Do you ever wonder while listening to the car radio, while driving to or from work, how did we ever get the luxury of listening to such high-quality sound of music or the news?
All that without needing to be connected to the internet or something similar that would be costly and constraint our movement if we wanted to continue listening?
Well, it’s all thanks to a neat little invention called the FM radio! The FM radio traces back to the early 1930s, and that is actually when the FM radio started. Short for frequency modulation in our modern time, FM radio is used for a wide variety of purposes, but usually for broadcasting music and generally good quality audio.
The beginning of FM radio
As the main intention of this article is to educate its readers about the history of one of our favorite mediums, we will not be covering ways to connect to various FM radio stations (this will be covered in a later edition). No the exact mathematics that is needed to fully understand the way FM transmits information.
First, let’s answer the question: What is FM broadcasting? FM is a broadcasting technology that uses frequency modulation (or FM) to provide high-fidelity sound over a radio.
We can trace the beginning of the FM radio to the early 1930s. Specifically, the year 1933 is known as the year when the FM radio was invented by the engineer Edwin H. Armstrong in his home country, United States (USA). As a natural consequence, FM broadcasting started in Armstrong’s native the United States a few years after he had patented his new invention.
The stations that pioneered are numerous but we will mention a few standouts who we consider the most deserving for pushing this technology into the mainstream public:
- First, we would like to mention W2XMN. Based in Alpine, New Jersey, W2XMN is considered the first FM radio station to broadcast regularly. It gotten launched by the creator of FM, Edwin Armstrong himself. He intended to introduce and promote his invention to New Yorkers. It had a wide use for testing new transmitter and receiver development, studying propagation, and distributing networks to other FM stations. It primarily operates in so-called „low band“ frequencies so, its functions gotten inherited by Armstrong another station based in the same location, KE2XCC, in 1949.
- WGTR is another noteworthy station. It was one of the two stations operated by Yankee Network, the other one being less known WMNE, and was launched first in 1939 as an experimental station, with the name W1XOJ, and then in 1941 as a commercial station W43B before a name change in 1943 to, as we now know it, WGTR. It was the second station to start broadcasting regularly. At first, it was licensed in Boston and operated 43.3 MHz frequency, which was changed to 103.1 MHz in 1945 and then again soon after to 99.1 MHz. In 1947 its license was changed from Boston to Worcester, Massachusetts. Together with its sister station WMNE it saw use in the Second World War as an air raid warning. It ceased operation in 1953.
- Another notable station would be WHCN. Together with WQXR-FM, which today transmits classical music on the 105.9 MHz frequency, it remains one of the few pioneering stations to survive and continue broadcasting into the modern era. It started on the 43.4 MHz frequency but got reassigned in 1940 to 46.5 MHz. Like all other stations, its frequency got changed often in the coming years. The first change was to 94.3 MHz in 1946, and again in 1947 to 93.7 MHz. At first, known for classical music, the station made a radical change in 1969 and started its rock era, during which it had a final frequency change to 105.9 MHz. Today it’s known as „The River 105,9“
Adoption of FM radio
- The slow spread of FM radio in the United States of America
An FM broadcasting band for commercial use was formally established at the very beginning of 1941 that gotten authorized by The FCC (Federal Communications Commission). At first, there were 40 channels spanning from 42 to 50 MHz. A major change would happen in 1945 when the FCC decided to change the allowed range to 88-106 MHz which would get assigned to 80 channels. This would soon get expanded to 88-108 MHz with 100 permitted channels.
In the following years, FM would slowly but surely replace AM as its favorite radio broadcasting method. Still, it was not until 1978 that FM stations would have a bigger total number of listeners than AM stations. With the progress of time, most music stations would abandon AM for FM during the 1980s and 1990 sealing the domination of FM over AM for good.
- The spread of FM radio in Europe
After the concept of FM radio was tested and proven in the US, others were quick to take notice and try to replicate the success themselves.
This was particularly true in Europe after the Second World War where the medium wave was mostly occupied by the Allied Forces occupying Germany and Austria to broadcast entertainment and propaganda. In particular German broadcasters were interested in FM as after World war II they were allowed only two AM frequencies because of the Copenhagen Frequency Plan. This made it necessary for German broadcasters to adopt FM to be able to offer quality programs to their listeners. Other European countries that were quick to adapt to FM were the Low Countries of Belgium and the Netherlands along with Denmark. Broadcasters in Ireland were slow to adopt FM compared to those based in the rest of Europe and North America.
FM radio would also have a slow start in the United Kingdom where the BBC (British Broadcasting Service) would start experimenting in the late 1940s and afterward begin broadcasting in 1955 on three national channels: the Light Programme, Third Programme, and Home Service, which operated on 88.0–94.6 MHz frequencies. The commercial use of FM radio was introduced in 1974 and from this year onward we see a rapid expansion of FM radio use which increased further in 1980 and 1995 when the FM frequency band was expanded to 108.0 MHz.
Of particular interest are Italy and Greece where the FM frequencies were already crowded by so-called „pirate radio stations“ before any official national stations started to broadcast, which shows us that people will be quick to adapt to new technologies if the government is too slow.
- FM in Oceania
Like in Ireland, FM radio was slow to spread in Australia and New Zealand. Although experimental FM radio broadcasting existed in all capital cities of Australia as early as 1947 to broadcast classical music, it failed to garner much attention and was shut down in 1961. It was decided to introduce FM again at a later date in another band which finally happened in 1975 with the introduction of the VHF band. The slow and steady growth of FM followed as stations changed from AM to FM due to better sound quality and lower cost of operation. Today FM dominates Australian radio stations, but some AM talk stations retain their popularity. In New Zealand, it took the combined effort of multiple pirate radio stations and multi-year campaigning in the 1970s to force the government to allow the introduction of FM.
Related: When was AM and FM radio invented?
Readers might have noticed that at the beginning FM radio went through a lot of frequency changes. Many doubted the need to even change to the new standard while others ignored it entirely. This is nothing new. Every time a newer invention starts displacing the old there will be those uncertain times when scientists try to figure out the best way to use it, while others write with the words: „Why change something that isn’t broken?“ We might see this with regards to broadcasting technology sooner than we think. In 2017 Norway became the first country to almost completely switch digital audio broadcasting, with some local stations remaining FM until 2020. Will other countries follow Norway’s example or will they stick to the true and tested FM radio? Only time will tell.
Q-1. What is frequency modulation?
It is the encoding of information in a carrier wave (which is an information-bearing signal) by varying the instantaneous frequency of that same wave.
Q-2. What is the broadcast band of FM?
The broadcast band for FM can vary. It is usually within 87.5 to 108 MHz in most of the world, and 76 to 90 MHz in Japan.