A History of Radio Broadcasting

by Phyllis Stark, Billboard, Nov. 1, 1994 Radio

Since the sign-on of the first commercial radio station, KDKA Pittsburgh, in 1920, the radio industry has enjoyed tremendous popularity, provided listeners with endless hours of entertainment and information, and played a valuable role in the making of history.

Radio's ubiquitousness and immediacy made it the place most people heard about such historical events as the crash of the Hindenburg zeppelin at Lakehurst, N.J., the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the landing of Allied troops at Normandy during World War II, and, more recently, the Three Mile Island nuclear accident and the space shuttle Challenger disaster.

Although Billboard has covered radio since the medium's infancy, it was not until the late '20s that radio became one of the magazine's regularly covered businesses. A Jan. 4, 1930, headline tells the story of the potential for the still-fledgling industry: "Radio Seen As One Of The Biggest Branches Of The Show Business."

That article reported on radio's growing influence as an entertainment medium. "Against its wishes, in some respects, the amusement industry is being forced, more and more, to recognize the radio field as one of !its^ most important and powerful branches," Billboard reported. "Five years ago a hybrid form of entertainment and frowned on by show business in general, the radio infant has grown within record time to the point where today it is second only to motion pictures as a gigantic industry in the entertainment business. And it is growing bigger all the time."

Not only was radio initially disapproved of, the vaudeville community actually ordered its acts to stay off the air under penalty of contract cancellation. Musical, concert, and operatic managers also shunned radio fearing that "songs plugged too strongly over the air would lose their sales value," Billboard reported on March 1, 1930.

Eventually, however, both vaudeville and the rest of the industry came to recognize radio as a way of stimulating sales. By 1930, Billboard was reporting that "sheet music and record dealers now consider !radio^ a boon to their business, rather than a detriment."

The magazine's initial radio coverage, a one-eighth-page section called Radio Entertainers that first appeared in 1928, focused on famous stage performers' radio appearances, such as Maurice Chevalier's radio debut on the Columbia Broadcasting System. That column was tucked in between other, more significant sections of the magazine, including Parks, Piers & Beaches, Circus & Side Show, Magic & Magicians, and Feminine Frills (a shopping service).

By 1930, the now full-page Radio Entertainers section joined the front-cover list of Billboard's regularly covered entertainment businesses, which also included burlesque, skating rinks, rodeos, and, of course, popular songs. In those days, the magazine known as The Billboard was billed as "The Theatrical Digest And Show World Review."

About that same time, stations' regular on-air personalities began to make news in Billboard, not just the visiting entertainers. A lighthearted story from the Jan. 11, 1930, issue, for example, told of how WMCA New York announcer A.L. Alexander was the recipient of a plum pudding from a mysterious admirer in Surrey, England, every Christmas.


Today, the FCC's crackdown on indecency is one of broadcasters' major concerns. But things were no different in the '30s. One story published on Jan. 18, 1930, outlined measures introduced in Congress to prevent the use of profanity in broadcasting, including one from a Rep. Lankford of Georgia, who initiated legislation providing for government ownership and control of all radio communications under a proposed "department of general welfare."

The radio business at this time was divided into independent and network-affiliated stations, and most programs aired in 15-minute blocks. Unlike today's focused, niche programming, a typical station's programming in 1932 was 62.9% music, 21.3% educational, 11.8% literature, 2.5% religion, and 1.5% "novelties," according to a study released that year.

CBS was the largest radio network at the time with 90 member stations. Runner-up NBC had 85 stations. By 1937, that balance had shifted. NBC's 111 affiliates topped CBS's 97, and the fledgling Mutual Broadcasting System claimed 39. By 1938, the three webs were commanding a total annual income of approximately $69.2 million.


With support for Prohibition waning in 1932 and Congress debating the issue of relegalizing beer, broadcasters' major concern was over the ethics of once again airing brewery-sponsored programming.

WLS Chicago, which now has a news/talk format, was then famous for what Billboard referred to as its "hill-billy entertainment" (now better known as country) and for its weekly barn-dance broadcast, which began in 1930. It also had the distinction of being the first station on the air with a beer ad in March 1933, after the beverage was once again legalized.

Celebrating that same event, CBS staged a two-hour program at midnight on April 6, 1933, although the network expressed concern that the event had the potential for "riling up the drys or such states that do not want to legalize beer." CBS soon cast aside those fears and added a regular feature called "Old Foam Night," sponsored by the Anheuser-Busch brewery in St. Louis. NBC, for its part, handled the end of Prohibition with "more decorum," Billboard reported on April 15, 1933.


The magazine's first television column made its debut in 1932, and by the following year stories began to appear about the potential threat the new medium posed to radio. Seven years later, the radio section would be renamed Radio & Television, reflecting Billboard's expanded coverage of the latter, and it took years for radio to once again find its place in a television-centered society.

Programmers' reliance on Billboard to track the hits increased with the addition of new and innovative features over the years. The year 1936 marked the appearance of Chart Line, which listed the most-played songs on the three major networks. In 1944, the Billboard Music Popularity Chart was launched; it contained useful information for programmers on songs with the most radio plays, national and regional retail sales information for records and sheet music, and the Harlem Hit Parade, a list of the most-popular records in Harlem. By 1946, the music charts also included the top 15 Honor Roll of Hits, as well as England's top 20, and jukebox-play information.

In the mid-'40s Billboard also began providing a chart listing the country's top evening radio programs, along with information on network, sponsor, and talent salaries. The top 3 in 1945 were all NBC shows: the Pepsodent-sponsored Bob Hope show, Johnson Floorwax's "Fibber McGee & Molly," and Kraft Cheese Co.'s Bing Crosby show.


Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor and the start of U.S. involvement in World War II, Billboard's radio coverage focused on the medium's role in the war effort.

That$role was a vital one, since radio provided the country not only with news, but with public-service messages, entertainment, and much-needed morale boosting. In the war's first year, a typical NBC station aired 5,300 government announcements, 4,500 War Bond announcements, and 2,700 war-effort programs, for a total of 990 hours of war-related programming over and above news reports.

One Billboard story (Jan. 3, 1942) took a light-hearted look at the war coverage with a story about WCCO Minneapolis announcer Rod O'Connor. In the first 48 hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the story said, O'Connor had broken into so much regular programming with war updates that finally, to relieve the tension, he announced on the air, "we interrupt the news flashes to bring you a regularly scheduled program."


On Jan. 2, 1943, an article examining the role of the "Negro" in show business revealed that black performers were being represented with more dignity, their employment opportunities had increased, and their race was being portrayed more sympathetically in films, over radio, and on stage than in previous years. However, radio continued to perpetuate a longstanding policy that no black performer could be introduced on any commercial network show with the appellation of Mr., Mrs., or Miss preceding his or her name. That rule applied even to performers of Marian Anderson's stature. There was, however, some evidence that the rule was beginning to break down, for example, when Bing Crosby introduced Paul Robeson as "Mr." on his program (Kraft Music Hall, Feb. 6, 1941, NBC).

Still, Billboard reported, radio continued well into the '40s to follow the "rules" that "a Negro cannot be represented in any drama except in the role of a servant or as an ignorant or comical person" and that "the role of the American Negro in the war effort cannot be mentioned in a sponsored program."


With approximately 1,000 FM stations operating or licensed by 1948, the industry feared, according to a Jan. 3 Billboard headline, that "FM !Was^ Nearing $$ Saturation." The article questioned whether the FM band was approaching its economic fill-line. As it turns out, with approximately 6,700 FM stations operating today, the answer was a resounding no.

The year 1948 also brought about what was considered "unprecedented feverish activity" in broadcast-station transfers, with 324 sales, up from 78 in 1947. (By comparison, the 1,142 sales in 1993 would have been considered of epic proportions in 1948.)

That same year, Billboard broke the story on March 13 that KMPC Los Angeles was slanting its news broadcasts, on the orders of station-owner G.A. Richards, in a manner that was derogatory to President Truman, Howard Hughes, and the Jewish people. Former KMPC news writer and editor, Maurie Starrels, claimed in a deposition that following the death of gangster Bugsy Siegel, Starrels was told he must emphasize in his newscast that Siegel was Jewish, that he was buried in a Jewish cemetery, and that a rabbi performed the ceremony. The story was also ordered to be coupled with stories about Russia and communism.

The FCC began looking into the charges immediately after Billboard's story broke.


By 1951, the country had gone crazy with fear of communism. After CBS was criticized by some newspapers for making its employees sign a loyalty oath, Billboard, on Jan. 6, 1951, ran an editorial supporting the networks' move.

"We think it is extremely unfortunate that as genuine an attempt to meet the threat !of Communism^ as that made by CBS is misinterpreted with such scurrilous and malicious intent as was displayed by some newspapers last week," the editorial said. "We hope this type of reaction will not deter CBS, nor any of the other networks... from fighting as aggressively as possible against the menace that is Communism."

The '50s also brought about the beginning of modern radio formatting under such legendary programmers as Todd Storz, who is credited with inventing the top 40 format, and Gordon McLendon. Thanks to these pioneering programmers, and others who came after them, radio stations gradually shifted away from playing a wide variety of music, much of it selected by the disc jockeys themselves, and a "something for everyone" philosophy toward today's tightly programmed, niche formats, targeted at specific demographics, and carefully researched playlists.

Programmers Chuck Dunaway and Kent Burkhart initiated what is believed to be the very first radio station playlist in 1955 at KXOL Fort Worth, Texas.


Throughout the '50s, '60s, and '70s, the radio industry dealt with payola charges and investigations by Congress, the FCC, and the Federal Trade Commission. In 1960 those groups initiated an exhaustive probe of the entire music industry, from small publishing houses to major radio networks, covering 27 cities and digging for evidence of payola including misuse of "free-bies," chart rigging, and kickbacks.

WINS New York disc jockey Alan Freed's reputation and career were destroyed in 1960 when he was indicted on commercial bribery charges and accused of taking money to play records.

While the '50s investigations and the congressional payola hearings of 1960 focused on disc jockeys, the 1972 "Project Sound" investigation by the U.S. Attorney's Office in Newark, N.J., went after a larger target. That investigation looked into claims that CBS Records had bribed R&B radio stations to play records. Although 19 people were indicted in 1975, the investigation failed to send anyone to jail on payola charges.

The specter of payola continued to haunt the industry. In late 1976, Congress and the FCC once again investigated the business, including concert promoters and WOL Washington, D.C. And the issue came up yet again in 1986 when the practices of independent record promoters were called into question.


In 1968, one of broadcasters' chief concerns was the labels' phasing out of monaural albums at a time when many small-market (and some major-market) AM stations were not equipped to deal with stereo albums.

That year also brought the launch of the hugely popular Billboard radio conventions, which continued until the early '80s, were discontinued for a decade, and resumed in 1994.

An eerily prescient Jan. 4, 1969, story told of the large numbers of program directors and station managers who were getting into consulting and made reference to two now-legendary programmers: Bill Drake, who was referred to as "the fair-haired consultant of the moment"; and Mike Joseph, who was called "the father of the consulting business."

Although it was then a fairly novel idea, the business today employs the services of literally hundreds of programming, management, sales, and marketing consultants. Nearly every major- and medium-market station now has at least one consultant on its payroll and, as more jobs are eliminated by FCC-sanctioned consolidation, many broadcasters are looking toward consulting as a stable source of income and are hanging out their own shingles.

Once radio's half-ignored stepchild, FM came into its own. In the '70s it eventually overtook AM as the more popular band, particularly among younger listeners. A Jan. 5, 1974, article documented FM's "leap into dominance in market after market ... in the younger demographics."


By 1975, the once-popular nostalgia format was fading, drama radio had been dead for more than a decade, and the disco format was "being studied based on the records played in the growing number of discotheques throughout the nation," Billboard reported on Jan. 4. The disco format really took off in 1979 when WABC New York lost its 17-year hold at the top of the market's ratings to what was called "disco upstart" WKTU.

Also popular in the late '70s were top 40, country, and MOR (middle of the road), and progressive rock stations also had gained a foothold since their inception in the late '60s.

The FCC forced more FM programming diversity in 1976 when it ruled that duplication of AM programming on the FM band was to be limited to 25% if either station is licensed to a city with a population of more than 100,000, and 50% in smaller cities. At the same time, Billboard reported on January 3 that programming was getting more "scientific" thanks to a wider acceptance of computers.

In 1982, black-oriented stations across the U.S. were taking on the urban contemporary format, described in Billboard on Jan. 9 as "an outgrowth of disco !which^ blends contemporary black music with rock- and pop-oriented product which often (though not exclusively) carries a rhythmic base." Some programmers of black stations resented that, contending, "it is a means by which black music can be diluted to make stations more palatable to non-blacks." During the '80s radio was transformed into big business. As stations began trading for unprecedented dollar figures, top programmers and talent began earning equally unprecedented sums, full-time satellite programming networks came into being, and radio took on a much more businesslike, professional tenor than had previously been associated with it.

Today, there are nearly 12,000 radio stations in the United States programming approximately 80 distinct formats. FM is now the dominant entertainment medium, although AM continues to be a primary outlet for news and information. The business is healthy and looking forward to a future of innovative formats and new technology and continued, dedicated coverage in the pages of Billboard.

Jeff Miller's Broadcasting History Collection
Michael Biel's History of Radio Broadcast Recordings
John Mullin and Bing Crosby bring magnetic tape recording to American radio

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