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Remember when we’d listen to the Radio …

Family around the radio – flickr

As I write this I’m listening to CKWW a “one lung” 500 watt AM radio station in Windsor Ontario. They play “Oldies”from the 1960s through the 1970s. Fairly unusual these days since it seems like all AM stations have gone the “Talk” format. This one has local DJs as well. And I am listening on a Hallicrafters S40 receiver made in the late 1940s.

It was the invention of the thermionic valve (vacuum tube) by John Ambrose Fleming and the Audion by Lee DeForest that turned Wireless into Radio.  From the very beginning radio in this country was a commercial venture with no government broadcasting by any station. IE no CBC or BBC or NHK etc. Making this country probably the only country where that is the case. Though Wireless was purely commercial as well.

Nearly all the first radio stations were run or originated or affiliated with some commercial enterprise. To advertise what ever product the enterprise was selling. From newspapers to seeds to tires to tooth paste. And the government — seeing that some sort of oversight was necessary — put radio broadcasting under the commerce department.  Though this proved to be wildly inadequate as radio stations began sprouting up like weeds.

One interesting aspect of this though — all radio sets were of the type where it took a good deal of time and patience to tune in a station, any station. Most were either crystal sets or what was known as TRF or Tuned Radio Frequency. Where each stage of the set had to be tuned separately. Like this Atwater Kent model. So once you got a station tuned in, you were unlikely to change stations and tuning around was pretty much out of the question. And all sets were ran off of batteries, so you only listened to shows you really wanted to.

It wasn’t until the invention of the superheterodyne circuit by Edward Armstrong that radios became convenient to use and the move from batteries to AC wall current. Radio set manufacturers began to sprout up as well and radio became the big thing. RCA began the first radio network — NBC.

In 1923, the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) acquired control of WJZ in Newark, New Jersey, from Westinghouse, and moved the station to New York City[1] The same year, RCA obtained a license for station WRC in Washington, D.C., and attempted to transmit audio between WJZ and WRC via low-quality telegraph lines, in an attempt to make a network comparable to that operated by American Telephone & Telegraph.

AT&T had created its own network in 1922, with WEAF in New York serving the research and development function for Western Electrics research and development of radio transmitters and antennas, as well as AT&T’s long-distance and local Bell technologies for transmitting voice- and music-grade audio over short and long distances, via both wireless and wired methods. WEAF’s regular schedule of a variety of programs, and its selling of commercial sponsorships, had been a success, and what was known at first as “chain broadcasting” became a network that linked WJAR in Providence, Rhode Island and AT&T’s WCAP in Washington.

Since AT&T refused access of its high-quality phone lines to competitors, RCA’s New York-Washington operated with uninsulated telegraph lines which were incapable of good audio transmission quality and very susceptible to both atmospheric and man-made electrical interference. In 1926, however, the management of AT&T concluded that operating a radio network was incompatible with its operation of America’s telephone and telegraph service, and sold WEAF and WCAP to RCA for approximately one million dollars. As part of the purchase, RCA also gained the rights to rent AT&T’s phone lines for network transmission, and the technology for operating a quality radio network.

On September 13, 1926, RCA chairman of the board Owen D. Young and president James G. Harbord announced the formation of the National Broadcasting Company, Inc.,[2] to begin broadcasting upon RCA’s acquisition of WEAF on November 15. “The purpose of the National Broadcasting Company will be to provide the best programs available for broadcasting in the United States… It is hoped that arrangements may be made so that every event of national importance may be broadcast widely throughout the United States,” announced M.H. Aylesworth, the first president of NBC, in the press release.[3]

NBC was actually two networks, The Red Network — carried big budget sponsored programs. The Blue Network carried newer lower budget programs and un-sponsored or “sustaining” programs like culture and news. Though NBC had no news division in their radio networks at this time.

To counter RCA and NBC the “United Independent Broadcasters” network was created by Arthur Judson. Needing additional investment, the Columbia Phonograph Company, manufacturers of Columbia Records, rescued it in April 1927. Creating the “Columbia Phonographic Broadcasting System” which became the Columbia Broadcasting System or simply CBS. The owners then hired in William S. Paley as president.

At about this same time the Radio Act of 1927 was passed creating The Federal Radio Commission. But the FRC had little control over content of the programming, especially advertising:

The act did not authorize the Federal Radio Commission to make any rules regulating advertising. Advertising was mentioned in the act with only slightly more authority than networking; merely requiring advertisers to identify themselves:

“All matter broadcast by any radio station for which service, money, or any other valuable consideration is directly paid, or promised to, or charged to, or accepted by, the station so broadcasting, from any person, firm, company, or corporation, shall at the time the same is so broadcast, be announced as paid for or furnished as the case may be, by such person, firm, company, or corporation.”

A forerunner of theequal-time rulewas stated in section (18) of the Radio Act of 1927 which ordered stations to give equal opportunities for political candidates. The act did vest in the Federal Radio Commission the power to revoke licenses and give fines for violations of the act.

Add to this, the frequencies that stations were to broadcast on were constantly being moved around. A station on 830KHZ could find they have been move to 1220khz and then to 740 kh? This make life for staions very difficult and even more so for the listeners of the early radio sets. More than a few stations did not survive this jumbling around.

The FRC began to regulate some content though and this caused quite a stir.

When broadcasting began to be regulated, and stations had to have a broadcast license, some saw this as an infringement of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution stating that the government shall not stop freedom of speech in the media. This was because prior to broadcast licensing, anyone could start transmitting their views cheaply and efficiently. The FRC cracked down on “vulgar” language — for example the profanity-filled rants of William K. Henderson (on KWKH in Shreveport, Louisiana), non-mainstream political views, and “fringe” religions.

Almost from the start, the FRC was accused of being captured by the industry it regulated, radio broadcasters. Historians and contemporary critics who held this position generally pointed to the results of FRC regulation which, in many cases, advantaged large commercial radio broadcasters at the expense of smaller noncommercial broadcasters. Early radio regulation has since become a commonly used example of rent-seeking.

In 1934 though congress passed the Communications Act creating the Federal Communications Commission which had authority over common carrier – such as telephone and telegraph — as well as radio. Also by this time the networks were well established and expanding. But network and radio news was not.Radio was entertainment and the number of programs was immense. One of the first actions of the new FCC was to notice that NBC had virtually monopolized netork broadcasting. So after a lengthy court battle, NBC was forced to break off one of it’s networks. Which was to become ABC, the American Broadcasting Corporation.

CBS became the first and only network to have a news division. In 1930 William S. Paley created an independent news division at CBS.

A key early hire was Edward R. Murrow in 1935; his first corporate title was Director of Talks. He was mentored in microphone technique by Robert Trout, the lone full-timer of the News Division, and quickly found himself in a growing rivalry with boss White.[41] Murrow was glad to “leave the hothouse atmosphere of the New York office behind”[42] when he was dispatched to London as CBS’s European Director in 1937, a time when the growing Hitler menace underscored the need for a robust European Bureau. Halberstam described Murrow in London as “the right man in the right place in the right era”.[43] Murrow began assembling the staff of broadcast journalists—including William L. Shirer, Charles Collingwood and Eric Sevareidwho would become known asMurrow’s Boys“. They were “in [Murrow’s] own image, sartorially impeccable, literate, often liberal, and prima donnas all“.[44] They covered history in the making, and sometimes made it themselves: on March 12, 1938, Hitler boldly annexed nearby Austria and Murrow and Boys quickly assembled coverage with Shirer in London, Edgar Ansel Mowrer in Paris, Pierre Huss in Berlin, Frank Gervasi in Rome and Trout in New York.[45] The News Round-Up format was born and is still ubiquitous today in broadcast news.

Murrow and his staff would later make the transition to television and make CBS the number one news outlet for years. During the war years, the FCC curtailed all use of radio communications except military and commercial broadcasting. Also radios that were made in during the 1930s and 1940s quite often had at least on shortwave band. And some had 2 or 3, so that one could listen to foreign broadcasts. It would not be unusual to find people listening to Ed Morrow over the BBC.

By the end of the war though, this feature would disappear from all or nearly all radios. And radio itself would change drastically as well. The radio programs that dominated the AM airwaves would either transition to television or disappear all together.

Video Killed the Radio Star…?

Except for news and a few weekend programs, the networks began to put all their energy and money into television. Some of the big radio programs transitioned to television, some did not. Some personalities did, some did not. But by the mid 1950s network radio was all but gone. Leaving many stations having to come up with programming. Playing records was often the default programming. This was not new. In 1935 Martin Block started a show called Make Believe Ballroom where he played records and announced who and what they were.

But it was Todd Storz and Gordon McLendon that saved radio … at least for a while. It was Storz that developed the Top 40 radio format and  Gordon McLendon that began to use Jingles. By noticing that people would play the same songs on the Juke Box over and over and finding out which ones these were and building a radio playlist around them. Then adding jingles and station contests, they were able to improve their audience.

With DJs like Allen Freed and Russ “Weird Beard” Knight and Pete “Mad Daddy” Myers and others who were playing R&B and what would be know as Rock-A-Billy then Rock and Roll. Television was the parents medium but radio quickly became the kids medium. Radio you could take with you and the DJs seemed to talk to you, not at you. Radio was a more personal and more spontaneous medium. Taylor made for the youth of the day. AM Top 40 reached it’s peak in the early 1970s then began to make a decline.

FM was beginning to take away AM’s audience. FM radio was technically superior to AM. It was virtually noise free, had a wider audio frequency response and was now in stereo. FM began to show up in portable radios and car radios. But FM was local only in coverage. And the Top 40 format did not transfer well to FM. For what ever reason the energy and spontaneity of AM Top, 40 did not come across on FM nearly as well.

At night AM radio stations could be heard thousands of miles from where they was located. The Top 40 music was programmed locally even on the big power house stations and so reflected the moods of the area of coverage. FM stations were more expensive to operate — required larger antennas and more powerful transmitters to get the same coverage.

And AM station located at the bottom of the AM dial could cover a very large area with only 1000 watts or so. Witness the station I mentioned at the beginning of this diary. The lower the frequency, the better the coverage.

Major corporations would buy up the FM stations and feed them satellite programming. A local station with local coverage programmed thousands of miles away by people who knew and cared nothing of the audience, only the ratings and money it would generate. And as the founders of the networks themselves retired and left – David Sarnoff, William Paley — they too became mere commodities to be bought and sold with profit the only vision. News became just another program to sell advertising on.

So the AM Top 40 programming eventually went the way of the big bands and big star programming before it. Radio — like television — became it’s own commodity. The medium, message and product.

But there are still a few stations that still program to their locality, these are mostly AM stations. Small stations that still serve a purpose besides lining somebodies pocket.

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