FM radio is one of the many technologies that have snuck into our daily lives over the 20th century. FM broadcasting is so common today that many of us may take it for granted. FM radio popularity only started getting traction in the 1960s, decades after its initial conception. In today’s article, we will show the early rise of FM radio and explain why and how it happened.
When did FM radio become popular?
The early history of FM radio
The FM radio was invented by the renowned American engineer Edwyn Howard Armstrong in 1933. FM broadcasts soon began, but were mainly experimental, and were led by Armstrong himself. Some radio stations of note from this time are W2XMN, KE2XCC, WGTR, and WHCN (which still exist today under the name “The River 105.9”). While most of them wouldn’t last long after their conception they set the stage for the future rise of FM radio.
Related: When did FM radio start
FMs decade: the 60s
Even if FM had already proven itself as better than AM when it came to providing high fidelity sound, the fact that AM was already seen as the default and many who had already invested in broadcasting saw little reason to change. The fact that the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) changed the range of FM numerous times before finding the optimal 88 to 108 MGh radio spectrum. As the wealth and buying power of Americans increased over the 1950s most families had at least one television set by 1955. Soon television became the favorite medium for consuming entertainment programing. Although radio continued to host some successful programs, Gunsmoke being a noteworthy example, by the middle of the 1960s most production of entertainment programming ceased. Realizing that they needed a major change to survive radio broadcasters started to look for new ways to retain their consumer base. A new radio format came from their brainstorming, Top 40. This meant playing the top 40 most popular songs on the radio, instead of broadcasting entertainment shows. This is the time when some major broadcasters started to again look at FM broadcasting due to its better transmission of high fidelity sound. Of course, there were other reasons as well:
- Between the end of the Second World War in 1945 and the year, 1960 the AM radio stations grew exponentially which started to overcrowed the AM transmission range. In the late 1950s, there were more than a hundred new AM radio stations each year.
- Many new stations operated only during the day, being forced to shut off operations at sunset, which left many areas with no broadcasts during the later hours.
- Many new and existing AM radio stations had a directional antenna for day and night coverage which limited their range.
Why and how did FM become so popular?
Many thought that their only real chance of expanding was by investing in FM radio broadcasting, as it was not overcrowded as AM. Furthermore, the FCC approved in 1961 the technical standards for stereophonic radio which tremendously helped place FM in the minds of the public when they expressed a need for high fidelity sound, which is something AM couldn’t do. It was also decided in the mid-1960s, by the FCC, of course, to limit program simulcasting by co-owned AM and FM stations also helped greatly. Many FM stations at this time also stopped broadcasting classical music in favor of progressive rock, which attracted a younger and more rebellious crowd, further increasing FMs popularity. Still, FMs rise wasn’t as quick as might have been expected, AM radio stations still held on strong for years, even if FM could provide a better service. By the year 1970 FM radio stations were on their way to becoming more numerous than AM radio stations and they finally did in 1978. At this point, FM radio dominated in all music genres, from the classiest classical music to the hardest metal FM was the listeners’ choice. Through the 1980s and 1990s, most AM stations would finally abandon the “Top 40” radio format and move on to talk shows, religious programming, and other similar programming where FM had not moved in as much and where high fidelity sound wasn’t as required. They continue to dominate this niche to this day.
We would again like to mention “The River 105.9” as an example of how early FM stations operated. Then known as “106-WHCN” it changed from broadcasting classical music to progressive rock in 1969 and a few years later changed to album-oriented rock in 1976. It remained very popular and successful through the 70s and 80s. It also had its own morning talk show “Picozzi and The Horn”, reminiscent of the era when radio stations were the main medium for consuming such content. It had its final change in the mid-1990s when it switched to classic rock which is the genre that it continues to air to this day.
So far we have only covered the development of FM radio in the United States of America, let’s take a look abroad.
Rise of FM beyond America
After the successful adoption of FM radio in the United States broadcasters from other countries started to take interest in this new technology. For example, when commercial broadcasting was introduced in the United Kingdom in 1973 a massive expansion of new radio stations happened, most of the FM. This expansion only escalated further, in the case of FM, between 1980 and 1995 when the FM band was expanded to 108.0 MHz. In Italy and Greece FM became popular at a similar time as it did in the United States, but here the charge was led by “pirate radios” whose actions forced their respective governments to implement FM faster. The technology was so popular that it even expanded the Eastern blocks (better known as the Warsaw pact) where it operated under a different frequency band called OIRT (International Radio and Television Organisation), which had a band range of 65.9 to 74.0 MHz. FM broadcast began in Turkey in the late 1960s, but it was quicker to gain popularity than in other parts of the world with FM dominating by the end of the 1970s. Also of note is Ireland, where FM was, like in Oceania, slow to catch on.
Australia and New Zealand are special cases. These countries (and many others in Oceania) are famous for the fact that FM never reached the popularity as it did in other parts of the world and AM still remains more popular as of the writing of this article.
The Future of FM radios
As of now, Norway is the first country to switch its AM and FM broadcasting in favor of digital audio broadcasting (it did so in 2017). Does this mean that the end of FM is near, probably not at least not until the begging of the next decade? FM broadcasting is in too widespread use to just be switched off like that.
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What does FM stand for?
FM stands for frequency modulation. FM conveys sound through changes in frequency.
Why is FM superior to AM?
As we have already mentioned FM conveys sound through changes in its frequency, while AM conveys sound through its amplitude (highest possible value of the carrier wave) which is susceptible to change which produces static.
How was FM invented in 1933 when the Dutch radio station PCGG was active in the second and third decades of the 20th century?
PCGG used a narrower band of FM (developed by Hanso Idzerda) in contrast to the wideband FM developed by Edwyn Howard Armstrong in the 1930s.
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