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American Radio History: The First Hundred Years
by Alex Cosper

Peter Boam on KJAY/Sacramento in 1966.
Photo courtesy of Peter Boam

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The story of wireless radio communication began before the turn of the twentieth century with inventor Nikola Tesla, who worked for Westinghouse. Subsequent experimental transmission of Morse code over the airwaves is often credited to Italian scientist Guglielmo Marconi. After years of controversy, in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that Tesla held the original patent for the invention of radio, not Marconi. Tesla is also credited as the inventor of alternating current.

Between the 1900s and the 1920s radio was used by the military, engineers and hobbyists. In San Jose an engineer named Doc Herrold was perhaps the first person to ever accomplish a radio transmission featuring the human voice as early as 1909.

The three primary companies responsible for developing radio technology after its invention were Westinghouse, General Electric and AT&T. Marconi had owned an American and British company and GE purchased the American company, renaming it Radio Corporation of America (RCA), whose purpose was to market the radio receivers made by both GE and Westinghouse. AT&T made radio transmitters.

Radio became commercial beginning in 1920 with KDKA in Pittsburgh, broadcasting the Presidential election returns. The station was owned by defense contractor and commercial electric giant Westinghouse.

Commerce Secretary Herbert Hoover, who later became President, was the first official to oversee the radio industry, as the FCC was not established until 1934 under President Franklin Roosevelt. The first big round of commercial licensees for AM radio came in 1921 and 1922. Until 1928 some stations were allowed to have portable transmitters. Several stations frequently moved around the AM dial through the early forties. Many stations shared the same frequencies the first few decades.

During the thirties, forties and fifties, four big radio networks ruled the airwaves across America: NBC, CBS, ABC and Mutual-Don Lee. The arrival of television in the fifties drove the networks more toward the visual medium while radio began searching for new programming. At first block programming was the answer, but by the end of the decade rock and roll had created teen stations against a backdrop of adult stations.

Teens were also lured into top 40 radio by the arrival of the transistor radio, which became popular in the late fifties. The idea of a low cost portable radio that spoke to youth was appealing to the teen market. WABC-AM in New York, programmed by Rick Sklar, became the leader in defining early top 40 radio, as its signal could be heard all over America. The top 40 format was originally pioneered by Todd Storz at KOHW in Omaha and then Gordon McLendon at KLIF in Dallas.

FM stations first appeared in the thirties and entered the dial at a slow pace through the fifties on. Many early FMs were sister properties of established AM stations, particularly affiliates of the four major networks. FM began attracting audiences large enough to sell advertising in the late sixties, beginning with freeform radio, in which Tom Donahue is credited as the first influential programming pioneer of this early alternative to mainstream radio. He was the mastermind behind KMPX and KSAN in San Francisco.

From the mid-sixties through the early seventies, FM stations began gaining their own identities as opposed to previously being perceived mainly as simulcasts of sister AM stations. The initial shift toward stand-alone FM stations was actually mandated by the FCC in 1966 as a way to diversify programming.

In 1971, one of the leading radio groups, ABC, began renaming its FM stations as WABC-FM in New York became WPLJ and KABC-FM in Los Angeles became KLOS. Also during this period, Lee Abrams, a rock radio consultant, began spreading his programming influence across the nation, developing what he coined as "album oriented rock," a streamlined approach to the freeform format that tightened the playlist by rotating tracks from the most popular rock acts.

A new trade publication that emerged in the seventies was Radio & Records. The magazine became influential in its focus on airplay charts, as opposed to Billboard, which mixed sales and airplay to create their charts. R&R's biggest influence on the industry, perhaps, had been coining and defining radio formats and assigning reporter status to radio stations that reported airplay of current music. The magazine, for example, changed top 40 to "contemporary hit radio," middle of the road to "adult contemporary" and soul to "urban." Eventually, however, Billboard acquired R&R in 2006 and put them out of business in 2009, while changing a lot of radio lingo back to Billboard terminology.

By the early eighties, stereo FM signals had overtaken AM for music listenership. Many of the top 40 market kingpins of the past few decades transformed into news/talk stations such as WABC in New York and WLS in Chicago. Ironically, talk radio would inevitably dominate major markets, as with KGO in San Francisco.

Top 40 programming pioneers of the fifties through eighties tended to command huge shares in major markets. In the nineties, the rise of alternative radio signaled confirmation of the album format, once offered mainly by rock stations.

This led to the acceptance of many specialty formats that were usually hybrids of the established pop, rock, soul and country formats, which had already begun splintering and merging with crossover music in the eighties. Even jazz returned as a popular format via pop and soul hybrids.

Deregulation of the radio industry has led to a loosening of ownership limits, allowing big national chains to dominate individual radio markets. Deregulation began in the eighties and accelerated in the nineties with the Telecom Act of 1996. Today radio faces the challenge to reinvent itself due to new competition for leisure time from new media.

Read Radio and Music Industry

History of the Music Industry
Resources for Music Researchers
The Big Three Major Record Labels
American Radio History
The History of Freeform
The Rise of Alternative Radio

A lot of this information was found on Wikipedia as a starting point and cross-referenced with other sources including:

America On Record: A History of Recorded Sound by Andre Millard, Cambridge University Press, 1995
The Hits Just Keep On Coming by Ben Fong-Torres, Miller Freeman Books, San Francisco, 1998
Radio & Records articles from the 80s, 90s, 2000s.
"The Invention of Radio" by Mary Bellis, Guide
"The Economic History of the Radio History" by Thayer Watkins, San Jose State University (
Various credible radio history sites such as Early Radio,,

Special thanks to Joel Denver at All Access for allowing me to use the site as a vast resource of radio and music information.

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