Any station can call itself "Kiss," "Magic," "Mix" or "Jack." You probably can hear one of each if you live in a big city.
Across our land, stations are allowed to play the same music, feature the same voice-tracked jocks and syndicated talk shows. They can even use the same jingles.
But somewhere near the top of the hour, you'll hear the one element that is unique to each terrestrial radio station in the United States: its legal ID.
According to FCC Title 47 Volume 4 Parts 70-79 as revised Oct. 1, 2000, the rules are quite clear: A station must provide its actual call letters immediately followed by the community or communities specified in its license. This must be done as close to the top of the hour as possible.
Today many "move-in" stations bury this information between spots and get on with the hits. Others trumpet their hometown proudly. But the legal ID is a radio tradition going back to the earliest days when transmissions were sometimes hard to hear through the static.
Brian Davis is a young man who realizes the importance of this rule and celebrates the legal ID on his non-profit Web site, www.tophour.net
Don't touch that dial
"I'm not the traditional radio geek," said Davis. "I'm a music guy and decided that I wanted to be on the radio just to play the music. The genesis of my site goes back to when I was at Brown Institute Broadcast School in Minneapolis in 1995. I read a lot about radio to supplement my education and I became interested in the Internet.
"Then I took a road trip and realized that stations were similar all over, but then I grasped the concept that the one thing that's always different is the legal ID. I thought the Web site would be a cool way to highlight that one difference."
Tophour.net signed on in July 2001 and when you visit Davis' site, you can hear clips of this phenomenon going back to the early 1960s. Just click on your favorite city and station and take a listen. He features big markets and small, 50,000-watt blowtorches and 250-watt mom n' pops.
Google's AdSense service supplies a small income stream to keep the site going, but Davis says his costs are low.
"It really only costs me about $150 per year," he said. "But I did have Christina Miraglia from Moxie Design Studios help me out with a redesign, which raised my costs quite a bit this year. However I'm hoping the increased Google ad hits and ID contributions from new visitors will help justify the expense."
The site gets a boost from co-editor Lou Pickney, who also runs the Tampa-based site www.radiohottalk.com
Davis will accept monetary donations via PayPal but doesn't really press the issue.
"I would much rather people send me audio contributions of their favorite top of the hour IDs," he said. "There are a lot of other sites like www.reelradio.com and www.fybush.com that could benefit more from your financial help."
Davis is 30 years old and his "day gig" is assistant program director/music director and afternoon on-air personality at WKSZ(FM), Appleton/Green Bay, Wis. Even at his tender age, he is able to contrast radio in the year 2005 to radio as it existed 40 years ago.
"There are fewer differences from market to market today," he said. "But people have so many other alternate choices including iPods, satellite radio, LPFM and more. It's so niched that a 'one format fits all' radio station probably won't work today. That's why the legal ID is so cool."