FM RADIO: 75 YEARS OF SERVICE (Displayed February–December 2009)
Creating a New System (to 1941)
FM developed as an answer to AM radio’s technical limitations–static interference and poor sound quality. Largely the innovation of a single man—Edwin Howard Armstrong—FM began with his series of experiments at Columbia University in the early 1930s. First publically demonstrated four years later, experimental stations soon (1938–40) demonstrated how much better static-free FM sounded. Pressure built on the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) to allocate spectrum for the new radio service. The commission finally approved commercial FM operation, which began in January 1941. Broadcasters and the public showed great interest in the new medium.
War and Change (1941–45)
Wartime priorities froze FM with nearly 50 stations on 40 channels between 42 and 50 MHz, serving about 400,000 receivers. Programming often amounted to just a few hours a day due to a scarcity of equipment, replacement parts, and operators (technical people were often drafted). Broadcasters planned their post-war expansion. In Washington, a complex series of FCC hearings in 1944–45 finally resulted in a May 1945 decision to shift postwar FM broadcasting to 88 to 108 MHz (its present location) to allow expansion to 100 channels while accommodating television. Existing FM receivers were made obsolete, overnight, irritating consumers. This was controversial among FM proponents. FM broadcasting would have to begin anew, new receivers had to be designed, and television was waiting in the wings.
Dismal Years (1945–57)
In 1946–48 new FM stations began to appear on the expanded FM band while existing stations prepared to shift their operations to that same band. But television was expanding at the same time—and soon took up available funds, personnel and time, and interest in FM began to fade. By 1950, FM stations began to go off the air due to small audiences and little advertising revenue. Rural areas usually had no FM stations, and because FM signals did not travel very far, listeners outside urban areas had no FM signals available. In despair over this as well as a dragging patent lawsuit against manufacturer RCA, Armstrong took his own life in early 1954. Few homes used FM sets as there was little reason to—most FM stations “simulcast” what their AM owners were broadcasting. The big networks—NBC, CBS, and Mutual—still focused on AM. A few independent stations in larger cities played background or classical music. Advertisers had no interest. A brief experiment with FM on public transit failed. FM seemed to be on the way out.
By 1958, FM’s fortunes began to turn as more stations took to the air. Interest in high-fidelity sound, the end of television’s initial expansion, and a lack of available AM channels in major markets turned attention back to FM’s potential. Some stations broadcast stereo, with AM used for one channel and FM for the other. The FCC approved multiplex operation in 1955 (allowing stations to send music into stores and offices), and multiplex stereo broadcasting in 1961, so that both stereo channels could be sent out on one signal. Applications for new FM stations rose accordingly, as did receiver sales. Advertisers experimented with touting high-end products for FM’s slowly growing audience. FM was becoming available in automobiles, the most important place for radio listening. In larger cities FM stations often featured folk music and other program formats not available on AM stations.
A Sound Alternative (1966–80)
FM took off from the late 1960s into the 1970s, becoming the fastest-growing broadcast medium. More stations and a growing audience appealed to advertisers who purchased more air time. Despite broadcaster resistance, the FCC pushed through rules requiring FM stations to provide some programs different from those aired on their AM outlets. For the first time, FM gained its own sound as stations experimented with a wide variety of music and talk formats. Educational (soon called public) FM stations also became popular thanks to National Public Radio and other program providers. And thanks to transistor technology, many FM radio receivers were available in all price brackets, including those in cars. While less than 10 percent of cars featured FM in 1965, nearly 80 percent did by 1980.
FM’s total national audience first surpassed that for AM radio in 1979–80; by the mid-1990s, nearly 80 percent of all radio listening was to FM stations. They provided much of radio’s music and a growing amount of its talk programming as well. By the late 1980s, FM dominated local market ratings. Indeed, by that point, FM and radio were one and the same–the total number of FM outlets outnumbered AM by a growing proportion each year. FM station selling prices were up sharply, with new records set every year. Public radio—virtually all FM—was also growing rapidly, adding more than 700 outlets in this period.
Competition in the Air (since 1995)
Look around—somebody nearby is probably listening to an iPod or other MP3 player. Offices and homes are increasingly equipped with satellite radio tuners. Many more people listen to radio online. Though almost universally available by the early 21st century, FM is now just one source of quality sound for music and talk—and over the past decade, that competition has been growing. On the horizon is digital broadcasting (“HD Radio”) which will eventually supersede both AM and FM.