The first television programming appeared in the early 1940’s. No one saw it. It was wartime in America and we weren’t out buying new home entertainment devices. By the late 40’s, things had changed. Families were reunited, we were on the verge of an age of prosperity and the baby boomer generation was learning to walk. The radio set market was saturated and manufacturers shifted their focus to television sets. The networks did the same. By the early 50’s, NBC and CBS and ABC, the dominant radio program producers for the previous 25 years, abandoned radio. Gone were the comedians, the drama and the variety shows that fueled radio listening. Gone were the days when the family gathered around the radio after dinner.
Was radio, the medium that provided the soundtrack to imagine your own images, doomed? Nope. In fact, for every year in the decades of the 1950’s and 1960’s radio had increased ad sales. Radio reinvented itself and built new audiences, redefining American culture along the way. Turns out radio had some real advantages that the corporate manufacturers and network programmers might have overlooked.
- Radio is mobile. In fact, after 1947 with the invention of the transistor, radio was even more mobile. You don’t have to sit around a piece of furniture at home to listen to radio. It’s in the car, you could bring to the park, shove it in your purse or pocket or stick it under your pillow.
- Radio is cheap. Transistor radios were a few bucks. Kids probably only had to mow the grass or take out the garbage a couple times to get enough allowance to get their very own personal transistor radio. And access is free.
- You can listen to radio while you’re doing something else and not miss a thing. Cook dinner, drive to work, sit outside on the patio, paint the walls; radio is there with you.
- Radio is local. While we have been accustomed to thinking that the most important programming on the air is networked and national, many prefer and seek out local media and once the networks abandoned radio that’s what it became.
- Between 1940 and 1960 the number of cars in the United States roughly doubled. And there have been radios in cars since the 1930’s.
But all of those things might not have led to a true radio renaissance were it not for one more thing. Teenagers. More of them than ever before, because all those baby boomers were becoming teens in the 50’s and 60’s. And these teenagers were intent on defining themselves. They did it with their clothes, their hairstyles, and their musical tastes. They in fact became the trendsetters for style in America. And they were an enormous new market.
There have been three waves of renewed interest in radio since the mid-20th century. Each was in part triggered by a rejection of the prevailing state of mass media in America.
Back in the 20’s radio was the only place where many young people, and especially young white people, could hear jazz, a musical form thought to be outright degenerate and subversive by many of their parents. The same scenario repeated itself in 50’s with rhythm and blues and rock ‘n’ roll, terms that initially were only distinguishable by the color of the skin of the artists making the music. And that was the music that teenagers were playing on their car radio and listening to on their transistors at the beach. Gone were Jack Benny and Ozzie Nelson and Red Skelton. Now we had Alan Freed, Wolfman Jack, Murray the K and Cousin Brucie.
Rock ‘n’ roll on radio caught fire. After all, it was cooler to be making out in a parked car listening to Elvis than sitting around the TV with your family watching Ozzie and Harriet. It eventually gave rise to Top 40 radio. But as station owners and advertisers gravitated to this format, they turned it into a jingle-laden ad fest in which just a few songs were played over and over again. And ultimately it led many, including the next generation of culturally rebellious teens to abandon the AM dial. AM Top 40 radio went from being the musical accompaniment of 1950’s teen rebellion to being part of the mainstream mass media that the next wave of radio would rebel against.
FM had been around for a couple decades but was of little consequence. Until the 60’s that is. Music aficionados were drawn to the higher quality sound. The FCC issued a ruling that required stations that had both an AM and a FM outlet to offer different programming on the two. And AM radio had become a commercial wasteland at a time when a new generation of young people were rejecting the commercialism of American society. As a result of all of these factors the number of FM stations in the United States increased from 570 in the mid-50’s to 3,700 by the mid-70’s.
FM was an almost blank canvas and it brought out a new form of radio. Stations like WNEW-FM in New York once again turned the programming over to the DJ and what we heard went by names such as progressive rock or underground music. It was the music by which to join a campus protest, grow your hair or burn everything from a draft card to a bra. And the fact that it enhanced the experience of the most popular recreational drugs of the time didn’t hurt either.
Like early rock ‘n’ roll radio before it, the success of FM attracted the same corporate owners and advertisers as before. And with them came restricted programming, fixed playlists, and narrowly-defined formats. And a complete loss of the vitality that FM had been built with.
In the late 80’s there was one more wave of new programming that brought audiences back to radio. And to the AM dial at that. Talk radio also emerged because of the general dissatisfaction with the prevailing norm of the nation’s mass media, and especially television. There were the so-called ‘shock jocks’ like Howard Stern and Imus who said things you supposedly couldn’t say on TV. There were the far right and seriously loud demagogues like Rush Limbaugh whose outrageous statements attract an audience that probably looks a lot like those who show up at Donald Trump rallies. Even sports developed a controversy courting contingent and most major cities eventually had a sports talk radio station or two where callers expressed outrage over the latest player trade or lack thereof. There were 850 talk radio stations in the mid 90’s compared to 200 a decade earlier.
At the same time, public radio in the form of NPR sprung up as an alternative to the increasing shallowness of other forms of broadcast news. NPR was a tag-on to the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act which was primarily focused on the creation of PBS television. But by the middle of the 70’s about 11 million Americans were listening to NPR news. Criticisms by right-wing politicians and an increased dependence on corporate sponsors have made NPR more risk-averse than it was initially and under the current administration it could well lose federal funding.
Susan J. Douglas (Listening In) comments that “talk radio and NPR led the way in opening up airwaves to a range of voices, some quite unwelcome elsewhere.” David Halberstam (Sports on New York Radio) defines some of those voices as “opinion mongers, political demogogues, holistic health advocates and scam artists.”
So did video kill the radio star? Definitely not. It changed radio, it changed who listened to radio and it changed the programming. But you can make the case that it made radio better. Now what happens with broadband? With streaming? And with smart phones?