Evolution of Radio & the Broadcasting Industry

Instructor: Mary Matthiesen-Jones

Mary has worked around the world for over 30 years in international business, advertising, and market research. She has a Master's degree in International Management and has taught University undergraduate and graduate level courses .

Since its origins over a century ago, the radio industry has changed in many ways. Learn about the structure of commercial radio today and the regulatory role played by the government.

A Changing Industry

Radio has played a central role in American life for nearly 100 years. In the last century, starting with a single station in Pittsburgh broadcasting the 1920 presidential election results, the radio industry has grown to where there are now over 15,000 stations. Radio has seen Americans through the 1930s Great Depression when President Roosevelt delivered his ''Fireside Chats,'' through World War II, and up to the present day. Radio provides information and entertainment to Americans from all walks of life. However, while radio itself has not changed, the industry that started with one station has evolved into a $20 billion industry. It also now faces new challenges from technologies such as the Internet and satellite services.

Regulating Radio

Since the beginning, the government has regulated the airwaves in order to ensure interference-free access. The Federal Radio Commission evolved into the Federal Communications Commission, or FCC, which is responsible for regulating all forms of communication in the United States, from radio to the Internet. Anything that uses the airwaves, from a garage door opener to cell phones, falls under the FCC's regulatory powers.

The FCC also plays a significant role in determining how the radio industry is structured. The FCC is responsible for seeing that radio stations serve the public interest and that no one broadcaster dominates a market.

The Radio Signal

The FCC also ensures that radio station signals do not interfere with one another by assigning specific frequencies to every station. Radio signals move through the air via the broadcast spectrum using a specific radio frequency. A station tuned to 97.1 FM means that the station is broadcasting at 97.1 megahertz. No other station in that area can broadcast at that exact frequency. If they did, they would interfere with each other. The FCC assigns different frequencies to every radio station in a market. Moreover, because TVs, cellphones, garage door openers, GPS systems, and even radio controlled cars and planes use radio frequencies, the FCC also assigns all of those frequencies. This prevents people from opening a garage door by accident when they change the radio station in their car!

These radio signals broadcast in two ways based on radio waves. AM stands for amplitude modulation. FM stands for frequency modulation. Both carry the radio signal but AM signals are more likely to have that annoying static. This is why stations that broadcast mainly music tend to be FM stations, while talk radio is more likely broadcast on AM stations. AM stations are also concentrated in the lower radio frequency bands because they appeared long before FM stations and in the beginning did not need a lot of bandwidth.

The strength of the signal limits the coverage of both AM and FM radio stations to specific markets. Therefore, 97.1 FM in Atlanta, Georgia is a music station while 97.1 FM in Columbus, Ohio is a sports news station. Satellite radio, on the other hand, covers large geographic areas. A few satellites cover an entire continent. Unlike local AM and FM stations where every station has different programming, satellite radio broadcasts the same stations and programming everywhere, whether you are in Atlanta or Columbus.

Radio Formats

As the number of radio stations have grown, a wider variety of news, information, and music programming has appeared on the airwaves. The type of programming that a station airs is their format. Formats are important because they appeal to different audiences and help advertisers to select the best stations to promote their specific products and services. Several common formats air in most major markets.

  • News, talk, and sports focus on information, events, and conversation.
  • Country music combines classics and current hits.
  • Religious includes both talk and music ranging from gospel to classical hymns.
  • Contemporary music focuses on the latest hits.
  • Rock and alternative features a mixture of classic, modern, and alternative rock such as punk.
  • Urban focuses on R&B, rap, and hip-hop.
  • Classical is where the music includes composers such as Bach and Beethoven.

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