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A History of Radio and Content, Part III: The Rise Of FM Music Radio

Onward with Chris Stroffolino’s history of the relationship between radio and content. Part I focused on the cylinder to 45 RPM years. Part II continued with the rise of the Jukebox through Top 40 rankings. Part three explores the development of FM music radio.

In the mid-sixties, the corporate intention behind pushing the white British invasion bands in order to cut-out many black artists (and independent labels) largely failed. Top 40 DJS were helping democratize the business and enfranchise the previously disenfranchised, or at least grant some equal opportunity. Sure, some black artists saw their sales decrease, and careers ruined, during this time, but not nearly as many as folks like Neil Sedaka, Paul Anka and even Elvis. Berry Gordy was a huge thorn in RCA and Columbia’s side, but even though more black artists were crossing over and AM Top-40 radio was more integrated than ever by 1965, there were still less opportunities for black deejays and station owners.

In July, 1964 the Federal Communications Commission adopted a non-duplication rule, with the ostensible intention of opening more channels to widen broadcast options and create more opportunities for local entrepreneurs to start stations for under-served demographics, in the spirit of the Civil Rights act, the creation of NPR and community colleges that characterized the “Great Society” legislation of that year. This Non-Duplication rule prohibited FM radio stations from merely running a simulcast of the programming from their AM counterparts. Owners of AM/FM affiliate stations fought these new regulations vigorously, because they would either have to hire more people to come up with different programming, or sell the station which was now costing them more to run.

From the perspective of some of these local radio station owners, this was the government trying to force expansion (and de-stabilization) on them. These owners managed to delay enactment of the new rules until January 1, 1967.

While these station owners were trying to put off enactment of this federal mandated non-duplication rule, many were visited by spokespeople from the major record manufacturers, who had been itching to push the vinyl LP 33 1/3 format for decades.

While the 45 RPM single format became immediately popular upon its initial introduction on the market in 1949, the even older medium of the 33 1/3LP had lagged behind in both sales and profits. Things were different now. Dylan was hotter on Columbia as an LP artist than a single’s artist, as were The Beatles and Beach Boys on Capital, to name but a few. The major labels saw an opportunity.

The newly opened FM band would be a perfect vehicle to increase profits, and show off their more state of art high-fidelity technology that sounded better on FM than on AM. It would also allow them to get rid of the dominance of that pesky-45RPM medium and the local DJS who needed it (they didn’t tell the station owners this part). They reassured these station owners. FM, like the LP, would be a supplement in the growing economy. Sure, independent LP labels like Elektra would benefit from this format, but FM stations needed the industry muscle the majors provided for advertising revenue—for the higher costs the new FM equipment would require as well as the PR needed for these new stations to gain an audience (not at the expense of the already established audience, of course). Just before these record label spokesmen hung up the phone, they’d tell the skeptical station owners:

“Try it for a year or two, and if it doesn’t work, we know someone who can help you out, and take your FM station off your hands. In the meantime, hire some young white idealist hippies; they’ll work for less money. They might even do it for free. Don’t worry; we’ll supply the music–and give your FM station the first run of our new subsidiary label offerings. They won’t even know they’re dealing with ‘the man’ or they’ll be too stoned to care . Just give it a few years.”

One of the most heroic and successful of the new stations that sprung up in 1968, and also truer to the original intention of the FCC rule, was WJBE in Knoxville, Tennessee:

“I thought black communities needed radio stations that really served and represented them. The station I bought in Knoxville had been a black-oriented station but it had gone off the air. When I put it back on I kept it a format of soul and gospel and jazz–the whole spectrum of black music. We had talk shows, too, and editorials and programs directed at kids to get them to stay in school. We directed a lot of it at their parents, too….Second, I wanted my station to be a media training ground so black people could do more than just be jocks. I wanted them to learn advertising, programming, and management at all levels. Third, as owner I wanted to be a symbol of the black entrepreneur. All three of these reasons were, to me, part of education. That was real black power.

Eventually I bought WEBB in Baltimore and WRDW in Augusta. At the time there were around five hundred black-oriented radio stations in the country, but only five of them were owned by black people–and three of those were mine…”

By the mid-seventies, these stations had excellent ratings in their respective markets. But “no matter how good my numbers were, I couldn’t get national advertising on my stations.” The lack of national advertising wouldn’t have been a big problem ten years earlier, but by the mid 1970s, the game had changed so that stations couldn’t really survive without national advertising.

The new FM/LP/Arena Rock culture (regime) is often seen as clear progress over the more sustainable, long-term AM/45/small club culture. The “free format” DJs that sprang up on these stations were pathfinders, idealists, artists and visionaries. Their radio shows were some of the best use of broadcast technology ever, but they were never really a serious threat to the major labels. If radio is real-estate, these idealists were pawns in a land grab.

The major labels’ real enemy, or at least competition, was still the semi-autonomous local Top 40 DJS, and the small record labels that made the 1950-1974 era the heyday of the single. These FM DJS were used by the conglomerates to break up the more organized network of independent labels and stations, and thus local music economies—to re-centralize the entertainment industry that had gotten away from it. At root it’s an issue of labor and business. For the first time, local music radio owners were now taking their lead from the large record companies.

11. Album (LP)

If the major record labels needed to piggy-back, and be subjugated to the whims, of the more popular radio for decades, by 1970 they were seeing the light at the end of the tunnel, and gain more control of A&R and markets than before, even if they had to temporarily align themselves with the underground FM-DJS, as well as TV and Hollywood to do so. One of the ways Hollywood recovered in the 1970s was by luring its enemy, the relatively independent network of regional labels to relocate to L.A. and (re)-centralize the industry. In LA, the major media conglomerates could defeat the independents through co-optation; Motown perhaps being the best case in point, but this was paradigmatic during the 1970s.

As Hollywood made a comeback in the 1970s, the album grew. 1970 marks the first major shift toward re-centralization. By the early 1970s FM had adopted the AOR Format. Now there were more movies “about” music; bigger meant better. The industry’s move to LA cleaned up (or white washed) the music business. Radio was more efficient and cost effective at no loss of quality (researches showed). Playlists prevented any messy payola scandals, just as Lake Erie was magically cleaned when the calendar changed to 1/1/1970.

For over a decade, it seemed that the sonic ‘progress’ of FM and LPS would not mean a loss of what had been great about previous modes of recording and broadcasting. You could have both the 45RPM and the LP, the best of both world even if some always fell through the cracks. AM-TOP 40 is not categorically superior or inferior to FM.. For instance, “Hey Jude/Revolution” was strictly a single, while the White Album was strictly an album. If you were a musician who made singles, the mode of the album would allow you to “stretch out” and not feel so pressured to always have the next new single–yet it also put up some more walls between you and your listener.

If you were a music listener, the album was a better deal, more bang for your buck, and it was allegedly higher quality than the single, just as FM was an advance from AM, and you didn’t have to deal with as many commercials if you listened to these stations, or annoying talky DJS. Coming of age with music in the seemingly expansive music economy of the 1970s, as a pre-teen I eventually succumbed to the “longer is better” philosophy that was the dictate of the album. But the arena show, which was supposed to be the live equivalent of these advances, quickly became less bang for more buck, as they became the industry standard years before Reagan officially implemented his “trickle down” economics, and now both FM and the LP were taking their lead from the “shock and awe” of the trickle down arena show.

In retrospect, it wasn’t a balance between 45/AM and 33/FM; it was only a “transitional” time in modes of music production/distribution. When LPS were good, they were often great, but when they were bad the consumer would feel more ripped off than the consumer of the single did because of the cost in both money and time; by the mid 1970s, the relatively autonomous single that wasn’t already part of an album had disappeared. Without the mode of the single to keep them in check, albums became flabbier as they proliferated.

By the mid-1970s the record company executives were applauding themselves, a lot. Their profits were gaining exponentially, and they had effected the phase out of the top-40 personality DJ that had been a thorn in their side—just by blocking the the idealism of Howard Hesseman. Thanks to their efforts, by the end of the decade, we’d have the proto-dispersants of dentist office stations.

12. Inflation & The Decline of Top 40 Radio

Top-40 AM radio was like one-stop shopping downtown, but FM radio was more like the malls in the suburbs (or Florida, Texas & California, the three states with the most rapid growth during the 1970s and 80s), and offered a more sprawling place in the country. FM didn’t overtake AM in listenership in North America until 1978; it was such a protracted transitional time that many didn’t understand that AM Top-40 radio, the 45RPM single, and even the non-material concept of the single, were dying. The slow decline of the single from 1972 to 1985 was in blatant disregard of consumer demand, but had more to do with the profit motive of the major labels than any aesthetic, technological or social, imperative. This may seem paradoxical outside the logic of monopoly capitalism.

Single sales stayed brisk and steady, but now they were subordinate to the LP, even on Top 40 radio. Sales of albums and, more importantly, stereo component and home entertainment systems, rose. Cassettes were a new thorn in the side, but the record labels could piggy back on them, when Sony came up with the Walkman, for instance. But it’s no accident that the rise of the LP and the FM band parallels the rise in inflation. Inflation is tricky way of lowering people’s wages while making them think they’re getting a raise.

Inflation was not much of an issue during the heyday of the single, but by 1974, “the 1967 dollar” wasn’t what it used to be, and it has never been since. You only had to look at the nearest gas station to see the cracks in the facade of the 70s expansive music economy: the Vietnam War debt coming home to roost in the form of inflation and increased segregation. The album allowed the labels to make more profits: even as national record labels laid off factory workers and took moves to force their artists to put out music less frequently in the 70s (where they used to force them to put out music more frequently), songs stayed on charts longer because less music was played. Commercial radio, whether FM or AM, increasingly played less new music, especially music by new artists (and certainly not by new local artists).

Playlists became smaller; songs lasted longer; less songs became hits for longer periods of time. Less one-hit wonders,and instrumentals were played on the radio (as there was now less talk on music radio). The inflationary era of the mega-star had begun. Radio took less chances, was slower to respond to its listeners. Formats fragmented; the center could not hold. Even if Top 40 stations still existed in name, the niche-market stations had stronger signals and bigger advertising budgets. Technological standards now froze out some of the most vital music, as a form of “market censorship.” “You can record it, but the market won’t go for it; and we know that because we are the market.”

In the lyrics of 1970s radio, arena, album-oriented corporate rock, labor became increasingly unglamorous. Although rock and pop music historians will try to tell you this was a reaction to the overweening obsession with “relevance” the late 1960s free-format DJS had, far less of the LP album-oriented concept album artists from the late 1960s were ever as blatant about labor as were singles from the 50s and 60s; this blue-collar backdrop to seemingly benign throw-away 2 minute songs that embrace poverty and not just “as other” like the hippies often did.

America was changing. Prices were rising, cities were dying. There was a lot of talk of redevelopment and comebacks. So many mega-stars saw what was happening to the business, but like the family watching the wrecking ball destroy downtown in Gary Adelstein’s Reading 1974: Portrait of a City, were helpless to do anything about it. It was coming from all sides. Since downtowns were dying, colleges and public universities were relocated to “riot proof” campuses, pedestrian comparison shopping was relegated to well policed suburban malls, locally run dance-halls were subject to curfews and crackdowns while shows in large sports arenas grew. Since locally owned business were being undersold by carpet-bagging colonizing chain stores that didn’t even carry records anymore, there was significantly less advertising revenue for locally owned radio stations. Besides, most of these radio stations were being painted as “Square” because they still played 45s.

Radio programming became more paternalistic. A lot of consumers didn’t blink much of an eye. Radio and the record industry, they were told, was just growing up with them. The demographic born from roughly 1941-1961 had the numbers, and just as predicted, had been hooked by the single as kids. The single was a gateway drug. The industry still marketed product to kids, but the next generation of kids would not have the same access to a range of new music as their parents had. Radio is much easier to take from a baby …especiallyif she’s more numbed on TV and Hollywood now than back when it wasn’t considered a breaking the law to just hang out downtown and sing doo-wop or second-line. How can you blame a younger generation for living at the movies if our downtown was dead, in part because our parents had moved 5 miles away to a suburb with its promise of Jetson FM/LP white collar no static Brady Bunch heaven!

The question of whether “rock is dead” largely misses the point; it’s the medium and the particular modes and means of cultural production that enabled rock (and other music) that are dead. We knew about corporate rock in the 70s, but we didn’t realize that 40 years later that the trend would still not have reversed itself, and the clampdown of which the Clash sang about now seem like a mere love-tap in retrospect. Music itself was less central to American social-life. By the 1980s, most people had forgotten about the live-show as primary. So, when radio abandoned us, it was much harder to find a fall-back. Video didn’t kill the radio star as much as the record industry pulled the rug from under radio on many fronts, surrounding it, leaving it at its mercy.

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