by Alex Cosper
In 2020 radio will be 100 years old as an industry. The exact birthdate of the industry is debated by historians according to various definitions of the industry and when it started. For example, wireless technology was invented in the 1890s, but the first human voice delivered over the airwaves instead of just Morse Code happened in the early 1900s. Early users of the medium were mainly scientists and hobbyists. KDKA in Pittsburgh is often cited as the first commercial radio station in the United States for broadcasting the 1920 presidential election returns.
San Francisco station KCBS, owned by Entercom, has cited 1909 as its origins, but there really weren't regular stations with full schedules in that era. The station KCBS refers to was on a different frequency and based in San Jose with much lower power. During that era radio was still so new it was just starting to be used on ships for communication. During America's involvement in World War I from 1917 to 1919 radio was banned from public use, as only military was allowed to use the medium.
The ban was lifted following the war's conclusion in 1919. Then General Electric acquired the assets of Marconi's Wireless radio manufacturing company and formed a new company called Radio Corporation of America (RCA). This company was an early manufacturer of radio receivers. But there still weren't many stations across the country. By 1920 the U.S. government had issued about 30 licenses. This number jumped into the hundreds by 1922. Some of the earliest broadcasters were newspapers, churches and local businesses that wanted to experiment with a new way of marketing.
The concept of radio companies getting paid through advertising became prominent by the mid-twenties. The first national radio network was NBC in 1926, followed by CBS in 1927. ABC became a spin-off of one of NBC's networks in the 1940s. The formation of the FCC as part of the New Deal in the 1930s led to a complete reallocation of AM frequencies in the early 1940s. Although FM radio technology was invented the previous decade, FM stations began to appear around the country in the 1940s, mainly to provide simulcasts of AM sister stations. This era marked the beginning of what might be considered the modern radio era. Radio could first be heard in cars in the early 1930s.
Radio was the dominant mass medium until the 1950s when TV took over. Prior to TV, radio stations commonly used block programming, meaning direct blocks of formatting throughout the day. One hour might be hosted by a big band and the next hour might be a theatrical radio drama. The concept of each station having its own format developed in response to TV taking away radio's audience at night. That's when stations either moved in an adult direction or a teen direction to capitalize on the rise of rock and roll music. The arrival of portable radio in the late 50s added to the excitement of teens having their own music. The concept of the "top 40" format of playing the same big hits over and over became common by the late fifties.
The rise of freeform radio in the late 1960s as an alternative to the tightly-programmed formats emerging at the time helped create interest in FM stations. DJs were allowed to play whatever music they wanted as a result of the FCC ruling that all FM stations had to create original programming for at least half their broadcast schedules starting in January 1967. Prior to that time most FMs simply were simulcasts of sister AM stations. The spotlight shifted to FM by the late seventies when radio technology allowed FM to be picked up clearly in cars.
Some say radio's heyday was the mid-sixties through the mid-nineties. Radio formatting splintered into various offshoots throughout the 80s. The "Smooth Jazz" format rose in that era, borrowing hits from jazz-flavored pop artists mixed with instrumental jazz tracks. The Alternative Rock format also marked a new development in the nineties. But radio then began to face new challenges by the end of the decade, which scattered the audience into various directions. Satellite radio was still a rumor while the internet unleashed Napster and other peer-to-peer networks that provided on-demand listening of specific songs.
The Telecom Act of 1996 had a profound effect on the radio industry, eliminating ownership limits on stations. This new law was supposedly intended to create new jobs in broadcasting, but it did the opposite. Thousands of jobs disappeared as big companies bought out as many stations as they could on loans, creating billions in debt. Soon there were a handful of big players controlling nearly half of the radio landscape, particularly in major markets. Since the early 2000s radio companies have had to make severe budget cuts and focus more on advertising and paying down debt than innovations in programming.
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