Boomers Listened to Stereo Radio

Mister Boomer has written about many things that were invented, introduced, or popularized during the boomer years, and now here is another: FM stereo radio.

Radio stations had been technologically capable of broadcasting in stereo since the early fifties, but only high-end equipment could receive the signals. The earliest stereo broadcasts required the listener to have two receivers: one channel tuned to AM and one to FM. Once the FCC got on board with allowing stations to simultaneously broadcast on both AM and FM, this type of stereo was possible. Therefore, the vast majority of the population would not hear stereo on their radios until the 1960s. It wasn’t until 1961 that the FCC opened the flood gates to stereo broadcasting.

Most growing boomers had transistor radios by the end of the fifties, and the earliest boomers were then driving their own jalopies, so car radios and hand-held transistors were the radios of choice — and the tuners were not outfitted for stereo broadcasts. Boomers grew up used to having a difference between their home stereo records and their radio sound. The first rock stereo record was introduced in 1955, though many companies continued to release monophonic recordings until the mid-60s. Mister Boomer remembers his brother’s Between the Buttons album by The Rolling Stones. “Monophonic” was printed across the top of the back record jacket, and that album debuted in 1967.

Though stereo FM may have been available in other markets earlier, Mister Boomer vividly recalls the very first time he heard stereo radio. It was the summer of 1969 when his brother was polishing his ’65 Mustang in the driveway, as usual, and called him over. “Listen to this,” said Brother Boomer. He had tricked out the sound system in his Mustang, with two speakers in each door, plus one in the front dash and one behind the back seat — the perfect set-up to play stereo 8-track tapes. Now, local FM radio was getting into the act, and by that time, FM was becoming the radio broadcast frequency of choice for boomer listening.

Hopping into the car’s back seat, Mister B heard the DJ announce that his station was now broadcasting in full stereo. He demonstrated it by saying, “Now I’m here,” as the sound emanated from the left side of the car, “and now I’m over here, ” he said, as the sound shifted to the right side speakers. The DJ sounded suspiciously high to a young Mister B.  Nonetheless, Brother Boomer was duly impressed, exclaiming, “Cool!” What happened next did impress Mister B; the DJ put on Led Zeppelin’s Good Times Bad Times. As the killer guitar solo swung from speaker to speaker, Mister B’s mind was sufficiently blown. As far as the Boomer Brothers knew, stereo was simply defined as music coming from the left speaker, then music coming from the right. At first it took classical record producers — and later, rock producers — to exploit the capabilities of the medium so different tracks could be played simultaneously from two sets of speakers for a full stereophonic sound.

As the number of FM radio stations nearly tripled in the decade between 1960 and 1970, it may have been The Beatles who helped further the popularization of stereo radio with their stereo record releases. Most Beatles’ records were released in mono and stereo format at the same time, but increasingly, boomers wanted to buy the records only in stereo. They acquired the equipment necessary to play them in all their stereophonic glory, so it was only a matter of time until they wanted to hear the same sound from their radios. Abbey Road (1969) and Let It Be (1970) were the first albums The Beatles released only in stereo.

Do you remember the first time you listened to radio in full stereo sound, boomers?