Throughout the decades, going as far back as the early 1900's, popular music has been defined by American radio. AM radio has a long history of being the center point for discovering new talent and presenting it to the public. One of the first transmissions of AM radio was in 1906, when a performance of Puccini's opera, Tosca, was broadcast live from the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. In 1916, The father of the blues, WC Handy, performed live on an experimental radio station in Memphis. AM radio quickly became the voice of the community, and everything from world series baseball and championship prize fighting to big band jazz, were broadcast on the radio.
In the 50's, radio stations heavily supported local talent and it was not unusual to record a song, and get it airplay immediately. Two radio guys eating in a diner in Omaha, Nebraska noticed how customers would order the same song over and over again on the jukebox. From that, they created the Top 40 Hits format.
All of a sudden, deejays were no longer allowed to decide what would go on the air. Radio stations defined the programming by genre of music. Top 40 became the exclusive format for many AM stations and it was very successful. The real interest in FM radio can be traced to the release of the Beatles'St. Pepper's album. Americans, who loved the Beatles, couldn't hear songs from that recording on their favorite AM radio station, since the songs didn't fit the traditional Top 40 formatting. But on the FM band, there was greater freedom. Deejays would play entire albums, one side at a time.
As music continued to blossom in the early 70's, album oriented FM radio grew. Station owners and programmers realized this was a gold mine, and began capitalize on its power. A new format philosophy was developed, called AOR radio. AOR radio was highly structured, playing a limited number of new songs. In the late 80's, as British bands like Depeche Mode and The Cure began to break through here, a new format emerged, called Alternative radio. It quickly became the format of choice for most of the listening youth. Again, as the money rolled in, Alternative radio became highly structured and formatted.
Nowadays, there are so many formats of radio, it's almost impossible to keep up. No deejay gets programming control in commercial radio anymore. With the changes in the laws surrounding ownership, radio stations have become less, a voice of a community and more a voice of a corporation. Their income stream is driven by selling advertising, and as such, they need to keep loyal fans listening. The most significant way they do that is by playing songs most familiar to their audience.
But that creates an important cultural problem. Without the influx of new local songs getting airplay on local radio stations, music becomes a wallpaper in people's life, loosing the very vitality it was built on. It is for this reason that non-commercial and satellite radio stations have grown in the last few years in record numbers.
From the beginning, there was an open adverturous spirit to commercial music programming. As music consumers and radio listeners, we had better be mindful of that fact, and be sure that the music is never forgotten.
This is Celia Hirschman for On the Beat on KCRW.