What’s the Frequency, Boomers?

FM radio wasn’t introduced in the boomer years, but it took until then before it was popularized. Edwin Armstrong is credited with inventing a new way to encode audio for transmitting in the mid-1930s. He called it frequency-modulated broadcasting, or FM for short.

Armstrong was acquainted with David Sarnoff, then-chairman of RCA, and persuaded him to invest in his fledging technology so he would have the funds to further explore its possibilities. RCA did just that, and in 1936 the first FM radio station began broadcasting. By 1940, 50 stations were broadcasting on the FM dial, and radios outfitted with the ability to receive this new bandwidth were being sold. RCA did indeed see the potential of FM broadcasting, but as the largest owner of AM stations, saw the technology as a threat to their broadcast empire and fought its expansion.

After the War, RCA called on its friends in the FCC to make new rules that would help ensure their stronghold on the radio dial. In 1945, the FCC instituted new guidelines for FM broadcasting that delayed its progress for decades. RCA had prodded the government agency to move FM stations up the dial, claiming possible interference with AM stations. The FCC followed the recommendation, reserving the 88 to 108 MHZ channels for FM. That simple act immediately rendered all radios that had previously been sold to accept FM radio inoperable for those stations until the units could be retrofitted with a conversion kit. That caused many people to give up on FM altogether. Worse yet for FM radio, being moved up the dial forced stations to retool their broadcasting equipment. Many stations, faced with the prospect of this added expense, folded and went out of business.

In January of 1954, Edwin Armstrong, dejected by years of legal battles with RCA that left him financially ruined, lashed out at his wife with a fireplace poker. She promptly left to spend time with her sister. Armstrong became further despondent and committed suicide.

Though repressed, through it all, FM radio slowly gained in popularity. By 1960, there were more than 1,000 stations broadcasting across the country. As the youth culture of the 1960s grew, so did FM radio. In 1964, the FCC gave an unknowing boost to FM stations by adopting a non-duplication rule. That means stations that were broadcast on both AM and FM stations could not just broadcast the same content. Eschewing the formats of AM radio, many FM stations allowed disc jockeys to play whatever they wanted, which helped the burgeoning rock ‘n roll music industry. By the late ’60s, many FM stations also adopted an AOR (album oriented rock) format. The playing of singles, the very foundation of radio airplay since its beginning, was now replaced by a new concept. Now baby boomers could tune in and hear entire sides of albums on their favorite radio stations, usually commercial-free until the side was complete. That in turn allowed artists to compose more focused and cohesive concept albums, like The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967) and Magical Mystery Tour (1967), the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Past (1967), and King Crimson’s In the Court of the Crimson King (1969).

Mister Boomer had been introduced to the world of AM radio when he and his brother received transistor radios as a gift from their father in the early 1960s (Boomers Strike Solid Gold). By the mid-60s, though, he stopped listening to the radio altogether as his brother dominated the airspace of his bedroom with records. As a result, it was the late 1960s before Mister B was aware of FM stations.

In fact, Mister B can pinpoint the day that FM radio first become top-of-mind in his consciousness. It was the summer of 1969, and he and his brother were in the front of the house. Mister B was edging the lawn with the hand edger, while Brother Boomer cleaned and polished his 1964 Ford Mustang, as was his usual task whenever he had a spare moment. Suddenly, he called Mister B over to his car, parked up the driveway. “Listen to this,” he said. Brother Boomer had customized his sound experience with speakers in the car doors so both radio and 8-track could blast in true stereophonic sound.

As Mister B approached the car, he could hear a DJ on an FM station. Possibly under the influence of some substance, the man was playing with the stereo function of his broadcast. “I’m over here” said the DJ as the sound emanated from the driver’s side door. “Now I’m over here, man,” as the sound zipped across the car, landing on the passenger side door speaker. “We’re broadcasting in true stereo-o-o-o,” chimed the DJ. Brother Boomer found this all too much, but Mister B, though impressed with good stereophonic separation, wasn’t as enamored as his brother. Then the DJ did something Mister B had never heard before. He announced he would play the entire first side of Led Zeppelin’s new album. Sitting in the middle of the back seat of his car, Good Times, Bad Times circulated through the pristine interior with an unbridled enthusiasm. Mind blown, Mister B stepped out and resumed his chores.

FM radio helped define our era, and in turn, was changed by our generation. What memories of FM radio come to mind for you, boomers?