun, Mystikal, Los Prisioneros (amongst others).
Dating a Vietnamese New Waver, Napster, and Pandora all provided new avenues of exposure and I pretty much gave up on FM radio except for usually music-less public radio. When I’ve been subjected to FM radio in the past few years, the playlists seem to have somehow been whittled down to approximately four incredibly overplayed “classics” that serve as bumpers between hour-long blocks of commercials — or pop music meant to make 12-year-old girls feel like 16-year-old princesses (and anyone else nauseated).
On the other hand, listening to LA’s AM radio is like taking a trip around the world — or something approaching it for people too poor to actually travel anywhere except locally — and by public transportation. And as one of those in the latter column, I often listen to it ready to Shazam it, post a screen capture from my phone online and ask foreign language majors to hip me to the artist and song in question.
For decades, AM was where most people turned for old time radio programs and music whilst FM was primarily devoted to classical music. AM was home to taste-making rock ‘n’ roll personalities like Alan Freed, Paul Sherman, Peter Tripp, Cousin Brucie, Murray the K, Dr. Jive, Wolfman Jack and Jock, the Ace from Outer Space. FM was comparatively anonymous.
In the 1960s, FM became known as for album oriented rock – whereas AM was dominated by Top 40. In 1978, almost four decades after its introduction, listenership of FM surpassed that of AM. Over the following years, the Top 40 format moved to where the listeners were and AM became primarily associated with right wing talk radio, sports, religious programming and other niche stations. In LA it’s also home to many ethnic minority-owned stations.
I think my first exposure of LA AM radio was being introduced to the Old Time Radio drama, The Whistler, re-runs of which used to be broadcast on an 1070 KNX. They no longer play any “OTR.” The next two AM stations I spent considerable time listening to were 670 KIRN and 930 KHJ.
The US is home to the largest population of Iranians outside of Iran and the largest concentration are in Los Angeles. KIRN — Radio Iran began broadcasting in 1999 and, from its HQ in Hollywood‘s Cahuenga Pass, plays Persian music and news. I don’t understand Farsi but I love a lot of the music and the spoken Farsi is also appealing to my ears. When I had a car, listening to Radio Iran whilst driving through heavily Iranian neighborhoods like Beverly Hills, Brentwood, Encino, Tarzana, Tehrangeles, and/or Woodland Hills added an exciting cinematic element to the commute.
LA County’s largest ethnic group is Mexican-American, who make up 36% of the population. This being the case, it’s not surprising that numerous LA radio stations play a wide variety of Spanish-language genres. However, Burbank’s 930 KHJ – La Ranchera, is LA’s only Ranchera station. There are many LA stations that play related genres like Norteño and Banda and Inglewood’s 98.3/103.9 Recuerdo plays Ranchera, Bolero and Spanish-language oldies but La Ranchera, as the name implies, is the home of Ranchera in LA.
LA is home to the largest Korean population outside of Korea and Korean-speaking Korean-Americans and Hallyu fans are served by three area Korean language stations: Pasadena’s 1230 KYPA – Radio JBC (Joongang Broadcast Company), Koreatown’s 1540 KMPC – Radio Korea, and Hancock Park’s 1650 KFOX – Radio Seoul. Korean is, to me, another particularly mellifluous language and whether it’s music or talk, it makes a nice soundtrack when one is in Koreatown, Little Seoul, Buena Park, Hancock Park, Park Mile, Wilshire Park or other largely Korean-American communities. 1190 KGBN is currently Korean Gospel Broadcasting Network, and broadcasts religious programming. From 2001 – 2011 it operated as KXMX, which was an amazing multicultural station that broadcast programing in Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Spanish, Tagalog, Thai, Vietnamese.
Los Angles has a very large Chinese and Taiwanese-American population. LA County’s Monterey Park is famous for being the first city in the US with a Chinese-American (at the time, mostly Taiwanese-American) population. Chinese and Taiwanese make up the largest group of Asian-Americans in Los Angeles (followed closely by Filipinos). Nonetheless, there’s only one exclusively Mandarin station, Pasadena’s 1300 KAZN. There’s also 690 XEWW, which though billed as a Cantonese and Mandarin station seems to focus a lot programming in the latter than former.
Pasadena’s 1430 KMRB serves LA‘s Cantonese-speaking population — a population with roots in Guangdong, Guangxi, Hong Kong and Macau. It provides a nice backdrop to time spent in Chinatown. As mentioned in the last section, 690 XEWW, apparently also broadcasts in Cantonese.
Đài phát thanh tiếng Việt
Nearly half of overseas Vietnamese live in the US – especially in Houston, New Orleans, San Jose, and Orange County’s Little Saigon – the oldest, largest and most prominent Vietnamese-American community. Little Saigon’s 1480 KVNR — Little Saigon Radio broadcasts Vietnamese programing. I sometimes listen with the hope of improving my extremely limited Vietnamese through exposure or osmosis.
So next time you flip your radio all the way four times over without hearing anything but commercials and bemoan the sorry state of FM radio, remember AM radio and be amazed.
Eric Brightwell is an adventurer, essayist, rambler, explorer, cartographer, and guerrilla gardener who is always seeking paid writing, speaking, traveling, and art opportunities. He is not interested in generating advertorials, cranking out clickbait, or laboring away in a listicle mill “for exposure.”
Brightwell has written for Angels Walk LA, Amoeblog, Boom: A Journal of California, diaCRITICS, Hidden Los Angeles, and KCET Departures. His art has been featured by the American Institute of Architects, the Architecture & Design Museum, the Craft Contemporary, Form Follows Function, Los Angeles County Store, the book Sidewalking, Skid Row Housing Trust, and 1650 Gallery. Brightwell has been featured as subject in The Los Angeles Times, Huffington Post, Los Angeles Magazine, LAist, CurbedLA, Eastsider LA, Boing Boing, Los Angeles, I’m Yours, and on Notebook on Cities and Culture. He has been a guest speaker on KCRW‘s Which Way, LA?, at Emerson College, and the University of Southern California.
Brightwell is currently writing a book about Los Angeles and you can follow him on Ameba, Duolingo, Facebook, Goodreads, Instagram, Mubi, and Twitter.