Radio in the United States

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Radio in the United States is a major mass medium. Unlike radio in most other countries, American radio has historically relied on commercial sponsorship rather than public funding.


In 1912, most amateur-radio transmissions were restricted to wavelengths below 200 meters (i.e., frequencies above 1500 kHz) to prevent interference to future commercial broadcasters.[1] The beginning of regular, commercially licensed radio broadcasting in the United States in 1920, along with the concurrent development of sound and color film in that decade, ended the print monopoly of mass media and opened the doors to the immediate (and pervasive) electronic media. By 1928, the United States had three national radio networks: two owned by NBC (the National Broadcasting Company), and one by CBS (the Columbia Broadcasting System). Until 1943, there were four major national radio networks: two owned by NBC, one owned by CBS and one owned by Mutual Broadcasting System. NBC's second network became ABC, the American Broadcasting Company.

Though mostly listened to for entertainment,[2] radio's instant, on-the-spot reports of dramatic events drew large audiences throughout the Great Depression of the 1930s and World War II. President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the potential of radio to reach the American public, and during his four terms (1933–45) his radio "fireside chats" informed the nation on the progress of policies to counter the Depression and on developments during World War II.

After World War II, television's visual images replaced the audio-only limitation of radio as the predominant entertainment and news vehicle. Radio adapted by replacing entertainment programs with schedules of music interspersed with news and features, a free-form format adopted by NBC when it launched its popular weekend-long Monitor in 1955. During the 1950s automobile manufacturers began offering car radios as standard accessories, and radio received a boost as Americans listened to their car radios as they drove to and from work. Although this period saw the overall decline of the AM radio, some new stations, like the WGIV station in Charlotte dedicated to African American Music, were still coming up.

In the 1950s, as a result of television's increased popularity coupled with dramatically loosened restrictions on playing recorded music on air, the network model of radio dramatically declined. In its place was the first music radio format: top 40, the forerunner to modern contemporary hit radio. Top 40 stations could be operated locally and gave rise to the disc jockeys, who became prominent local celebrities in their own right. Top 40 became the outlet for the relatively new style of music known as rock and roll.

FM radio, which was the successor to the failed Apex band (also known as ultra-shortwave) experiments of the 1930s, arrived in the United States after World War II, but it was not until the 1960s that it became widely popular. The first FM stations were primarily instrumental, featuring formats that would come to be known as easy listening and beautiful music, and were targeted at shopping centers. Other, later FM sign-ons became known for experimentation; the early freeform stations eventually evolved into progressive rock, the first radio format designed specifically to showcase rock music. From progressive rock came album-oriented rock, which in turn spawned the modern formats of classic rock, active rock and adult album alternative.

Top 40 radio would begin arriving on the FM band in the 1970s as FM reached critical mass. As the amount of archival music from the rock and roll era began to expand, oldies radio stations began to appear, later evolving into the modern classic hits and later adult hits formats. FM radio made a major expansion in the late 1980s with the FCC's Docket 80-90, which expanded the number of available FM licenses in the suburban areas of the United States. Country music in particular, previously only heard on rural AM stations particularly in the Southern and Western United States, benefited from this docket, moving en masse to FM; the beautiful music and easy listening formats mostly died out, with adult contemporary music taking its place.

Meanwhile, the AM band began declining. All-news radio became popular in the major cities in the late 1960s. As each successive radio format moved to FM, AM radio stations were left with fewer and fewer options. One of the last "AM only" formats was MOR, or "middle-of-the-road", the direct forerunner of adult contemporary music and adult standards. Talk radio, although it had a small following in the cities, did not achieve mainstream popularity until the 1980s, when a combination of factors led to the rise of conservative talk radio. The politically charged format swept the country, bringing stardom to one of its pioneers, Rush Limbaugh. Also rising to popularity in the late 1980s was sports radio, which was dedicated to talk about sports as well as the broadcasting of sports events. What few country stations remained on AM typically shifted to classic country and focused primarily on older music.

While shock jocks had been in existence since at least the 1970s (see, for example, Don Imus) and the morning zoo radio format was popular among local stations beginning in the 1980s, the first shock jock to make a major national impact was Howard Stern, whose New York-based show was syndicated nationwide beginning in the early 1990s. Stern built a multimedia empire that incorporated television, books and feature films, which led to him bestowing upon himself the title of "King of All Media." Stern left terrestrial radio in 2005.

Satellite networks began replacing landline-based models in the 1980s, making possible wider and quicker national distribution of both talk and music radio. At the same time, the traditional networks started collapsing: NBC Radio and Mutual both were acquired by syndication company Westwood One, while ABC (both radio and television) was acquired by Capital Cities Communications. CBS would later acquire Westwood One, only to spin it off in 2007. ABC would end up in the hands of The Walt Disney Company, who broke it up in 2007; Disney owns portions of the old network, while the rest of it is in the hands of Cumulus Media. NBC (along with Westwood One) is currently in the hands of Townsquare Media. Mutual was dissolved in 1999, replaced by CNN Radio, which itself was dissolved in 2012. CBS, which still owns much of its network, splits its programming between Cumulus and Townsquare.

Only one other major network has appeared since the 1990s: Premiere Networks, the division of Clear Channel Communications. Premiere owns the radio distribution rights to the current "fourth major network", Fox (which owns no radio stations), and distributes that company's news and sports radio broadcasts. Clear Channel benefited from the Telecommunications Act of 1996, which allowed for greater media consolidation, and built a large empire of both large and small market radio stations; Clear Channel, having overextended itself, jettisoned most of its small-market stations (as well as its now-dissolved television division) in the late 2000s.

Direct-to-consumer subscription satellite radio began appearing in the United States in the early 2000s, but despite heavy investment in programming has continually lost money and has less than a tenth of the reach of terrestrial radio. The two competing satellite radio services, Sirius and XM, merged to form Sirius XM Radio in 2009 and now has a government-regulated monopoly on the format.

Broadcast call signs[edit]

While broadcast radio stations will often brand themselves with plain-text names, identities such as "cool FM", "rock 105" or "the ABC network" are not unique. Another station, in another city or country, may (and often will) have a similar brand; the name of a broadcast station for legal purposes is, therefore, normally its ITU call sign.

Broadcast stations in North America generally use call letters in the international series, with common conventions followed in each country. In the United States, the first letter generally is K for stations west of the Mississippi River and W for those east of the Mississippi; all new call signs have had four characters since 1930,[3] although there are historical three-character calls still in use (such as WOR in New York City, WBZ in Boston, WOL in Washington DC, WSB in Atlanta, WSM in Nashville, WMC in Memphis, WGN in Chicago, KLZ and KOA in Denver, KSL in Salt Lake City, KEX in Portland, Oregon, KFI in Los Angeles and KGU in Hawaii).[4] The ITU has allocated call signs starting with N, as well as AA through AN, to the United States, but those prefixes are not in use on any AM or FM radio station.

There are exceptions to the east–west rule (such as KDKA in Pittsburgh and WFAA in Dallas-Fort Worth, Texas); these are historical artifacts from a rule change in the 1930s, and most of the exceptions are located in the states immediately adjacent to the river. The westernmost station in the continental United States beginning with W is WOAI in San Antonio, Texas. WVUV-LP in Pago Pago, American Samoa is the westernmost station with a W call sign. KYW in Philadelphia is the easternmost station on the U.S. mainland with a K call sign; the radio stations on Saipan are the easternmost stations with K call signs overall.

QSL verification postcard for time station WWV when it was located in Maryland
A 1940 QSL card for WWV, indicating its early location in the U.S. state of Maryland (now in Colorado)

All time-broadcasting stations have a three- or four-letter call sign, beginning with WWV. The three current government-operated time stations (WWV, longwave sister station WWVB and WWVH) are located in Fort Collins, Colorado and Kekaha, Hawaii respectively, so all would normally use call signs beginning with K.

The US government-operated international broadcaster Voice of America no longer has call signs assigned to it; in contrast, Radio Canada International's transmitter in Sackville, New Brunswick was still assigned CKCX-SW until its 2012 shutdown. Privately operated shortwave stations (such as WWCR and CFRX) also have call signs.

Modern era[edit]

The expansion and dominance of FM radio, which has better audio quality but a more-limited broadcast range than AM, represented the major technical change in radio during the 1970s and 1980s. FM radio (aided by the development of smaller portable radios and "Walkman" headsets) dominates music programming, while AM has largely shifted to talk and news formats. Talk radio became more popular during the 1980s as a result of improved satellite communications, the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine and (by the mid-1990s) extensive concentration of media ownership stemming from the Telecommunications Act of 1996. While before the 1980s talk radio was primarily a local phenomenon, the development of national spoken-word programming contributed to the renewed popularity of AM radio. However, this popularity is fading as previously AM-only stations begin moving their operations to FM simulcasts or translators and the audience of talk radio ages.

Both FM and AM radio have become increasingly specialized. Music formats (for instance) comprise a variety of specializations, the top five in 1991 being "country and western", "adult contemporary", "Top 40", "religion" and "oldies". Radio has been shaped by demographics, although to a lesser degree than television; modern radio formats target groups of people by age, gender, urban (or rural) setting and race. As such, freeform stations with broad-spanning playlists have become uncommon on commercial radio.

In an era in which TV is the predominant medium, the reach of radio is still extensive. Ninety-nine percent of American households in 1999 had at least one radio; the average is five per household. Every day, radio reaches 80 percent of the U.S. population. Revenue more than doubled in a decade, from $8.4 billion in 1990 to more than $17 billion in 2000. Radio continues to prevail in automobiles and offices, where attention can be kept on the road (or the task at hand) while radio is an audio background. The popularity of car radios has led to drive time being the most listened-to dayparts on most radio stations, followed by midday (or the "at work" shift). Transistor radios, a technology that has been available since the 1950s, were the method of choice for listening to music on the go for most of the late 20th century, before digital media players and later smartphones (many of which have FM radios as part of their hardware) took those roles in the 20th century.

The majority of programming in the United States is in English, with Spanish the second-most popular broadcast language; these are the only two languages with domestically produced, national radio networks. In the largest urban areas of the United States, "world ethnic" stations may be found with a wide variety of languages (including Russian, Chinese, Korean and the languages of India); relatively widespread languages French and German have comparatively few radio outlets (in the case of German, due to the fact that most of its speakers are Amish or from similar sects and thus shun radio technology). French speakers can generally receive programming direct from Canadian broadcasters, which are receivable near the Canadian border, and a handful of local stations serving the Haitian diaspora and Creole populations also serve areas in the southeast.

Until the 1980s, most commercial radio stations were affiliated with large networks such as Capital Cities/ABC, CBS, Mutual Network, NBC, and others (e.g., RKO in the 1980s). The traditional major networks that had dominated the history of American radio up to that point began to be dissolved in the 1980s; RKO was forced to break up in a billing scandal, while NBC Radio and Mutual sold their assets to up-and-coming syndicator Westwood One, which itself would be bought by rival CBS in the 1990s. ABC maintained most of its radio network until 2007, when it sold off most of its stations to Citadel Broadcasting and later Cumulus Media (it maintains two specialty networks, sports-oriented ESPN Radio and youth top 40 Radio Disney, the latter of which is in closedown; ABC still produces radio programming in addition to its terrestrial networks). CBS sold off Westwood One to private equity interests in the late 2000s as well, but unlike its rivals maintained ownership of its flagship stations. As of 2012, most commercial radio stations are controlled by media conglomerates and private equity firms such as Bain Capital (Clear Channel Communications), Oaktree Capital Management (Townsquare Media) and Cumulus Media.

Public radio[edit]

The United States government directly produces two radio services for direct public consumption: WWV (a time signal service on shortwave) and NOAA Weather Radio (a weather radio and emergency information network). Both services are almost entirely automated and use synthesized voice recordings. Unlike most other English-language countries, the United States does not have a federal government-owned national broadcaster, and the country's international government-operated broadcasters overseen by the Broadcasting Board of Governors (the most widely known being Voice of America) were expressly forbidden from being marketed to American citizens until 2013 and still neither owns nor affiliates with any AM or FM station. In lieu of a national broadcaster, the United States government instead subsidizes nonprofit radio stations through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

In 1998, the number of U.S. commercial radio stations had grown to 4,793 AM stations and 5,662 FM stations. In addition, there are 1,460 public radio stations. Most of these stations are run by universities and public authorities for educational purposes and are financed by public and/or private funds, subscriptions and corporate underwriting. Much public-radio broadcasting is supplied by NPR (formerly National Public Radio). NPR was incorporated in February 1970 under the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967; its television counterpart, PBS, was also created by the same legislation. (NPR and PBS are operated separately from each other.) The BBC World Service has been distributed in the United States since 1986; until July 2012 by PRI, and since then by APM.[5] It is also possible to listen to the World Service on shortwave.

The United States government has the direct authority to assume control over all radio stations in the United States at any time by way of the Emergency Alert System. All radio stations are required to have EAS equipment installed and operational in the event such a takeover is implemented. However, in practice (as evidenced when the EAS attempted its first ever national test on November 9, 2011), the EAS as currently configured is not entirely effective and produces poor audio quality. Other than the 2011 test, the EAS has never been used on a national scale.

Recent developments[edit]

A new form of radio which is gaining popularity is satellite radio. Sirius XM Radio has a monopoly on the technology after the merger of Sirius Satellite Radio and XM Satellite Radio. Unlike terrestrial-radio broadcasting, most channels feature few (or no) commercials. Satellite-radio content is not regulated by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).

Cable radio, a slightly older technology, has also become widespread; Music Choice is the market leader in this field, with its primary competitors being Sirius XM, Muzak, DMX, Sonic Tap and Canada-based Galaxie. CRN Digital Talk Radio Networks specialize in talk radio. Cable radio has the disadvantage that it requires a cable hookup, limiting its use outside the home.

Unlike the mandated digital television transition, the U.S. government has not mandated a transition to digital radio, although it allows digital radio to be broadcast. The national standard is HD Radio, a proprietary in-band on-channel format that allows digital and analog signals to be broadcast simultaneously. Radio companies aggressively marketed HD Radio throughout the 2000s, touting its clearer signal and capacity for digital subchannels, but the technology never caught on with the general public, primarily due to cost, signal reception problems, a general lack of quality programming on the subchannels, and (especially on AM HD stations) adjacent-channel interference. HD Radio's primary use has been to exploit an FCC loophole to allow low-power broadcast translators to carry HD subchannels in analog, thus giving radio station groups the ability to program more program services in a market than the federally mandated maximum number of stations allowed. FMeXtra is another subchannel service authorized for use in the United States, although that service is generally limited to voice transmissions due to lower bandwidth.

Internet radio, digital music players and streaming-capable smartphones are a challenge to terrestrial radio. Unlike satellite radio, most Internet stations do not require a subscription; several of the more popular ones use algorithms which allow listeners to customize the music they want to hear and select new music which may interest them. The proliferation of internet-based stations (which are more numerous and easier to set up than their television counterparts) creates a threat of audience fracturing beyond that experienced by television due to cable and satellite providers; the recording industry also sees Internet radio as a threat and has attempted to impose high royalty rates for the use of recorded music to discourage independent stations from playing popular songs.

Although not nearly to the extent that AM radio has declined in neighboring Canada, AM radio has also begun to decline in the United States. To partially combat this, radio ownership groups have increasingly moved their signals to FM, either through low-power broadcast translators (primarily on small, independent and/or rural stations) or through simulcast on full-market FM stations. The AM-to-FM phenomenon began primarily in mid-sized markets, where there is more bandwidth and less competition, but has since progressed even to New York City, where as of 2012 sports-talk AM stations WEPN and WFAN have both acquired FM stations with the intent to either move or simulcast their AM programming. By 2013 most of the AM/FM simulcasts had been discontinued, in part due to redundancy and the fact that most listeners to AM stations stayed with AM while very few new listeners were picked up on the FM side.

See also[edit]


Abridged from U.S. State Department IIP publications and other U.S. government materials.

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