The Evolution of Radio – Part One

Ever wondered about the evolution of radio? Some of us may remember some of the old radio shows, but when all you know is the current on-air offerings (easily ignored, in favor of YouTube and Spotify), you may not realize that back in the day, Radio was da bomb!

The Evolution of Radio Part One Cover Picture

The Evolution of Radio – Part One

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Commercial radio stations as we know them today took a long time to develop. First, someone had to invent the technology for broadcasting and receiving radio signals. And then someone needed to create profitable ways to use those signals. Money was ultimately the bottom line, after all. Buying or building all of the equipment a commercial radio station needed was an expensive investment. No one would go to all that trouble without some indication that it would be profitable. Fortunately, there were a number of now-famous individuals who had foresight and financial know-how. They knew how to use this new medium to perform a public service, and make a buck, too.

First News . . . Then Entertainment

Some of the first radio station owners were newspaper companies. They were fearful that listeners would start relying on the radio for news and commentary instead of buying their papers. Soon radio stations began to provide live entertainment, something their newspapers couldn’t. Game shows, radio dramas, live musical entertainment, children’s programming and more started getting the public’s attention. Suddenly, advertisers couldn’t wait to hear their business’ name “on the air”. This was the beginning of “The Golden Age of Radio”.

The Great American Broadcast: A Celebration of Radio’s Golden Age by Leonard Maltin

The Magic of Radio Brought People Together

With the lead-up to World War Two, Americans followed the latest current events through the “magic” of radio. They could listen to live, on-the-scene news reports from some of the hottest spots around the globe. And it was all from the comfort of their family living room.

This was also the era of the Big Bands. Radio took full advantage of the country’s love of that style of music. Many radio stations at that time were built with studios large enough to accommodate a few musicians and vocalists. After all, even smaller towns had some local entertainers who would vie for a chance to perform on the radio.

Radio Goes to War: The Cultural Politics of Propaganda during World War II by Gerd Horten

Reflecting Changing Times and Tastes

From the late 1940s and into the 1950s contemporary music in America began to change. It’s difficult to say whether people’s tastes changed and were reflected in radio station programming, or if the radio stations themselves were at the heart of the musical migration.

We do know that it was at this time that a young disc jockey by the name of Alan Freed began playing an unusual mixture of music during his program on WJW in Cleveland, Ohio. Freed’s playlist would include jazz, country, rhythm and blues, and, maybe most shocking of all (at that time), music from the original African American bands that wrote the songs, as opposed to the cover versions of the songs done by white recording artists. By the late 50s the music scene catered predominantly to the first wave of “Baby Boomers” and Alan Freed’s term “rock and roll” started to be heard more frequently.


All About That Niche!

Radio in the 1960s was still very segmented, with stations gravitating toward one of several formats. Some broadcast outlets found their niche in Country music, some in Christian programming, and others in a straight News format. Popular music stations of the era were still focused on more traditional music styles with artists like Dean Martin, Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, and Connie Francis.

But that doesn’t mean that rock and roll wasn’t gaining a foothold in radio. Some of the more adult-oriented stations would set some time aside, usually late in the evening, since a large portion of their target audience was busy discovering the wonders of television at that time, and would program to the teenage demographic. This opened the door for younger radio announcers with their hipster jargon and knowledge of what was “Hot” at the time, musically speaking. By the mid-60s America’s airwaves were resonating with fast-talking disc jockeys playing the latest rock and roll tunes and it wasn’t just at night any more. Starting in the larger radio markets, more and more stations switched formats to take advantage of the rapidly-growing younger audience.

Turn Up the Radio!: Rock, Pop, and Roll in Los Angeles 1956–1972 by Harvey Kubernik

Keeping Up With Changing Social Norms Through Music

Of course the mid 60s was a time of great social and political upheaval in the United States. People were creating music that reflected that change. Young people became more politically and socially active. They were starting peace movements in response to the war in Southeast Asia, and marching for a lowered voting age.

Drugs were also a part of this new movement and lifestyle, too. This opened a door to music groups who were far less structured. These were songs with a focus on long spontaneous riffs and solos, and whose lyrics were a type of poetry never heard before. Mind altering drugs and music became a symbiotic partnership, but the music being created under these influences was deemed not ready for commercial radio station airplay. This led to a new use for the FM radio band which, up until now featured mostly “Beautiful Music” formats with artists like Henry Mancini, Mantovani, and Ferrante and Teicher, and maybe some vocals by The Ray Conniff Singers or the Serendipity Singers. That was about to change.

FM: The Rise and Fall of Rock Radio by Richard Neer

Next we’ll look at radio’s evolution to becoming a political voice, more changes in musical tastes which needed to be catered to, and into the computerized age, where local radio began to circle the drain.

Do you have special memories of the old days of radio? We’d love to hear about them in the comments below!

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