Radio in the United States
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. 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, 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.
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.
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