Jacqueline Hochheiser, Corporate Communications
Radio has been a central part of our lives for over a century. The medium has seen major transformations, from the introduction of commercial broadcasting to the rise of satellite radio. The introduction of FM radio in the late 1930s was one of the most significant developments in radio technology. This new method of broadcasting fundamentally changed the way audiences consume music and news. FM radio has evolved with time from its inception to the present day to best serve and adapt to the listener as their needs change through the decades.
The Early Years
The term “FM” is an abbreviation for “frequency modulation,” which describes a specific method of encoding audio signals onto high-frequency carrier signals for transmission over the air. The concept of FM radio was first conceived by American electrical engineer, Edwin Armstrong in the early 20th century. Armstrong had already made significant contributions to radio technology, including the invention of the superheterodyne circuit, another fundamental component of radio receivers.
Armstrong revolutionized FM radio by modulating the carrier signal’s frequency instead of its amplitude, which had been the standard broadcasting method up to that point. In simpler terms, this means that instead of varying the strength or power of the radio waves carrying audio signals, FM radio uses changes in the frequency of the waves. This method is more efficient than AM (amplitude modulation) and produces clearer, more robust signals that are less prone to interference from other sources.
Despite the clear advantages of FM radio, it took a number of years for the technology to become popular with the general public. At first, broadcasters were reluctant to invest in new technology when AM radio was already so well-established, and switching to FM would require fundamental changes in infrastructure. Armstrong first demonstrated FM radio in 1935, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that the technology began to make an impact on the broadcasting industry.
Gaining a Foothold
By the 1930s, home radios had started to become more popular with 40 percent of American households owning a radio system, and it only continued to grow. FM radio started to take hold in the 1960s, as it allowed for a broader range of programming due to its capability to support more stations than AM could with better quality audio on the listener end. FM radio stations began to spring up across the country, offering listeners everything from rock to jazz, and even talk shows and news coverage. AM radio was typically used to broadcast spoken word, as the technology couldn’t produce a clear enough sound to broadcast music. With more variety in entertainment, it’s no wonder FM caught on quickly with the general public.
One of the earliest and most influential FM radio stations was WNEW-FM in New York City. WNEW-FM was launched in 1958 as a classical music station, but its format quickly evolved to include jazz and other genres. By the 1960s, WNEW-FM had become one of the most popular and dominant stations in the New York City area, featuring well-known DJs like Alison Steele and Scott Muni.
The growth of FM radio was further fueled by the proliferation of home stereo systems. In the 1950s and 1960s, the number of American households with a radio system had increased to 95 percent. FM radio stations began to promote audio quality as a selling point for household users, and many music fans purchased specialized FM stereo receivers to take full advantage of the technology.
In the 1970s, FM radio continued to evolve, with stations experimenting with new genres including rock, punk, and disco, but the evolution of FM was far from over. In the following decades, FM began to adapt to changing formats, programming and business models that would enhance the listener’s experience.
Modernization and Technical Advancement
By the 1980s, there were hundreds of FM radio stations across the country, each with its own unique sound and audience. During the 80s, the introduction of digital audio broadcasting (DAB) promised higher sound quality and greater signal stability. However, the adoption of DAB was slow due to the high cost of upgrading radio equipment and the lack of available frequencies.
Through the following decades, FM and audio entertainment channels continued to evolve and diversify. The 1990s and 2000s saw a major turn toward digital media and subscription-based platforms. Despite these changes, FM and audio entertainment was able to offer increased variety of talk shows, podcasts, music genres etc. Regardless of the numerous digital platforms, FM still remains relevant today.
The growth of FM radio from the early twentieth century to the present has been marked by significant changes in programming, format, and business models. From the rise of niche programming to the introduction of satellite radio, FM radio has continually adapted to new technologies and audience preferences. Despite these changes, FM radio remains a vital part of the broadcasting landscape, offering listeners a diverse range of programming options and connecting communities through the power of audio.