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 @ mrpopculture.com and www.mrpophistory.com

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.

Mr. Pop Culture Report. An Interview With NY Radio Legend Harry Harrison.

An Interview with legendary NY radio personality Harry Harrison.

Conducted By Gary West @mrpopculture.com  and  www.mrpophistory.com

Mr. Pop – Harry – you’re a unique personality in the New York radio market. You were at three major NY radio stations, and by some coincidence, each station’s ratings peeked with you on the talent roster. That’s amazing and I can tell you, it’s never been done in NY then or since. Not two… three major stations.

Harry Harrison – Now that you bring it up, I guess that is true.

Mr. Pop – Let’s look at the ratings: At WMCA, you arrived in 1959 and under the Goodguy format, the station’s ratings rocketed to 15 and 17 shares. Your 1968 arrival at WABC had the station with about 3.8 million listeners. Just over a year later – that hit 6 million. WCBS-FM which was usually about a 3 share – hit over a 5 share.  That’s not taking anything away from the incredible programmers and airstaffs at these stations. It’s just that, looking back at your career, this trend was obvious to me.

Harry Harrison – Thank you. I’ve been so fortunate with these great stations and the people I worked with over the years – and of course – the listeners.

Mr. Pop – I became a fan of you and your work at WMCA, probably the best-programmed NY station during the 1960’s. For a time, it beat every other NY station in the market, no easy achievement for a station with lesser signal than its competitors. How did that happen?

Harry Harrison – You’re right. You do hear so much about WABC and its highly-deserved ratings, but WMCA, I’m proud to say, held its own – and amazingly well. We had such a great airstaff and program director, Ruth Meyer… and we were unique. WMCA was usually first to play new records, and that included the Beatles. That helped us get exclusives, such as hosting them at Carnegie Hall in February, 1964.

Mr. Pop – And WMCA did the same thing in August, 1964, when the Goodguys again, emceed the Beatles at Forest Hills. As if that wasn’t enough, The Goodguys were spotlighted at the Beatles Shea Stadium concert in August of 1965 and again, a year later.

Harry Harrison – Forest Hills. That’s right! You sure know your radio history!

Mr. Pop – Back in 1964, WMCA had two direct competitors, the other was 1010WINS. Did you have your eye on the competition?

Harry Harrison – No, not really. I don’t remember much about WINS because, things were moving so fast for us at WMCA. It wasn’t just the Beatles, we were playing all the British invasion artists such as Dave Clark Five and the Animals and Dusty Springfield. And all those appearances. We were busy.

Mr. Pop – And the Goodguys hosted the Animals at the Paramount  Theater, didn’t they? Separately, I have ratings after WINS went all news – from June of 1965, both WMCA and WABC had 16 shares. WABC jumped ahead in September with a 19 share with its Summer of Solid Gold (WMCA 13). By the end of the year – it was WMCA out front again. You guys were amazing competitors despite the signal handicap.

Harry Harrison – I had forgotten about  the exact ratings. That really is amazing.  About the Animals – that was one of many shows we did at the Paramount.  We did a few weeks there. Whomever wasn’t on the air would go do the show. I remember thinking, “Here we are backstage. Frank Sinatra was here.”

Mr. Pop – Those appearances included Palisades Park. I love the 8mm film (shot by a listener) of you up on stage and… dancing!! Harry Harrison has rhythm.

Harry Harrison (Laughs).

Mr. Pop – Harry, did you like the music you played at WMCA and later WABC?

Harry Harrison – Yes, I did. It was special. And, I got to do it again at CBS-FM.

Mr. Pop – Harry – since WMCA was the station to break-out records and create hits during that era, it was a major stopping point for artists to visit – wasn’t it?

Harry Harrison – If I only had a camera. So many artists came to visit us. One I fondly remember was Tom Jones. I also remember the The Rolling Stones and the Monkees – but there were so many others.

Mr. Pop – Yes, the WMCA Goodguys also emceed a Monkees concert at Forest Hills – back in the summer of 1967.  I also loved the pictures of the WMCA DJ’s with the Beatles.

Harry Harrison – We were very involved with these kinds of things. It was such an exciting time.  As I said, things seemed to move very fast.

Mr. Pop – Ruth Meyer just passed away. I keep hearing she was great to work for.

Harry Harrison – She was an amazing person and a great radio program director. If she had to tell you something, it was always constructive criticism. She put us together and we competed. Our weekly WMCA  music meetings were something to look forward to. The Goodguy songs. It seemed we were always getting together and she made it all – a great experience. There was a lot of kidding and such and Ruth always had a great sense of humor. About the Goodguys – we all did like each other and as you said, it sounded like that on the air. It was true.

Mr.  Pop – Just before you went to WABC, you and the Goodguys emceed one final concert – that of Diana Ross and the Supremes in August of 1968. At WABC, you rarely made emcee appearances.

Harry Harrison – That’s correct. I do remember Rick Sklar asking me to ride along in our “Truck-a-Luck” promotion – and that would have been the beginning of my WABC days. I remember giving a listener a color-TV.  But you are right. WABC wasn’t that kind of station.

Mr. Pop – Just before your move to WABC, several things were going on at WMCA. Can you tell us?

Harry Harrison – Program director Ruth Meyer sort of warned me that changes were going to take place. I found out she was leaving and that bothered me. I still had some time left on my contract and eventually felt like, I wanted to move on. Didn’t know where I was going to go. I called Rick Sklar. We had a nice chat, but nothing was available. I did have offers – one from California.

Mr. Pop – Then something else happened.

Harry  Harrison – That’s right. I asked my wife, “Pretty Patty” if I should call back Rick Sklar; that, I didn’t want to be a nuisance. She said go ahead. I did. Rick said he was about to call me, that there was a position opening up at WABC.

Mr. Pop – So you met…

Harry Harrison – Yes, we had breakfast and he offered me the morning show at WABC. It was at a hotel in Manhattan.

Mr. Pop – Your transition to WABC was as sudden as it could get. I remember listening to your WMCA show on that Saturday, September 18, then all of a sudden, less than 48 hours later, you’re doing mornings at rival WABC. Again – that must be some sort of DJ record. My guess is, you had to make an appearance at WABC while you were still at WMCA.

Harry Harrison – Yes, I visited Herb Oscar Anderson while he was still doing the morning show at WABC. And, the announcement was made to the public right just before I switched stations, I believe.

Mr. Pop – It was classic. No time was lost. I find it amazing that you just took hold of the morning show without any kind of WABC format “training.” WABC and WMCA were very different in their presentations.

Harry Harrison – That’s right. When I went to see Herb, we chatted about things, why he was leaving, but it had nothing to do with training.

Mr. Pop – One thing I noticed about your last WMCA show, particularly the final hour. You kept saying it was “77” degrees. That was a first. WMCA never-ever said “77” degrees as WABC never said “57” degrees. Then Jack Spector, who followed you, suddenly upped the temp to “78” degrees.

Harry Harrison – I did? I don’t remember why (laughs).

Mr. Pop – You “almost” went to WABC much earlier – or at least, they had an interest in you.

Harry Harrison – Yes, I was invited to a WABC meeting, but couldn’t go because I had made vacation arrangements to the mid-west.

Mr. Pop – Looks like that was 1960. Herb Oscar Anderson and Scott Muni must have attended, because those two early WMCA personalities were hired by WABC. Harry, thanks for your time today. I’ll leave it here, because so much is available about your WABC days and later, WCBS-FM. Thank you again!

Harry Harrison – Thank you, and thank you to all my listeners and WMCA, WABC and WCBS-FM, the great people I worked with… and worked for!