FM Radio – Why Did It Take So Long To Catch On? Pop Culture Radio History

FM Radio – The New Groove. Why Did It Take So Long?

By Gary West @ and

Most teen and young adults have a favorite music station and it’s on the FM dial. Was it always that way? Invented in 1939, frequency modulation or FM had a long way to go and didn’t become a true mass-music medium until the early 1980’s. Their parents remember a different time, when pop music was the province of AM radio and you usually had two stations to choose, shuttering the dial back-and-forth. When FM came along, they twisted their music dials to the newer medium and stayed.
But radio began with AM (amplitude modulation) with the program/serial/sit-com era of the thirties all through the fifties and beyond with Top-40 and rock: Elvis, the Beatles, Rolling Stones and into Led Zeppelin. It was the era of personality DJ’s and big-rated pop stations such as WMCA, New York and KFWB, Los Angeles.
But back in 1949, things were different for FM. WMCA-FM New York had been losing money at a rate of $4,000 per month. Owner Nathan Strauss tried to give the station away.
WMCA-FM was eventually sold for $7000.00. What was WMCA-FM is now worth over $60 million in today’s market. Early FM formats were dull, or were synced to co-owned AM station. Why buy an FM radio when you could hear the same on your AM kitchen radio? Early FM sort of trudged along until the Federal Communications Commission came down with an edict. By 1967 they ruled, major market FM stations needed separate programming from their AM stations. In other words, get rid of the duplicate AM broadcasts.
WOR-FM (New York) had a great idea. Why not go after AM top-40 stations WMCA and WABC. And to boot, start before the deadline? They did, beginning in July 1966. Word spread around, particularly with hip college kids. FM’s in other cities started doing the same thing. On WOR-FM the DJ’s sounded different; they were hip and cool and they were far fewer commercials, meaning much more music was played.
By 1969, most areas had at least one FM rock station, beckoning AM listeners to make the switch. Arbitron, the radio ratings company said by 1973, FM listening had increased some 152% over 1967.
Lets face it, FM was much technically superior. It didn’t have all that static and rarely faded. Full fidelity. It was “cool” to listen to an FM album rock station during the 1970′s as opposed to an AM top-40 station. And it was stereo. FM radios in cars never worked properly until tuners were perfected and that wasn’t until the early 1970’s. Separately, one of the most popular appliances of the 1970′s was a compact home FM stereo radio with turntable and tape deck. And the FM dial had more music choices, including top-40 stations. Why turn back?
By 1978, FM accounted for half of all radio listening. FM got another boost, but no one saw this coming. There were now plenty of FM radios at home, on the beach and in cars. All of this set the stage for the fastest AM-to-FM exodus ever. Up to this time, WABC-AM New York still held the largest music audience. FM was nibbling at WABC during the 1970’s, but not to any large extent.
Not until mid-1978 when the new WKTU-FM beat perennial ratings-topper WABC-AM. The low-rated station had just made the switch to “disco” which was huge in New York clubs. Almost overnight, WKTU-FM (Disco 92) became #1, quickly grabbing 25% of WABC’s total audience. Ironically, this was the channel once occupied by WMCA-FM.
Those who jumped from WABC suddenly found FM vibrant. It was a new experience. They had heard about this new disco format from the streets, went to FM and were there to stay. Also, WBLS-FM soon found huge ratings. In less than a year, WABC-AM lost half its audience. The station was in a panic as they changed program directors and fired disc jockeys – unheard of over the station’s incredible top-40 history.
For an FM station to beat WABC-AM was big news, and this was the symbolic end to contemporary music on AM. It was the first time WABC was beaten by anybody since the 1960′s. By 1982, WABC was history as a music station. In 1983-1984, Top-40 radio saw a revival, now on the FM band with stations like Scott Shannon’s Z-100 and KIIS-FM (Los Angeles) with Rick Dees. This was the first time FM top-40 stations dominated the ratings. Soon, almost every major market had FM top-40 stations with personality and ratings – the way it was for AM during the 50′s, 60′s. Other AM music stations hung in there through the 1980’s, but the writing was on the wall. WLS-AM Chicago was one of the last music hold-overs, ending its music run in the late 1980′s.

Next time you listen to FM, remember it all started on the other band, the one with all the talk and sports stations.