Radio Broadcasting, Station Programming and

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Susan Eastman and her colleagues (1997) state very clearly that the business of broadcasting is "the business of creating audiences that advertisers want to reach" (p. 8). This focus originated in the 1920s when WEAF, a radio station owned by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company (AT&T), began "toll broadcasting" (i.e., the exchange of money for airtime). This led to sponsorships of blocks of programs, such as the "Palmolive Hour" and the "Mercury Theater." It was not long before sponsorships progressed to shorter, more frequent announcements.

Radio advertising became even more attractive with the rise of networks. AT&T initiated this trend by linking its stations by using its existing telephone infrastructure. The telephone company soon left the broadcasting industry, selling its holdings to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA). As a result, RCA created a new company, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), which operated radio stations under a "Blue" network that included former RCA, Westinghouse, and General Electric holdings and a "Red" network that included mostly former AT&T stations. These networks increased the audience for the network programming and thereby increased the advertising revenue. The "golden age" of radio, from around 1930 to 1948, saw the culmination of David Sarnoff's dream of radio being the center of entertainment in American households. Programming of this period included music, drama, and live variety. In addition, while advertisers were spending about $20 million on radio advertising by 1929, the figure had exploded to around $500 million by 1948. However, a new competitor was looming: television. The television industry used radio as a model for its programming and, as a result, many of radio's finest artists made the move to the new medium. Radio had to change in order to attract salable audiences for advertisers. In doing so, its programming went through a significant evolution.

Station Formats

According to Joseph Dominick and his colleagues (2000), radio advertising revenue dropped 58 percent between 1952 and 1958. In addition, the networks provided much less programming to local affiliates because of the loss of popular talent. As it turned out, radio was about to advance not on the backs of a national network but rather from creative ideas on the local level.

Top 40 Radio

Todd Storz, a radio station owner in Omaha, Nebraska, was in a bar one night when he noticed that people loved hearing the same hit songs over and over again. Storz decided to apply this strategy to radio programming, and the result was Top 40 radio. Another station owner, Gordon McLendon of Dallas, Texas, took Top 40 and added the promotion of local on-air personalities called disc jockeys. This programming transition was also very timely. World War II had been over for a few years, and the United States was entering a period of economic prosperity. These economic freedoms trickled down to young people who had money to spend and were trying to distinguish themselves from their parent's generation. Listening to the newest hits and colorful disc jockeys of Top 40 radio gave this growing population a common rallying point. The Top 40 format was also very compatible with the rise of rock-and-roll music. Many of the early stars of rock (e.g., Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard) portrayed a rebellious image that teenagers admired. In addition, Top 40 helped to improve the relationship between the radio industry and the recording industry. The music industry found that the more the hits were played by radio stations, the more the records sold at stores.

As the number of radio stations grew in the mid-1950s, station owners were looking for other music formats that would target attractive audience groups. Middle-of-the-road, country and western, beautiful music, all-jazz, and album-oriented rock formats all grew out of this movement toward specialization. A programmer was also able to make changes to the station's sound as a response to the uniqueness of its market. This had not been possible when programming was fed via a national network.

FM Radio

A technological innovation also helped the development of music formats. From the early days, a radio station's signal was transmitted through amplitude modulation (AM). In simple terms, this process involves the transmission of radio information by the manipulation of the height of the electromagnetic waves. While this method served (and continues to serve) the industry well, it was not technically suited for the transmission of high-fidelity music. In 1933, Edwin Armstrong publicly demonstrated frequency modulation (FM), a mode of delivery that manipulated the distance between the electromagnetic waves. The technical differences resulted in a transmission system that had two key advantages over the existing AM method: an amazing reduction in static and the ability to reproduce high-quality music.

The advantage of FM was obvious, but the method was not adopted right away. FM broadcasting required a completely new system from transmitter to receiver. This meant that radio station owners would have to invest in expensive new equipment and that the public would have to replace their radios with new models. In the late 1930s, the radio industry was extremely strong, so major industry players, including RCA's Sarnoff, saw no reason to make this technological switch. In addition, RCA was investing at that time in a another developing technology: television.

It was not until the early 1960s that FM stereo broadcasting began to grow. The combination of excellent music reproduction and the proliferation of music formats helped with the expansion. FM received another boost when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed the nonduplication rule. This regulation mandated that AM/FM combination stations must offer separate programming at least half the time. Original programming expanded on the FM stations, and by the late 1970s, listenership of FM stations exceeded that of AM stations. Music formats continue to flourish on FM progress into more even targeted genres (e.g., alternative, adult alternative, rock, active rock, adult contemporary, hot adult contemporary). However, just as the radio industry had adjusted to the introduction of television, AM radio was set to evolve once again.

Talk Radio

Talk radio had not attracted much attention in the early 1980s, but in 1988, when it was learned that Speaker of the House Jim Wright was about to push through a congressional pay raise without a vote, Ralph Nader turned to talk radio. He called The Jerry Williams Show in Boston and complained. At the same time, others called numerous talk radio hosts around the country to complain about Wright's action. After broadcasting Wright's fax number over the air, an enormous number of complaints filled his office. Needless to say, Wright's actions were halted, and the nation understood overnight the power of talk radio.

The years that followed marked a dramatic increase in the number of stations with either an all-talk format or a format that combined news and talk. In the early 1980s, there were only around two hundred stations that used these formats, but by 1994, that number had increased to more than eight hundred. This increase was fueled by the powerful personalities of talk radio. As had happened with the disc jockeys in the 1950s, these talk show hosts have become household names. The list includes such notables as Larry King, Howard Stern, Don Imus, Rush Limbaugh, Laura Schlessinger, and Jim Rome. By 1998, news/talk had become the most listened to format, attracting nearly 17 percent of the radio audience. As the popularity of confrontational talk grew on commercial radio, a similar growth was occurring on noncommercial radio.

The Pubic Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This organization was designed to receive funds from the government and distribute it to public radio and television stations, as well as to television's Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). NPR produces much of its own programming, focusing mainly on national news. Jay Kernis, the creator of NPR's popular show All Things Considered, said that public radio should provide programming that "enriches and gives meaning to the human spirit" (Douglas, 1999, p. 286). The numbers speak volumes about the success of this approach. In 1971, 104 stations carried All Things Considered. By the mid-1990s, more than 520 stations carried the program, with a listener base of around 160 million.

The Era of Consolidation

The Telecommunications Act of 1996 loosened the longstanding radio ownership restrictions. After the national ownership cap was eliminated, group consolidation exploded. For example, Jacor Communications owned three radio stations in 1978, but by 1998, they owned more than two hundred. In 1999, Clear Channel Communications acquired both Jacor and AM/FM, Inc., creating a group of 959 stations and making Clear Channel Communications the largest group owner in the radio industry.

This boom in consolidation has received mixed reviews. The major group owners argue that the radio consolidation environment offers many advantages, including financial stability for the industry and improved programming for smaller markets through satellite delivered programs and formats. However, some critics say that consolidation is reducing the variety of voices in the public marketplace of ideas. While the jury is still out in this debate, both sides can offer support for their opinions. For example, the radio industry is on strong financial ground, despite the age of the Internet. Radio stocks saw 100 percent gains after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 was enacted, and radio's advertising revenue continues to grow. From the public advocate side, the FCC adopted rules in January 2000 that created a new low-power FM (LPFM) service for nonprofit organizations, churches, and community groups. By December 2000, the FCC had declared that more than 250 applicants were eligible for this new LPFM license. While technical interference issues remain paramount to broadcasters, the FCC believes that increasing the number of voices on the airwaves is of greater importance.

Contemporary Programming

While radio continues to be community based and primarily supported by local advertising dollars, that does not mean that all of the programming is locally originated. Many stations take advantage of satellite technology to acquire national network programming. Companies such as Premiere, Westwood One, the American Broadcasting Company (ABC), and the Cable News Network (CNN) provide choices for the local programmer that range from regularly scheduled news and high-profile talk shows to complete twenty-four-hour formats. These network programs provide a local station with a cost-effective alternative to the arduous task of recruiting and hiring quality local talent. Group-owned stations are also becoming more efficient with their programming practices by sharing their on-air talent. This practice, known as voice tracking, involves one station in a group programming three or more stations within the same ownership cluster. High-speed datalines, computer-controlled formats, and satellite technology all help to make this process sound seamless to the local listener. While this activity has certainly improved the bottom-line of radio group owners, some critics argue that voice tracking can never replace the "feel" and "personality" of live local talent.

However, despite the availability of excellent national programming, radio is still a local business. While national personalities such as Tom Joyner and Howard Stern attract a great deal of attention, the vast majority of morning shows around the country are hosted by local talent. Music programming is shaped by the idiosyncrasies of the local market and approximately 75 percent of total radio revenue comes from local advertising. In order to judge how they are performing in the local market, most radio stations depend on Arbitron, a national company.


As explained above, broadcasters are in the business of attracting "desirable" audiences to hear the messages that are paid for by advertisers. It should come as no surprise that advertisers initiated the measurement of the radio audiences. It was a logical step in the sponsorship process; advertisers wanted evidence that their investment in radio advertising was reaching a significant audience. Archibald Crossley and his Crossley Inc. began an audience data service in 1930. The first competition for Crossley's company did not appear until 1934, when Claude Hooper and Montgomery Clark formed the firm of Clark-Hooper. Since that time, other companies have attempted a national radio service, including A. C. Nielsen and Birch Radio. However, Arbitron has emerged as the preeminent supplier of radio audience measurement statistics. Arbitron asks its participants to complete a diary over a seven-day period in order to document their use of radio, both in and out of the home. This data is compiled for subscribing stations (more often in large markets and less often in small markets) and sent to them in a summary report that is often referred to as "The Book." In general, the higher the ratings for a station, the more that station can charge for advertising time. Program directors design their schedules to maximize time that people spend listening, thereby increasing the chances that diary keepers will identify their particular stations during a ratings period. Stations' promotion department also takes advantage of the Arbitron methodology. Stations often run contests during "sweeps" periods in order to keep listeners tuned into their frequency. Call letters, slogans, and onair imaging are all created to enhance a station's top-of-mind-awareness with listeners.

The Future

From a programming perspective, one could argue that radio's content has not changed a great deal from when the first radio broadcast was made. In that original 1906 broadcast, Reginald Fessenden played music on a violin, read passages from the Bible, and wished the listeners a merry Christmas—all of which, with slight stretches of the imagination, could be considered to fall into the music, news, and talk categories. While sweeping content innovations are rare, technological advancements continue to change the industry.

The Internet offers radio a tremendous opportunity and a challenge, both at the same time. Nearly half of all U.S. radio stations have an Internet website, and that figure is expected to grow. A website offers radio stations an additional opportunity to promote sponsors (creating a new revenue stream), receive feedback directly from the listeners, and provide up-to-date information for the local communities. In addition, more than eleven hundred U.S. radio stations are streaming their programming live over the web. While the Internet is growing by leaps and bounds, no one is predicting the death of over-the-air broadcasting. If history is any indicator, rather than disappearing, the radio industry can be expected to evolve while taking advantage of the online marketplace.

Another major advancement is digital radio. Digital audio broadcasting is a digital method of transmitting compact-disc-like quality audio signals to radio receivers, along with new data services such as station, song and artist identification, and news. The in-band, on-channel digital audio broadcasting (IBOC DAB) process accomplishes this goal. Basically, this allows broadcasters to transmit AM and FM analog signals simultaneously with the new digital feed. Just as with the television equivalent, digital radio offers great potential for expanded programming options. However, the established commercial model will most likely determine the direction of programming, which must continue to provide content that will attract a desirable audience for advertisers.

See also:Armstrong, Edwin Howard; Internet and the World Wide Web; Public Broadcasting; Public Service Media; Radio Broadcasting; Radio Broadcasting, History of; Radio Broadcasting, Technology of; Sarnoff, David;Telecommunications Act of 1996; Television Broadcasting, Programming and.


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John W. Owens