Radio Formats: Why Is The Medium The Message?

We take our cues from those around us. An animal in a new situation might be quite cautious, but if it sees another animal from its own species dealing with that same situation it will become more confident. One example that comes to mind involves a video I saw of puppies learning to navigate stairs. The mother dog would teach by example, and perhaps by means of a nudge here and there. The puppy would gain confidence and soon be bouncing up and down that same stairway as if it were the ultimate form of canine recreation. Its litter-mates will follow right along, because they can see that there’s nothing to be scared of.

Mass communications allow us to take all sorts of cues form all sorts of people, both for the good and for the bad. Mass communication told me “the flash apparently official, President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard time” and the programming that followed allowed a window into the feelings of others and how they were reacting to that devastating news.

Local media could control much of what we saw, heard and read; once again both for the good and for the bad. AM radio was a unique player in all of this. It was large enough to be powerful; small enough to be agile. From the starting point of AM radio various developments have shaped matters over the years. I’ll start at the point of obtaining my driver’s license when I was granted the privilege of commanding a motor vehicle and controlling what played on the radio while I was driving.

In my little town . . .

To build upon a Paul Simon song title; the “little” town of my teen years was Denver, CO. In the early ’70s, if you were in your youth and if your car did not have an FM radio, chances are that you were probably listening to 95 KIMN or KTLK 1280, both AM stations that played mostly Top 40 material. If you give that a moment’s thought, there’s a somewhat significant thing happening; two different cars, driven by youthful drivers held a reasonable probability that the occupants of both vehicles were listening to the same “soundtrack” in real time. They were most likely hearing the same advertisements, the same patter from the DJs, the same songs, even the occasional crackle from the same sources of interference.

In the parlance of a puppy, there was a pretty fair chance that they were at the same staircase (the station), watching the same mother dog (the DJ) and observing the same litter-mates (the social acceptance of your peer group). If you were listening to KIMN, chances were quite good that you were on the same page, so to speak, as the majority in your peer group.

KIMN had a huge market share and if you didn’t like the particular song being played on KIMN you could punch the button for KTLK and then you would be on the same page as another group of young people, because KTLK held a pretty decent market share as well. When we talked music in high school we were almost certainly talking about music we heard on one or both of these stations. BTW, the stations listened to one another and it was not at all uncommon to hear the same song on both stations, staggered temporally by roughly 1/2 the length of the song.

The modulation wars

As it turns out, KIMN was one of the longest lasting and most successful of the Top 40 stations in the country when AM was king, but AM wasn’t the only game in town. AM was medium frequency radio, which has distinct propagation characteristics which allow exceptional range, especially at night when “clear channel” stations can be heard even thousands of miles from their source.

FM radio had different technical characteristics and ended up broadcast at much higher frequencies. While AM signals would stick close to the ground, FM made a beeline for the ionosphere, which reduced its range significantly. This meant a couple of very important things. FM stations were less likely to “walk on” one another’s frequencies, so long as there was a reasonable degree of geographic separation.  FM allowed about 100 times as many channels to be allocated in an area. A small city might have a mere handful of AM station frequencies allocated but could have FM stations galore. The higher the frequency band, the lower the broadcast range. This is a key factor in the AM vs. FM equation.

While some FM stations are real powerhouses with massive transmitter power others have power outputs that are very low. Setting up an FM station is a much simpler proposition than setting up an AM station. The radiating element of the transmitting antenna could be much smaller (as a function of frequency) and more easily piggybacked onto an existing tower, the vertical real estate of the broadcast industry.

The startup costs of an FM station can be relatively low, at least with regard to the capital investments required to get on the air. Lower costs allow an FM station to serve a smaller target audience and therefore, they can offer a product that relies less upon mass appeal. Lower costs allow for fewer advertisements which means that songs longer then 180 seconds are now much more feasible. The entire pace of the program can be relaxed. The frenetic atmosphere employed by many AM Top 40 jocks was replaced by a more laid-back approach in FM.

As FM listening capability came to a greater proportion of cars on the road, the shared experience of listening to the car radio became diluted. In 1970, most of the youth-driven cars were probably tuned to an AM station but as the decade wore on more and more people were listening to specialized FM stations playing on their car radios. AM, as an entertainment source was in decline. As an information source, however, it still had plenty of life left in it.

Rumors of AM’s death were somewhat exaggerated

An anecdote from the late ’70s illustrates much about the significance of AM vs. FM. I was in Minneapolis at the time, and WCCO was a clear channel AM station which served much of the state. There was WCCO-FM, but that was a Soft-Rock station. It had the same news sources as “the Mighty ‘CCO”, but it spent much less time broadcasting information and much more time broadcasting entertainment.

I was driving with a friend, one generation older than myself. The sky became threatening and it appeared that Minneapolis was going to get walloped by a severe winter storm. My friend asked that I put WCCO on the radio and I immediately complied by punching the button for WCCO FM. Some lovely soft rock came out of the speakers and I listened, expecting that they would talk about the weather at their next news break. After a few minutes, my older friend pleaded with me to turn on WCCO, which I believe I had already done. When I pointed this out he specified WCCO AM and, sure enough, as soon as I found them on the AM dial we were hearing pertinent weather information. He was correct in his choice; I doubt if the FM station would have interrupted their Soft Rock even if the world was about to end. Radio meant different things to each of us and the medium (long-range AM vs. short-range FM) had a lot to do with this difference of perception. It also changed the musical landscape indelibly.

When video killed radio’s star

Radio was the home entertainment system of choice from its inception as a consumer product until the market penetration of television reached a tipping point and suddenly everyone was watching TV. Radio then became chiefly a media for use in automobiles, although it remained a perfect source of background music along with news reports, etc, when busy families were starting their day. I would venture that for most of my childhood, the sound of KROC, the local AM station, served as a wake-up call on weekdays. (The sound of my father’s table saw served in this capacity, most Saturdays of my youth.) But, for the most part, from the fifties onward the radio moved in the direction of becoming a mobile entertainment source and away from being a home entertainment source.

By the time The Buggles were announcing the death of the radio star there had already been one major casualty entirely within the radio world: the Top 40 Superstar. In April of 1964, the Beatles held the first five positions on Billboard’s Hot 100 chart. The phenomena of Beatlemania was greatly abetted by the fact that, at least in the US, many of their fans were hearing the same song, at the same time, on the same AM station and talking about the same shared experience whenever they got together. That was not as likely to happen in the era of FM, and to the best of my knowledge it never has.

The synchronous nature of AM stations covering large swatches of real estate increased the emotional clout of music, which can be especially powerful if the listeners are lovesick teens. When FM stations narrowed the listener scope the synergistic power of a mass audience declined precipitously. People have been looking for the next Beatles for many years but it isn’t likely to happen again, unless there is some other unifying force to replace the cohesion inherent to AM broadcasting.

Competition from other places (or media)

While FM changed the landscape it was not the only force for change in the radio world. When recorded music first became a consumer product it came on wax cylinders, then brittle disks that used a needle which had to glide smoothly on top of the disk. Record disks didn’t work well in cars, in spite of a number of inventive devices to isolate them from road shock. In a moving vehicle something else was required and tapes, both the cassette and 8 track formats, finally made it feasible to listen to your own programming while in motion. (There were in-car record layers, but they were of limited use while the car was in motion. A car so equipped could, however, make quite and impression at the drive-in restaurant.) While there were advantages to either tape format, eventually cassettes won out and by the late ’70s cassette players were becoming popular auto accessories. While 8-tracks are the butt of many jokes, in their day they were a very welcome innovation.

When the CD came out the road shock problem returned, but read-ahead caches took care of most of these issues. When CDs became recordable it once again became possible to create custom programming for mobile use, much like the days of cassettes. Circa 2001 I had a book of CD-Rs in my vehicle, but that didn’t last long. Most modern automobiles now have a 1/8″ auxiliary input, which allows a smartphone or MP3 player to provide programming. Likewise, USB flash drives work well as a portable music source and can be programmed easily from virtually any computer. Satellite radio allows very focused programming and an amazing array of choices. the degree of specialization is astounding when weighed against the days of AM stations playing Top 40 material.

In my personal opinion, all of this specialization is a mixed blessing at best. Music is all about shared experience, or recognizable emotions at the very least. When The Beatles sang “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” they were singing about an experience and a set of feelings that were relatable to many young men and women. It was about liking someone and coming to the point of risk where a casual friendship would either jump the gap to being sweethearts, or it might fail. The Billboard charts, and the fact that the song remains recognizable over fifty years later, would argue that the Beatles succeeded wildly with regard to relevance.

Radio introduced me to many, many songs. Radio introduced me to the Beatles and songs of theirs that I liked along with others that I disliked. Either way, I at least knew that the song existed. Forty-five years after the fact, I can tell you to within 50 yards where I was when a DJ spoke the words: “and now something new from Rod Stewart”. I didn’t know who or what  Rod Stewart was, but Maggie Mae had a sound that fit perfectly with the the zeitgeist of late-summer in 1971.

There was a social transaction between the DJ and the listener; a transaction shared in common with many people in my community whom happened to be listening at the same moment. It drew us together. As radio has diversified into ever more specialized programming, the impact of that transaction has been diluted, in some cases to the point of non-existence. In 2016 I don’t know the names of any current DJs in my locale and their influence on my musical tastes has truly reached the point of non-existence.

If the FM stations in my area went off the air, I would probably never notice. Some of this is of my origin, but radio itself has changed at least as much in the last 45 years as I have. Occasionally, I’ll fire up the FM in one of my vehicles and have a listen. The last time I did this was about a year ago and the direct result was the purchase of a satellite radio. There was nothing on broadcast that appealed to me and the ratio of advertisements to music had become so imbalanced that I felt as if it were a waste of my time to continue listening.

Get right back where we started from

So it has been a full circle, of sorts, but there’s an interesting twist. Just 100 years ago (at the 2016 time of this writing), radio was a curiosity and not a source of information or entertainment. We experienced life as it unfolded in our family with added influence from business, school and religious activities. Shared experience was rarely a mass phenomena. The age of AM radio made shared experience feasible for entire communities, major cites, and even larger regions. FM changed matters, allowing for much more focused programming. As the options proliferated the shared experience element was reduced in inverse proportion.

When I was a child, as soon as my parents left the house my older sister would tune in WDGY, the Minneapolis Rock station, located about 80 miles away. This broadened the musical horizon from the local station’s fare and, probably more importantly, placed her into a shared experience with cousins that lived in Minneapolis. There was a common set of experiences that could form a basis for discussion when we were all in the same place and was in stark contrast to another cousin that lived in a relatively isolated locale in the far west and was not listening to the same songs at anywhere near the same time.

After my sister moved out of my parent’s house and far away, I used to tune into WDGY and I think it was a way of reconnecting with the shared experience of listening to this station with my sister. WDGY wasn’t just a radio station; it was part of my identity. It was a bridge to treasured experiences.

I recently spoke to my sister and was quite pleasantly surprised to discover that both of us frequently listen to Sirius XM’s “The Bridge”. We hadn’t had occasion to share a radio listening experience since a few months after the Beatles held the top five slots on the Billboard Hot 100.We currently live over 1,200 miles apart, but it’s very nice to drive down the road and think that my sister and I could very well be listening to the same radio station in real time.

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