The Evolution and Slow Demise of Modern Radio

When I was growing up in the 1960’s the then modern marvel of engineering was what we called the “transistor radio.” The term differentiated the device from the former larger tube based sets. The most amazing thing about these new transistor radios was their diminutive size. These tiny radios were also called “pocket radios” because you could literally carry them in your pocket. They all came with a tiny “earphone” that you could use for personal listening. At the time they were the equivalent of the iPod today. Every kid had one. Sony built a whole empire making these radios for a generation of young people. Early on they were AM only radios. At the time the AM dial was sprinkled with giant powerhouse signals like WABC in New York, WLS in Chicago, CKLW in Windsor Ontario (the Detroit metro area,) WKBW in Buffalo, WRKO in Boston and many others. The mystical thing about these stations was that at night their signal traveled hundreds, even thousands of miles. This phenomenon gave them a huge star quality with millions of listeners. They all played what we called at the time “Top 40” music which was a conglomeration of whatever records were selling, not only to teens but to adults as well. So mixed in with the Rolling Stones you would hear songs by Frank Sinatra. If it was popular, it was played regardless of the demographic appeal. The thinking was that if you can get the kids to listen, the parents would be forced to stick around, hear the ads, buy the products advertised and put up with “rock and roll” while waiting for a more mature song to come on. It was radio trying to please everyone.

Many kids my age grew up sneaking these little radios under the covers at night when they were supposed to be sleeping, listening to their favorite “disk jockeys” and dream of being there in that far away large city playing music for the masses. This kind of radio was “larger than life.”

In the summer at the beach, everyone invariably listened to the same station. In my case the choice was WABC which was some 60 miles away in New York City. It was strange because when an extremely popular song would come on you could literally hear the composite volume of all of these radios increase. WABC broadcast the news for five minutes an hour at five minutes before the top. Being kids we didn’t have any interest in current events so all the radios would tune away during the five minute newscast each hour to WMCA in New York which had an inferior signal but was tolerable for five minutes so we could continue to listen to music. Then when WMCA started its news at the top of the hour, all the radios would switch back to WABC. WMCA didn’t have a chance competing with WABC and gave up trying fairly early. They were one of the first of the AM music stations to switch to talk. WABC rolled on into the 1970’s and was still king of airwaves for quite some time.

In the early 1970’s something called FM started to appear on radios. It was largely ignored at first. The few stations on FM were providing niche programming designed to augment but not compete with their AM counterparts. They provided and eclectic mix of what was then called “progressive rock,” classical music and other strange programming that didn’t draw much mass attention. But, slowly through the 70’s things started to change. The Top 40 sound started appearing on the FM dial. In the New York area the first major Top 40 FM station was WXLO or what was called “99X.” This was the catalyst for millions of listeners to sample FM.

Since FM sounded so much better for music, the tiny transistor radios were being replaced with “boom boxes” and high end car stereos as the kids of the Sixties started driving. The thing that FM lacked for the kids of my generation though was those giant AM signals that carried for many states around. FM was more local. FM signals only travel about a hundred miles at best and don’t improve at night. Broadcasters weren’t concerned much with this fact since listeners thousands of miles away weren’t going to help their advertisers. It was nice to be able to say “heard in 38 states at night,” but factually it didn’t really make a station any money since the vast majority of their advertisers were local. The advantage of high quality audio outweighed the more powerful signal of AM. It was the beginning of the end for the giant AM powerhouse Top 40 station.

With all these FM stations popping up there became a talent drought Good radio personalities were becoming hard to find. Programmers desperate for good sounding disk jockeys were forced to literally tell them what to say. This brought on the advent of the “liner card.” Jocks were forced to just read cards with station promotional announcements called “liners” verbatim. It was about this time that I got my first job in radio. I remember these little cards with a heading in all caps that said ‘READ VERBATUM.” Radio started to become stiff and stilted. The thrill of being on the radio was starting to wane. With so many stations available for listeners the music started to fragment. No longer were the play lists filled with variety but hey now became targeted. Reading these little cards and playing the same dozen or so songs over an over made being on the radio a chore. I started to dread doing a “shift.” I say shift since that term was replacing “show” which is what we used to call it. Since you were stripped of any personality you were simply doing an “air shift” now and not a show.

WABC hung on for quite a while playing their tried and true top hits but by 1982 no one was listening. Everyone had moved to FM. They tried to mix in talk in the morning, baseball at night to keep it going but the end of music programming was coming fast. On May 10th, 1982 at noon, it was over. WABC had such an emotional meaning for so many of us growing up even though we all switched to FM by then, that May 10th 1982 was referred to as “the day the music died.” A reference back to the famous plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and The Big Bopper back in the late 50’s.

We all tuned in the morning of May 10th to hear tearful goodbye’s from the favored talents of our childhood. Then at noon there was a moment of silence and all of a suddenâÂ?¦ talk. It was amazing. No one who tuned in to hear the event stayed to sample the new format. WABC would have to build their talk audience from scratch. And of course they did spawning such huge successes as Rush Linbuagh and Shawn Hannity.

Well, in the Northeast it was now official. If you wanted to hear music on the radio, it was the FM dial. Also, you had to pick what kind of music. There were disco only stations, rock stations, “middle of the road” stations for older folks among other niches. No longer could you hear a mix of whatever was generally popular. Personalities were moved to the background since it was perceived that listeners wanted “more music.” This lead many stations to utilize syndicated programming and automation. Programs at smaller stations would come in from miles away and only break to play local advertiser “spots” or ads, or the station would be run by a futuristic complicated automation system that did the job without human intervention. Even more, music radio became stiff and lifeless, a juke box.

Then came radio industry deregulation in the 80’s. Formerly, the FCC would only allow a station owner to have one AM, one FM and one TV station in any market, but that was no longer the case. This ushered in the era of the monster radio company that would gobble up all the smaller concerns and “mom and pop” radio stations in any market they felt could make them a profit. Today the vast majority or radio stations are owned by just a few companies. To further enhance profits, smaller stations are fed programming from bigger ones via advanced computer technology where shows are done not in real time but telescoped down to less than a quarter of that. You now have a single personality doing shows in four or five different markets each day. Since he is not physically located out in these satellite radio markets it becomes difficult for him to feel and sound local, but every effort is made to attempt it. There are some stations now that run 24 hours a day unmanned. Stations “in a closet” all run by computer. As you travel from city to city listening to radio today you notice a homogenization much like burger or pizza chains. It’s all about branding and increasing profit though efficiency. The era of local radio is disappearing.

As I see these monolithic changes in radio, I hearken back to that little transistor radio under the covers and long for the days of the mystical monster radio station in some far away city pumping out my favorite songs on my little “earphone” and thinking to myself “I want to be there.”

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