Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Rise of FM Alternative Rock Radio

This is a rerun of a post that originally appeared here on July 18, 2007.

Among my oldest memories are listening to my mother's kitchen radio tuned to the music popular with adults of the early 60s. True, those artists included some giants such as Frank Sinatra, Nat King Cole, Peggy Lee, and Herb Alpert's Tijuana Brass but unfortunately I also had to listen to The Ray Coniff Singers and The Singing Nun.

Then in February 1964 The Beatles arrived in New York to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show. It wasn't love at first sight but my conversion came about swiftly and completely. From then on music challenged baseball as a childhood obsession.

The Beatles led me to listen to Philadelphia's only radio station that played rock & roll, top 40 WIBG, 99 on the AM dial. Then I moved on to the more modern, faster-paced WFIL, Famous 56, who usurped WIBG's throne. For those of us living in the northern Philadelphia suburbs we could also listen to the king of all the top 40 stations, New York City's WABC, Musicradio 77, whose signal was actually stronger than WIBG's at night. After dark I also remember tuning in to WCFL, Chicago and CKLW in Windsor, Ontario. Those stations all had one thing in common: very limited playlists.

The top 40 stations were not without their advantages. I was exposed to genres and artists I never knew existed. In the Spring of 1965 my first exposure to black music was on WIBG. I had never heard anything before that sounded like Motown, James Brown, and Ray Charles. I remember hearing my first Beach Boys song, "Help Me Rhonda." WIBG is where I first heard country music. While the styles of music broadcast on these stations varied wildly the listener would only hear the same forty songs over, and over, and over again. WABC even played the number one song every hour!

Broadcasters just didn't seem to care about FM radio. It had been languishing in obscurity for twenty years despite its superior clarity and static free, stereo sound. With FM you could even listen to the radio during a thunderstorm or while driving under an overpass.

Then in July 1965 the bureaucrats at the FCC actually did America a favor. They ruled that any FM radio station that was owned and operated by an AM station would no longer be allowed to simulcast the AM station's programming for more than 50% of the broadcast day. This meant that many FM stations all over America had to come up with a lot of new programming. The deadline for meeting this new requirement was January 1, 1967. The stage was now set for the advent of FM rock radio.

Just as The Beatles arrival on these shores totally changed everything about how I viewed music the new FM programming broadened my horizons even more. "Underground" or "alternative" radio stations were able to experiment and play music the AM stations would never think of playing. WIP, 610 AM in Philadelphia, had an FM affiliate that eventually became WMMR, one of the pioneering FM alternative rock stations in America.

In 1967 a DJ named Dave Herman had an evening show on WMMR called The Marconi Experiment. The show aired from 7 PM until Midnight and played only music that AM radio wouldn't touch. Most DJs were allowed to select their own music. FM played fewer commercials so there was a lot more room for the disc jockey to stretch out with all kinds of musical experimentation. One night Herman played the entire "In-a-Gadda-Da-Vida" with its famous guitar riff and drum solo. It clocked in at 17:05. Pink Floyd's "Saucerful Of Secrets," at 11:57, was another track I remember Herman spinning. I heard Frank Zappa and Jimmy Hendrix for the first time. None of these artists or tracks were likely to be played on AM.

By 1972 GM, Ford, and Chrysler were adding FM radios to their cars as standard equipment. This enabled FM outlets to annually increase their audience and by 1978 they began to win the ratings wars. Today FM remains the dominant radio medium despite the advent of satellite and Internet radio.

So many people had their musical lives broadened by exposure to FM's wide spectrum of music that I believe the 1965 FCC ruling is one of the defining moments in the history of rock & roll and popular music. My tastes, and I'm sure those of a whole lot of other young people, were strongly shaped by what we heard during the years of FM's rise to prominence.

1 comment:

  1. I expected this to be a discussion of how college radio stations in the late 70s and 80s became the defining taste mediators of alternative rock and were major influences of commercial radio stations whose savvy program directors often listened to college radio and imitated their playlists. In the case of WLIR the station even stole a tag phrase from the college radio station I worked in Allentown, PA which came up with "WMUH-FM: the only station that matters" in 1979. When I hear the term "alternative rock" I don't think of The Who or Pink Floyd I always think of the 80s when the term was invented and I only think of college radio.

    Though I grew up during the dawn of FM radio I never knew how it came into being. Thanks for this brief history and your personal memories of the early rock being played on one of the first FM stations.