NEW ORLEANS — The talk of the French Quarter this week is AM Radio.
You remember AM. It's the button you push on the dashboard when the tape player's on the fritz or you're too far from civilization to find an FM station. It's what passes for sound in rental cars. It's what brings you Dodger games and more commercial pitches per hour than Times Square has per square foot.
About 5,500 radio broadcasters have floated into the French Quarter for "Radio '86," the short name for the National Assn. of Broadcasters' four-day annual management, programming, sales and engineering conference devoted to the granddaddy of the electronic mass media.
After two decades of near neglect, AM is returning to the attention of broadcasters who are coming up with a battery of efforts to revive the medium that was the nation's main source of news and entertainment when Tom Brokaw was a grade-schooler.
Two statistics explain why all the attention to AM: Of the country's 10,002 radio stations on the air, just 4,838--less than half--are AM. Of the top-10 highest-rated stations in each of the nation's five largest cities, just 10 are AM. The slide in AM listeners during the last decade has been steady and unchecked.
AM "is a 60-year-old medium that still has its growing pains," said Walt Wurfel, senior vice president of the broadcasters' association. "It's been taken for granted for so long that the industry realizes it needs to focus a lot of attention on making it more useful."
Much of that attention is being focused on the technical side of AM, which has traditionally had neither the sound nor signal quality of FM.
Fewer than 450 AM stations across the country broadcast in either of the two new stereo sound systems, manufactured by Motorola Inc. and Kahn Communications Inc.
Broadcasters and receiver makers have formed a joint committee to work out new technical standards for the medium, including efforts to reduce interference from other broadcast and communications media and to upgrade the quality of AM radio receivers.
The first major report of that committee is scheduled for release here this afternoon.
Other highlights of the four-day meeting, set to close on Saturday:
--New Federal Communications Commission member Patricia Diaz Dennis is to make her first appearance before the industry she regulates at opening ceremonies today.
--Popular Los Angeles disc jockey Gary Owens is to receive the association's top radio award on Friday for his 25 years in the business.
--Another Los Angeles deejay, KIIS morning man Rick Dees, is scheduled to kick off his Broadcasters Against Drugs campaign to enlist radio stations across the country in an anti-drug effort, also on Friday.