BACK TO THE HERD
Lee De Forest carved his name into radio history with two things: invention of the Audion tube and a quote from his autobiography: “Unwittingly then I had discovered an Invisible Empire of the Air, intangible, yet solid as granite, whose structure shall persist while man inhabits the planet.”
Odd, then, that he was talking about the birth of a medium that has thrived precisely because of its ability to adapt to social and technological changes. When De Forest did his pioneering work, radio was a curiosity. Then it became a wireless extension of the telegraph. Then the mainstay of in-home entertainment, arguably the most important medium in the world. Then primarily a source for out-of-home music programming. And now an ever-growing popular source for news and talk.
In many ways radio would have been a good subject to start this survival guide. The medium has a lot to teach us about the interrelationships between communication, technology, commerce, regulation, entertainment and society.
Wireless Catches a Killer
Radio pioneer Guglielmo Marconi faced a challenge. As early as 1901 he proved that radio signals could travel across the Atlantic Ocean (despite critics who claimed that signals were limited to “line of sight”). His new “wireless telegraph” system was much cheaper to maintain than the expensive, cumbersome Transatlantic Cable that had previously been the only way to send a signal directly across the ocean.
Trouble was, the cable had been in operation for decades and people were used to using it. Why would anyone want Marconi’s great new system, if it didn’t do anything that people couldn’t already do?
His invention finally caught the public’s attention thanks to an unusual source: Hawley Crippen, who in 1910 killed his wife and disappeared with his mistress, Ethel Le Neve. The captain of a steamship called the Montrose noticed the fugitive couple (with Le Neve dressed as a boy, no less) among his passengers on a voyage from England to Canada. But how could he notify the police in time to make sure Crippen would be caught when they reached their destination?
Fortunately, the Montrose just happened to be equipped with a Marconi wireless transmitter. He sent word back to Scotland Yard. An investigator swiftly caught a faster ship to Canada and was waiting for them when they arrived. Crippen was tried, convicted and executed. Le Neve was acquitted and emigrated to America.
Marconi, on the other hand, had a sensation on his hands. Not only did his invention get a lot of free publicity, but now it was easier for members of the public to understand why wireless was such a great improvement over wires.
Fessenden Plays the Violin
The big problem with Marconi’s wireless system was that its transmissions were either on or off. There was no middle ground for sounds with vibrating “grey areas,” the kind that make up almost everything we hear. The on-or-off system worked fine for Morse Code. But who wanted to sit around their living rooms at night deciphering a code?
Working with General Electric, an engineer named Reginald Fessenden developed a system that “modulated” the signal to allow it to carry vibrating waves and thus transmit actual sounds rather than just dots and dashes.
On Christmas Eve 1906, he gave his device a try. The world’s first real sound broadcast included Fessenden reading Luke 2:14 and playing “O Holy Night” on the violin. Though the first transmission travelled only a few miles, a second attempt a week later on New Year’s Eve went as far as the Caribbean.
Most of the people in his “audience” were severely freaked out by the transmissions. Bear in mind that almost everybody listening to radio at the time was a professional wireless operator whose job it was to send and receive Morse messages. So when the radio began sending them music and Bible verses … well, it was a little like having your shoes suddenly start talking to you.
The Golden Age
American participation in World War One tied up the development of radio until the early 1920s, but once the war was over the new medium blossomed. At first growth was hampered by technical requirements: broadcasters had to buy a transmitter, listeners had to buy (or build) receivers, and eventually the federal government had to step in to prevent stations from broadcasting over each others’ signals. But once the kinks got ironed out, radio became one of the world’s most important media.
When it came to getting news out to the public, radio had a couple of advantages over newspapers. It was immediate, so events (such as the famous fiery destruction of the Hindenburg) could be reported as they happened rather than making everyone wait until the next morning for the next edition of the newspaper to come out. Radio was also accessible to audience members who couldn’t read.
In the entertainment department, again radio held a couple of edges of its big competitor, movies. Once you bought a radio, receiving broadcasts didn’t cost anything extra. So you could listen as often and as long as you liked for free. And radio came straight into your home rather than dragging you out to a movie theater.
Radio also did an excellent job of “meshing” (or in 21st century terms, “converging”) with other media. For example, Popeye the Sailor began life as a newspaper comic strip. But he grew even more popular when he got his own radio show. And of course later he flourished in cartoons shown in movie theaters as well.
Many of television’s familiar show categories – from soap operas to dramas to comedy-variety to game shows – were originally pioneered on the radio in the 1920s, 30s and 40s. But of course television was basically radio plus pictures, so when TV sets started showing up in living rooms across the country in the 1950s, radio had trouble competing. It survived and thrived by finding new ways to reach audiences, but its Golden Age came to an end.
Nazis Bomb London
The United States was late joining World War Two; the Axis powers had been invading other countries for at least half a decade and open war had been raging in Europe for more than two years before we finally kicked in. Of course the major factor in the U.S. decision to join the fray was the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. But even before that, a famous series of radio broadcasts had been nudging America toward the fight.
CBS radio news correspondent Edward R. Murrow had been covering growth of Nazi power in Europe for some time when war broke out in 1939. As German airplanes began to drop bombs on London, Murrow covered the attack with live broadcasts that began with the catchphrase “This is London” and concluding with “Good night, and good luck” (a phrase he would continue to use later when he moved to television). Risking his life by transmitting from a rooftop in the middle of air raids, he brought the war directly into American living rooms.
The emotional impact of his broadcasts was much greater than the effect of newspaper articles, outdated newsreel footage or radio news read by an announcer in a studio. Further, his tales of death and destruction came from England, the land of Shakespeare and Dickens, and thus had a greater impact on white, middle class Americans than similar news from other countries.
The result was an increase in public support for American intervention, a profound early demonstration of radio’s ability to influence public opinion.
Top 40 Reinvents Radio
During radio’s Golden Age, the broadcast schedule was typically divided into programs the way television is today. However, in the early 1950s television – “radio plus pictures” – gained popularity, many programs and many audience members made the move to the new medium. Radio found itself in search of new ways to appeal to the public.
The most successful adaptation was the switch to all-music formats, as music didn’t really need pictures to communicate effectively. And the most commercially successful new music format was Top 40.
In 1951, Todd Storz, who was program director for KOWH in Omaha, noticed something that had been obvious to the music industry for some time: some songs were more popular than others. They got more play on jukeboxes, and they sold more copies in record stores. Storz decided to move this principle to the airwaves by asking local record store owners which tunes were the most popular and then playing those songs on the radio.
Three years later he purchased WHB in Kansas City, an AM station with a powerful transmitter. He converted the station’s programming to his new format, dubbing it “Top 40.” WHB became the first station to play a countdown, starting with the 40th most popular song and working all the way up to the most popular music of the week.
Though Storz is generally recognized as the creator of the format, entrepreneur Gordon McLendon usually gets the credit for launching Top 40 onto the national stage.
The format continues to thrive in the 21st century. As “Top 40” is something of an insult with some audience members, the format is now often referred to as Contemporary Hit Radio or CHR.
The Father of FM
Whenever historians start discussing who was the “inventor” of a particular technology or who was “the first” to put it to use, debates almost always arise. In the realm of radio, Marconi, Fessenden and De Forest are often mentioned. But in the Media Survival Guide we’re going to turn our attention to Edwin Howard Armstrong. Not only did he pioneer FM radio – commercial broadcasting’s most successful technology – but he also fought long and hard against stiff government and corporate resistance to bring his inventions to the public.
In the early 1920s Armstrong figured out a way to improve De Forest’s Audion tube to produce a much more powerful radio signal. During World War One he designed a lightweight radio transmitter that allowed airplane pilots to communicate directly with their bases. But most important of all, he figured out how to transmit sounds using Frequency Modulation, a technology that produced a much clearer, more static-resistant signal than the Amplitude Modulation systems most broadcasters were using at the time.
Unfortunately, because most broadcasters were using AM, they were resistant to potentially expensive changes in the radio market. RCA led lobbying efforts to get the portion of the broadcast spectrum set aside for FM shifted to a new location, which was a tremendous setback for FM stations. The company also claimed a rival patent on FM technology and used its legal muscle to beat Armstrong in court.
The lengthy legal battles ruined him financially and probably contributed to his suicide in 1954. However, subsequent historical developments and court fights have clearly established his importance to the medium.
Creator of Networks
On April 14, 1912, David Sarnoff was working for the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company of America as a radio operator atop a tall building in New York City when he picked up a message: “SS Titanic ran into iceberg, sinking fast.” Legend has it that he remained at his post for the next 72 hours straight, relaying information on the disaster to the public.
But Sarnoff was more than just a dedicated operator. He saw radio not as just a way for ships to communicate with each other but as a means to transmit voice and music into homes. At first his employers scoffed at the idea, but when Marconi Wireless was taken over by General Electric and made part of RCA at the end of World War One, his new bosses saw potential in his ideas.
Of course in order to sell radios to the public, someone would have to produce broadcasts worth listening to. So Sarnoff pioneered the transmission of something besides ship locations, starting with the Jack Dempsey-Georges Carpentier boxing match in 1921.
His next brilliant innovation was the network, a series of radio stations in different cities all carrying the same broadcast. In 1926 RCA created NBC, the world’s first broadcast network.
Under his leadership, RCA later led the way into the brave new world of television. But that’s a subject for another chapter.
The Goat Gland Doctor
Critics have described John Romulus Brinkley as “the ace of con artists,” “the king of quacks” and “the worst doctor ever to practice medicine.” He was also an important pioneer in the early days of radio broadcasting.
In 1915 Brinkley graduated from the Eclectic Medical University of Kansas City. Though the place was essentially a diploma mill, his “degree” was good enough to get him a license to practice in Kansas. He set up shop in the back room of a drug store in the small town of Milford.
At first business was slow. But then he hit upon the idea of curing male impotence by surgically implanting goat “glands” (i.e. testicles) into patients’ scrotums. In short order he was making good money performing his operations, mostly because he was as good at marketing as he was bad at medicine.
On a national promotional tour, Brinkley met Harry Chandler, the publisher of the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper had recently set up KHJ, one of the first radio stations in California, and Brinkley fell in love with the new technology, immediately seeing radio’s potential to reach a huge audience of potential goat gland customers.
Back in Kansas, he established KFKB (Kansas First Kansas Best). At first the station only reached part of the Midwest, but by upping the signal power he was eventually able to reach most of the United States and partway into the Atlantic.
Some listeners didn’t like Brinkley’s broadcasts. In particular, the American Medical Association objected not only to promotion of his surgery business but also to a show segment called The Medical Question Box, in which he would diagnose illness over the air and prescribe medication to people who sent letters describing their symptoms. Eventually the Federal Radio Commission (the forerunner of the FCC) received enough complaints that they held a hearing and revoked Brinkley’s broadcast license.
Not to be undone by anything as trivial as the federal government, he relocated his transmitter to Mexico just south of the Texas border. He also upped his signal strength until his broadcasts traveled halfway around the world. And the FRC couldn’t do a thing about it because he was outside U.S. jurisdiction.
Eventually Brinkley’s misdeeds caught up to him. His medical practice faced competition from other sham impotence cures and of course a swelling tide of malpractice claims from people who got sick or died after surgery. He also openly expressed sympathy for the Nazi cause, an unpopular view even in prewar North America. In the late 1930s his legal troubles destroyed his finances, Mexican government bulldozers destroyed his transmitter and the whole mess destroyed his health. At least he had enough foresight to pre-pay for a fancy headstone.
Rock Around the Clock
Alan Freed didn’t invent rock and roll. He didn’t even invent the term (it was originally street slang for “sex”). But he was the first to use it to describe a new kind of music that was emerging from R&B roots in the 1950s. And he was instrumental in popularizing this new musical genre.
In 1951 Freed worked with a record store owner in Akron, Ohio, to create an R&B-oriented radio program on a local radio station, WJW. The program was popular with listeners, and the following year Freed organized The Moondog Coronation Ball, an event commonly considered the world’s first rock and roll concert. It drew a crowd far too large for the venue, and a riot ensued.
The fallout from the concert was just part of a larger controversy. The new genre and Freed’s radio shows devoted to it were extremely popular with young people on both sides of the white/black color divide. However, many parents in middle class white America were uncomfortable with the thought that their kids were listening to “black music.” Thus Freed’s radio shows drew critics almost as easily as they drew audiences.
Freed was finally undone by some less-than-stellar business dealings. He made a practice of sharing songwriting credit with some of the artists whose records he played, which of course entitled him to part of the royalties if the songs sold a lot of copies. But worse, he got caught up in the payola controversy that rocked the DJ business in the late 1950s. The scandal damaged his career, drove him to drink and eventually led to his untimely death at the age of 43.
In March of 1932 the new President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, had a big job ahead of him. The United States (and much of the rest of the world) was at the low point of the Great Depression. A quarter of all workers were unemployed. Banks were failing left and right. Something had to be done.
Roosevelt’s solution was the New Deal, a series of government programs designed to get the economy back on its feet. He had the support he needed in Congress, but in order to make his reforms work he also needed the support of the American public.
To reach people as efficiently and effectively as possible, he used a technique that worked for him when he was Governor of New York: the “Fireside Chat.” Using the radio to reach as large an audience as possible, Roosevelt spoke directly to the people. His tone was personal and informal, sort of like a friendly conversation in front of a warm fire in a fireplace. But the topics he addressed were serious business: bank regulation, currency reform and many other New Deal efforts.
As his New Deal programs began to face opposition, he continued to use the Fireside Chats to appeal to the public for support. And as the United States drew ever closer to involvement in the wars brewing in Europe and Asia, Roosevelt again “chatted” with listeners to help calm their fears and prepare them for the coming conflict.
These speeches were so effective at influencing public opinion that every President since Roosevelt has made a regular practice of directly addressing the American people on a regular basis. To be sure, the technique hasn’t always worked perfectly. In the second week of his presidency, Jimmy Carter gave a televised “fireside chat” sitting next to an actual fireplace and dressed in a comfy-looking sweater rather than the traditional business suit, buying himself the nickname “Jimmy Cardigan.” But in general this method of mass communication has been of immense benefit to the President.
Of course in the 21st century the fireside has gone digital. Weekly addresses are now available directly on the Internet.
Transmitters and Receivers
In the second half of the 19th century, scientists discovered that they could create electromagnetic “disturbances” that would pass from one location to another without a solid physical connection (such as a wire) between the two. At first these discoveries were little more than technical curiosities. But then some folks with both technical expertise and business sense – chief among them Guglielmo Marconi – figured out how to use the phenomenon to communicate over great distances.
The process basically requires some kind of electrical discharge at the sending end (the “transmitter”) causing a “ripple” that can then be picked up in other locations by “receivers.” The earliest versions – spark gap transmitters – were little more than tiny bolts of focused lightning that could create audible disturbances sort of the same way you can hear your radio reception crackle when lightning flashes during a thunderstorm.
Eventually of course the technology improved, allowing not just clicks and beeps but actual sounds to go out “over the air.”
The Audion Tube
One of the tricks with radio waves is that in electrical terms they’re very small. In order to turn them from what’s sent out over the air to an audio signal that people can actually hear, they need to be amplified. The means for doing that effectively was first pioneered by Lee De Forest.
Without getting too far into the technical stuff (and if you love technical stuff, check some of the links below), the Audion enables a radio receiver to zero in on one particular frequency to the exclusion of all others. Thus listeners could “tune” their radios to one particular broadcast and not have to listen to the entire spectrum all at once.
Coincidentally, De Forest probably never really understood exactly what made his invention work. He only knew that it did.
The Portable Receiver
The Audion and its successors were vacuum tubes, electrical devices that look a little like light bulbs. Unfortunately they shared a few characteristics of light bulbs other than appearance, particularly their size, high energy requirements and tendency to burn out.
Thus the fewer and more efficient the tubes, the smaller transmitters and receivers could be. Work by engineers such as Edwin Armstrong brought equipment bulk down from room size to desk size to briefcase size.
However, true radio portability wasn’t achieved until the late 1950s. After scientists at Bell Labs invented the transistor, reliable radio receivers could be as small as a pack of cigarettes. Further, the absence of tubes meant that none of the parts would have to be replaced, and they consumed such small amounts of electricity that they could be powered with batteries.
The new technology was essential to the survival of radio as a medium. During the Golden Age, families gathered around the big radio in the living room. But when television replaced radio in the home entertainment role, radio moved into the out-of-home music niche. Small, portable boxes made that possible.
AM transmissions go all the way back to the early days of radio broadcasts of actual sounds. Once people figured out how to turn sound vibrations into electrical signals (and back again) and how to send signals from place to place with no wire in between, AM radio was a logical next step.
Energy travels from place to place in waves. Actually, it’s a little more complicated than that, but for a more precise explanation you’ll want to talk to a physics professor. For our purposes, waves are convenient because they provide us with a couple of ways we can transmit a vibration from place to place.
One way is to make changes in the height of the peaks and depths of the valleys. By “modulating” the “amplitude,” a sound vibration can be turned into a signal and back again. Amplitude modulation: AM.
Commercial AM signals have some advantages and disadvantages. They tend to “bounce” off the atmosphere, which allows them to travel great distances. On the other hand, they’re not as resistant to static, which can affect sound quality.
Because the technology was promoted heavily by big radio companies – most notably RCA – AM broadcasting dominated the market for decades.
The other way to use a wave to send a sound signal is Frequency Modulation. Rather than changing the height of the waves, FM changes the distances between the peaks. Because energy moves at an unchanging speed, the shorter the waves are the more of them you get per second. Thus shorter waves are more frequent, or “higher frequency.”
In a larger sense, frequency changes allow broadcasters to send out signals that don’t interfere with one another. On a much finer scale, small changes in wave frequency can be turned into sound vibrations.
Pioneered by Edwin Armstrong, FM technology took a back seat to AM during radio’s Golden Age. But as radio became more local (so the signals didn’t need to go as far) and music-oriented (so sound quality became more of an issue), FM replaced AM as the most important spot on the commercial radio dial.
Traditional (AM and FM) broadcasting goes out “over the air,” broadcast directly using the public airwaves. Satellite radio, on the other hand, starts at an uplink, bounces off a satellite and returns to radio receivers back on Earth.
SiriusXM – formed from the merger of two satellite radio companies in 2008 – is the biggest player in the U.S. satellite radio market today. Its service includes hundreds of channels, including specialized music stations, sports and channels for celebrities such as Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart.
The company’s signals are scrambled and require a special receiver to de-scramble them. SiriusXM charges a monthly subscription fee to listeners. Channels are mostly commercial-free. And because they aren’t “over the air broadcasts,” they can contain controversial content – such as Howard Stern’s shows – that wouldn’t be allowed in transmissions regulated by the FCC.
And unlike satellite television systems, satellite radio receivers are compact and don’t have to point south all the time. So they work in cars and other on-the-go locations as well as back at home.
Surfing the wave of public interest in HDTV, HD is the latest trend in radio broadcasting. Unlike the “HD” in “HDTV” – which stands for “high definition” – on the radio side HD stands for either “hybrid digital” or nothing, depending on which source you believe.
Like HDTV, HD radio represents an improvement in broadcast quality. Unlike FM transmissions (and even-worse AM signals), HD goes out in near-CD audio quality.
Further, HD allows “multicasting,” sending out more than one signal on the same frequency. So rather than just running one broadcast – a CHR station, perhaps – a broadcaster can send out several signals – maybe a jazz station and a news / talk signal on top of the original broadcast. They can also send out text information – such as song names or artists’ bios – along with their audio.
Radio is great for two things: playing music and talking. On the “talk” side, radio has evolved “news / talk,” the most popular single format on the radio today.
Most talk shows have a host alternate between expressing his own opinions, talking to guests and taking calls from listeners. Thus a successful talk show needs not only a popular on-air voice to draw listeners but also a skilled producer working behind the scenes to book guests, filter calls and so on.
After the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987, many talk radio shows began to appeal to audiences by taking political – particularly conservative – stands on issues. “Shock jocks” – talk hosts who specialize in controversial topics – are also big audience draws.
Playing music over the air is both easier and more complicated than broadcasting a talk show. It doesn’t take quite as much coordination. Some stations pick which songs to play based on lists from corporate ownership (often on a nationwide basis). Some employ program directors to monitor both national popularity charts and local trends. Others – particularly smaller stations with fewer employees – allow DJs to program their shows directly.
No matter how songs are picked, the station still has to obtain permission to play them from the songs’ owners. Rather than have every station in the world strike a separate deal with every record label or artist, stations generally pay a fee to a licensing agency such as ASCAP and BMI that then make sure song owners receive payment.
As we’ll see when we get to formats, music radio is divided up into dozens of different kinds of stations based on what sort of music they specialize in.
Regardless of format, almost every radio station in the United States divides its regular schedule into dayparts.
The Nielsen ratings system divides the radio day up into five parts:
Morning drive time – 6 to 10 a.m.
Midday – 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.
Afternoon drive time – 3 to 7 p.m.
Evening – 7 p.m. to midnight
Overnight – midnight to 6 a.m.
Broadcast radio dominates audio media consumption in cars, which of course makes morning and afternoon drive times crucial dayparts. The high number of listeners at these times makes them attractive to advertisers.
On the other hand, the overnight daypart generally draws such small audiences that Nielsen usually doesn’t monitor radio use overnight.
Radio stations are almost all divided up by format. The station’s format defines what kind of programming it provides for listeners. People who tune into a jazz, classic rock or classical station expect to hear a particular kind of music.
This “product differentiation” is useful not only to consumers but to advertisers as well. If you’re selling tickets to an upcoming Christian music festival, you’re probably going to be more receptive to the ad reps from a “Religious,” “Contemporary Inspirational” or “Southern Gospel” station than to someone from an “Album-Oriented Rock” broadcaster.
The News / Talk format currently draws the largest audiences. However, Country stations vastly outnumber any other format. Because country music appeals primarily to rural listeners, radio reaches the country audience more effectively with lots of small-town stations rather than just a few stations in larger cities. Something to think about if you’re considering a career in radio.
Businesses pay for ads on radio stations based on the number of listeners tuning in.
The leading source for radio audience research in the United States is Arbitron. The company determines who’s listening to what by using a combination of programming diaries and Portable People Meters. People are selected at random based on regional demographics and asked to participate. Diary participants keep track of their listening on a printed form. PPM participants wear a small portable device that tracks listening habits by picking up inaudible signals from radio broadcasts.
Arbitron makes money by selling its reports to stations that want to know how well they’re doing and advertisers who want to know where to place ads. However, you can get at least some general overview statistics (including station ratings for specific cities) by signing into Arbitron’s site and providing some personal information. For more specific data such as ratings for particular shows or times of day, you’d have to pay to subscribe.
Stations, Networks and Syndication
In its heyday, radio programming was provided mostly by centralized networks much the way television works today (indeed, NBC, CBS and ABC were all originally radio networks). Responding to competition from television in the 1950s, radio went from national programs to local music and talk.
Today most stations carry a combination of local, network and syndicated content. A station might start the morning with news from a national network, switch to a local call-in show after morning drive time ends, and run a syndicated program such as Rush Limbaugh in the afternoon.
Be careful to understand the difference between station ownership and network affiliation. While iHeartRadio owns more stations than any other company, Westwood One is the largest radio network currently in operation in the United States.
Who Owns What
In radio’s Golden Age, the Radio Corporation of America ran the show. A subsidiary of General Electric, RCA held many of the patents for technology in use in the medium’s early years, which of course gave it a head start in the industry.
Under the leadership of David Sarnoff, RCA established the National Broadcasting Company, the world’s first radio network. The operation soon became so large that it split into two different networks: NBC Red and NBC Blue. Then it got so big that the Justice Department filed an antitrust suit against it, and the Blue Network eventually became ABC.
The demise of radio networks as major media market players coincided with the downfall of RCA, which was sold by GE then re-purchased and broken up.
Today large media corporations focus more on station ownership than network content creation. The biggest fish in the pond is iHeartRadio (formerly ClearChannel), which owns nearly 900 stations in the United States. However, some other corporations (such as Disney and Cox) that own a few stations are actually larger than iHeart thanks to their holdings in other media.
For a good run-down of which company owns what, see the FCC’s listings or freepress.net’s summary of the major players.
In the Corporate World
A professional doing-it-for-money radio station typically hires some combination of the following people:
On air – The person whose voice you actually hear on your radio. A disc jockey is generally responsible for playing music as well as talking between (please not over, because that is soooo annoying) the songs. Talk hosts interview guests and frequently respond to calls from listeners.
Producer – The producer is the on-air talent’s best friend. She books guests, screens callers, schedules remote broadcasts and generally takes care of the behind-the-scenes stuff that requires taking care of.
Traffic / Continuity – No, not the person in the helicopter keeping track of bottlenecks on the highways. The traffic coordinator is responsible for the daily programming log that specifies what content runs where. She’s in charge of deciding what programs, songs, announcements, and so on will run where.
Engineer – Someone has to keep the electronics running. As you can probably imagine, this position requires a fair amount of technical expertise.
Promotions – Radio stations attract listeners by building community awareness with remote broadcasts, concert sponsorship and the like. Promotions pros are responsible for everything from arranging for DJs to broadcast from outside locations to getting the give-away T-shirts and coffee mugs printed with the station’s logo.
Ad sales – Broadcast radio is an indirect payment medium, which means that advertising revenue pays the bills (not to mention everyone’s salaries). Ad sales folks – supervised at larger stations by an ad manager – don the business suits and head out into the world to convince businesses to run ads on the station.
Station manager – The general manager answers only to the owner, so she’s the boss of everyone else at the station.
Radio station ownership is an expensive business. The FCC seldom issues new licenses to transmit in the AM and FM frequencies, so generally the only way to get one is to buy a company that already owns one. Needless to say, we’re talking about more money than most of us keep in our checking accounts.
The potentially big exception to this rule is Low Power FM broadcasting. Under FCC rules, state and local governments and non-profit organizations (such as colleges) can apply for a license to broadcast on the commercial FM spectrum. But here’s the trick: the transmitter’s power can’t be more than 100 watts and the antenna can’t be more than 100 feet higher than the average terrain around it. In practical terms, that produces a signal that travels only about three and a half miles.
An LPFM broadcaster still has to have a construction permit to set up a station and a license to broadcast. And if you’re looking for a way to make money in the radio business, don’t look at LPFM. Commercial broadcasts are prohibited on LP licenses.
On the other hand, at least it’s possible to get such a license without spending a jillion dollars.
In theory, that is. Even though LPFM licenses are supposed to be available, lobbyists from the pros – particularly the National Association of Broadcasters – have worked hard to make it hard for new LP applications to get through the process.
Sub-LPFM transmissions don’t require an FCC license at all, and you can do pretty much whatever you want on the air. But now we’re talking about signals so weak that they travel no more than 200 feet or so.
Podcasting is described in greater detail in the chapter on Transmedia. However, I thought I’d throw in a tip or two here about how to podcast for money. The formula is deceptively simple: find something you can podcast about that people will want to hear, and then find a way to get them to give you money for it.
On the first part, I’m afraid you’re on your own. I don’t have a ton of wisdom about what people will and won’t listen to (if I could make that prediction accurately, I’d be making a ton of money in the radio consulting business). In general, however, I advise you to come up with something that nobody else is doing. Podcast about something you actually know something about. Make it relevant, useful and interesting. And avoid things like copyright violation that can get you into legal trouble.
If you’re going to get paid, you’ll probably have to do a little marketing to draw attention to your podcast. From there you’ll either have to get people to pay you directly for your content or find sponsors. Direct payment can come from voluntary donations or subscriptions, though a start-up podcast may have trouble finding listeners willing to pay to subscribe. Sponsors may pay for ads in your podcast itself (though consider the effect this may have on your audience) or for ads on your pages if you’re podcasting from a web site.
Some bloggers and podcasters receive money from companies in exchange for giving products favorable mention. Carefully consider the ethical questions this raises about your audience’s trust before you start down this path.
The Dark Side: Pirate Radio
So what keeps you from just buying (or building) a full-strength transmitter and hopping right into the radio business without getting a license from the FCC? After all, that would absolve you from the (impossible) process of getting a license and the (potentially difficult) task of complying with broadcast regulations. And as long as you’re breaking the law anyway, why not play music without paying (expensive) royalties?
Obviously breaking the law is a problem. Plus you’ll be doing it strictly for fun, as you aren’t likely to get a lot of businesses to pay for ads in an illegal broadcast.
Further, you stand a pretty good chance of getting caught. Unlike some kinds of clandestine communication, a continuously-broadcast radio signal isn’t all that hard to trace to its source. You can move the transmitter around (broadcast from a boat or even the back of a van), but that’s more likely to give your listeners trouble trying to find you than to be an effective way to hide from the authorities.
Penalties may include fines of $10,000 per day of operation, up to a maximum of $75,000. The government will also confiscate all your equipment (not just the transmitter but also mixing boards, disc players and other gear used in your broadcast). If you’re found guilty of “willfully and knowingly” broadcasting illegally, you can face additional fines and jail time.
And if you’re planning a career in radio, the pirate thing isn’t a great résumé item. Anyone found guilty of pirate broadcasting is automatically prohibited from later applying for any FCC license. That’s a career dampener if not a complete career ender.
Most radio stations broadcast all day every day. So as you can probably imagine, many entry-level jobs – especially for on-air people – are during the middle-of-the-night shifts. Larger, more profitable broadcasters tend to hire talent from smaller stations. Thus it probably wouldn’t hurt to learn about different musical genres just in case your first job isn’t with a station that plays your kind of music.
You may also be surprised to learn that even on-air folks who only appear to work a few hours a week actually have much more extensive job obligations behind the scenes.
If you want an on-air job, you’ll need not only a résumé but also air checks, a set of recordings of your previous work.
Martians Invade New Jersey
On October 30, 1938, invaders from Mars attacked Grover’s Mill, New Jersey. Or at least that’s what the radio said.
For Halloween, The Mercury Theatre on the Air decided to do a dramatic performance of The War of the Worlds, a novel by H.G. Wells about a Martian armada landing on Earth and destroying London. Rather than perform the piece as a straight reading or a traditional dramatic production, director Orson Welles decided to do a show that simulated what a radio broadcast might sound like if we were really being attacked by aliens.
The broadcast began with a brief explanation of the production and a reading of the first few paragraphs of the novel, so listeners would know that what they were hearing wasn’t real. Then they started what sounded like a musical program.
Before long, however, the music was interrupted by “on scene” reports supposedly from Grover’s Mill, where a mysterious object crashed down from outer space. A “reporter” interviewed some “witnesses.” Then something emerged from the object and began setting fire to everything and everyone. Scary noises. Screams. Then nothing.
As the show continued, more “news reports” came in about the Martian invasion. The situation grew worse and worse until finally the fake broadcast went off the air. For the rest of the broadcast Welles performed a monologue describing how the invaders trashed the planet only to be defeated by Earth germs to which their bodies had no immunity.
People panicked. As many as nearly two million listeners thought the attack was real. Many of them had tuned into the broadcast late and missed the “this is fiction” disclaimer at the beginning. Further, in 1938 the world stood at the brink of another global war, so tensions were already high. And back then people were a little more inclined to trust the media. After all, why would the CBS network waste its airtime on a prank? Newsflashes were supposed to be reliable.
The panic died down quickly, and Welles apologized for scaring everyone (though the end of the script did make it sound at least a little as if he knew what effect it might have on listeners). But the broadcast raised serious questions about the power of radio and the responsibility of media professionals to their audiences.
In the United States the content of broadcast radio and television is subject to government regulations that don’t apply to any other media. As a result, the “do’s and don’ts” of broadcasting tend to be determined by FCC rules rather than an industry-wide system of self-regulation.
However, many broadcasters have “standards and practices” departments that have at least some authority over programming content. S&P rules help assure that broadcasts don’t violate FCC rules. They also fill in some “grey areas” about content that doesn’t violate the law but might offend some listeners.
For example, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, radio giant Clear Channel distributed a memo with a list of songs with “lyrically questionable” content. Though the memo didn’t actually order stations not to play songs on the list … well, imagine yourself as a program director and decide whether or not you’d have a DJ play a song your corporate employer just called “lyrically questionable.”
Early government regulation of the radio industry focused mostly on ironing out frequency disputes, keeping stations from broadcasting on top of one another’s signals. However, the Radio Act of 1927 included a clause that required anyone who obtains a license to broadcast over the public airwaves do so in accordance with “public interest, convenience or necessity.” This standard – known as PICON for short – allowed the government to impose restrictions on broadcasters that wouldn’t be possible in any other medium.
The First Amendment prohibits the government from restricting the right to speak or publish what we want. But broadcasters give up a little of that right in order to obtain the right to use the airwaves to communicate. The government’s authority to make such a demand was based on the public nature of the broadcast spectrum (the airwaves belong to everyone) and their scarce nature (only a limited number of broadcasters can use the airwaves without interfering with each others’ signals).
So when studying the FCC-controlled media (television and radio stations that broadcast over the air), always keep in mind that they’re restricted in ways that don’t apply elsewhere in the infoscape.
Take a look at the list on the FCC’s web site and you’ll notice right away that there are a lot of things you can file a complaint about. However, the complaints that concern us directly here are about “obscene, indecent or profane material.”
“Obscenity” is a narrow category of prohibited speech rarely encountered in mainstream media. On the other hand, “indecent or profane” speech – which the government can’t ban in other media – is restricted in broadcasts by FCC licensees who use the public airwaves to communicate. And indecency and profanity are much broader than obscenity.
The FCC defines indecency as “language or material that, in context, depicts or describes, in terms patently offensive as measured by contemporary community standards for the broadcast medium, sexual or excretory organs or activities.” Inside the “safe harbor” times of day (6 a.m. to 10 p.m.), indecent material is banned from the airwaves.
Audience members who see or hear something they consider indecent on the air can file a complaint with the FCC. The commission investigates all complaints about broadcasts that might actually have been indecent (bogus complaints are dismissed). If the commission finds that an indecent broadcast took place, it issues a Notice of Apparent Liability to the broadcaster, which can then challenge the ruling.
Stations found “guilty” of violating the rules get hit with a Forfeiture Order. These orders can range from slap-on-the-wrist “warnings” to total revocation of the station’s broadcast license. Warnings are common for minor offenses, particularly if the broadcaster doesn’t have a history of complaints or if the “indecency” in question is something the FCC has never tackled before. For repeat offenders, fines – sometimes hefty – are more likely. Loss of license is a rare occurrence, but it does sometimes happen.
“Payola” is bribery, usually involving a record label paying a DJ to play its music on the air. After controversy arose about the practice in the late 1950s, the FCC adopted a rule making the practice illegal.
On the surface this seemed fair. The public airwaves should be for the music listeners wanted to hear, not for whomever bribed their way onto the air. It seemed like a good way to keep big business from dominating the airwaves.
But there’s more to it than that. Complaints about the practice started not with smaller labels who couldn’t get airtime but with the big record companies who were concerned about keeping competition down. The big players had the funds for big media campaigns, including advertising and other expensive promotions to stir up demand for their products. Smaller labels, on the other hand, had an easier time getting their songs on the air by slipping DJs a few bucks rather than trying to compete head-to-head with the big boys in the PR arena.
And of course on the radio side it was the often-underpaid and politically-powerless DJs on one side and the radio station owners who weren’t getting any bribe money on the other.
The problem had a racial dimension as well. Many of the artists with big label contracts were aligned with ASCAP, while lesser-known black artists from the South were more likely to be BMI clients.
Though the practice has been prohibited for half a century, it continues to be an issue in the industry.