FM Radio - Finally Makes It
November 1960 Radio-Electronics

November 1960 Radio-Electronics

November 1960 Radio-Electronics Cover - RF Cafe[Table of Contents]

Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles from Radio-Electronics, published 1930-1988. All copyrights hereby acknowledged.

According to author David Lachenbruch - and others writing on the state of commercial FM broadcasting - market pundits declared the radio medium dead in the late 1940s / early 1950s as television experienced a rapid rise in the post-war years, especially after the FCC lifted its moratorium on issuing new TV station licenses in 1952. AM radio had already ensconced itself as the news and music delivery source of choice in the majority of households, businesses, and automobiles, and there were ample transmitting stations to provide wide area coverage. Sure, static in the AM broadcast due to man-made (QRM; e.g., sparking motor brushes) and natural (QRN; e.g., lightning) noise was annoying, but being relieved of its usually temporary interference was hardly worth the investment in new radios broadcasting equipment and receivers. That belief pretty much proved true for nearly a decade, but then as the novelty of TV began to wear off and consumers, ever willing to spend hard-earned money on new conveniences, began discovering that maybe the promises of superior reception and even stereo music was worth consideration. This 1960 article in Radio-Electronics magazine reports on the uptrend in FM radio which began in the mid 1950s. See also Mr. Lachenbruch's 1958 article entitled, "Rediscovery of FM Broadcasting."

Radio's "dead dog" now begins to look like the wave of the future.

 FM Radio - Finally Makes ItBy David Lachenbruch

Just 4 years ago, FM radio was officially "dead" as a broadcasting medium. Its phenomenal rise immediately after World War II was nipped in the bud in the late 1940's by the coming of television. Now there was nothing left to do but call in the undertaker and fight over the will. It seemed that the only legacy FM would leave was the valuable spectrum space between 88 and 108 mc, and the heirs (various nonbroadcast services) were already fighting over it.

But the corpse refused to lie down for the funeral oration. Artificial respiration by about 500 FM broadcasters, a handful of radio manufacturers, several thousand hi-fi enthusiasts and the Federal Communications Commission kept it breathing.

If FM died in 1950 - as many people believed at the time - today it's a very lively zombie. And now, for the first time since 1948, its future seems virtually unlimited.

To get an idea of the kind of come-back FM radio has made, look at the charts showing FM stations on the air and factory sales of FM receiving devices (Figs. 1 and 2). In both leagues, you will see that FM is setting an all-time record in 1960.

Immediately after World War II, FM was hailed as "radio's second chance" and the first FM boom was on. By 1946, the FCC had authorized more than 1,000 FM stations - many of them to recently discharged veterans who wanted to get a foothold in this new and superior type of radio broadcasting.

Estimated factory sales of receiving devices

Fig. 1 - Estimated factory sales of receiving devices (including foreign units sold in U.S.). Included are TV sets with continuous tuners that receive the FM band, of which 420,000 were produced in 1949 alone.

FM stations actually on the air, by years

Fig. 2 - FM stations actually on the air, by years. Low-water mark came in 1956 after many stations had given up and gone off the air. Some of those silent stations have now been reactivated.

In 1948, when nearly 700 FM stations were on the air, radio factories sold 1,600,000 FM radios and tuners. But things were far from rosy.

A new type of broadcasting suddenly was creating public excitement - broadcasting you could see! Television was here, and as picture tubes got larger, speakers got smaller. Radio became an appliance for the kitchen, the bedroom, the car. Music was just a thrumming noise to beat eggs to or to keep you awake on those new turnpikes.

By 1954, FM radio-production had dropped to an annual rate of less than 200,000 sets. There were still about 550 FM stations on the air to provide some programming for the listeners who were stuck with FM sets, but the vast majority merely broadcast the programs carried on their sister AM stations (at just about the same fidelity).

From this low point, let's look at what is happening in 1960. By mid-year, there were already 741 FM broadcast stations on the air - ahead of the record 730 in late 1959. There would be more, except that there weren't enough channels to go around - and applicants were competing with each other to prove their qualifications to operate FM stations in such cities as Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Philadelphia and Washington.

This year, too, will see FM receiver production and sales exceed 1948's record by perhaps as much as 30%. Our estimate is that factory production of sets designed for sale in the US will total close to 2,000,000 units this year, possibly even more.

At the mid-point of 1960, the FCC had authorized another 169 applicants to broadcast on the FM band - in addition to the 741 already on the air. Of the stations on the air, a large proportion were broadcasting special programs on FM only - even those stations who also owned AM outlets.

And there seemed to be no end to the applications flowing into the FCC for new FM stations. An FM expert at the commission estimates that by the end of 1961 there will be more applications than there are available FM channels in most cities with a million or more population.

The Los Angeles area already has 28 FM stations compared with 21 on AM. In New York City and environs there are 23 FM stations and 24 AM; San Francisco and its suburbs have 19 FM stations to 21 AM outlets.

And people are listening! No reliable set count has been made, but it's estimated that at least 10,000,000 FM sets are now in regular use. That's one out of every four households in the country, even though many rural and small-town areas aren't yet adequately served by FM stations.

Why the big boom now? The common and most obvious answer is that people have become more conscious of good music and high-fidelity sound reproduction. But there's more to it than that.

There couldn't be an FM boom if there were no stations. The 500-odd (and some of them were quite odd) FM stations which hung on during the lean years did it mainly from force of habit. It didn't cost much to keep the FM transmitter operating, repeating AM programs. And there was still a hard core of rabid hi-fi FM fans, who would raise a ruckus if the stations went off the air.

Some broadcasters did deliberately knock their FM outlets off the air for a week or so just to see if there would be adverse reaction. There was. So they knew somebody was listening.

But there was still no way to make money out of FM broadcasting. A few stations tried simplex operation (broadcasting to restaurants and businesses) with special equipment to eliminate commercials in these establishments.

Simplexing was outlawed when FCC established multiplexing rules. Today, 208 FM stations are authorized by the FCC to multiplex (transmit a special program in addition to the normal one, and unheard by the regular listeners) for various purposes, most of them for special storecasting and functional music services. This is providing needed revenue for stations with the courage to program their FM outlets separately from AM - for very few FM stations are yet showing a profit on broadcast operations. Madison A venue ad agencies, by and large, still don't realize how many people are listening.

Hobbyists and sound enthusiasts never abandoned FM. In areas where stations were broadcasting good hi-fi music, there was a small but loyal audience of hi-fi bugs with component rigs.

But the radio makers who went into television production forgot all about FM - with one exception. Zenith kept turning out FM table radios and, because it was virtually the sole manufacturer, did a fairly brisk business in them.

When the LP phonograph record began to arouse real consumer interest with its excellent reproduction, FM's second boom began to germinate.

Among the first high-quality phonographs introduced in this country for realizing the full sound potential of LP records were German-made units.

In Europe, where the post-war AM band was hopelessly overcrowded, FM broadcasting has become standard - strictly from necessity. German phonographs with radios included naturally contained FM tuners. The American purchasers listened, and pricked up their ears.

Then came the "cheap" FM set, pioneered by Granco products, who sold scads of FM-only table models at $29.95. Other manufacturers followed.

When American radio manufacturers began to offer hi-fi consoles in a single package, they took another look at FM - largely because the German units had them. A few dropped in FM tuners as extras or even as standard equipment on some models.

Then along came stereo. Experimental AM-FM stereo broadcasts aroused the interest of set manufacturers. Today, most makers of so-called "packaged" hi-fi offer "drop-in" simulcast AM-FM tuners as an option. Some manufacturers estimate that more than 70% of their stereo consoles now are sold with AM-FM tuners. Industry-wide, it's a good guess that the proportion is more than 50%.

In the field of hi-fi components, manufacturers say sales of FM tuners are increasing, too. The concept of the combination tuner, preamp and amplifier has resulted in added FM sales.

Our estimate of close to 2,000,000 new FM receivers this year includes all types of devices to receive FM broadcasts. It breaks down this way: Table-model FM and FM-AM radios, 750,000 to 820,000 units (up from 540,500 made in 1959); "packaged" phonograph systems with FM tuners, 700,000 to 1,000,000 (from 623,000 last year); component FM tuners, 150,000 to 200,000 (from an estimated 150,000); imported FM receiving devices of all kinds, 80,000 to 120,000 (from about 100,000).

We have given a high and low figure in each case, because estimates within the industry vary widely. Adding up the "lows" would give a 1960 minimum of 1,680,000 sets (compared with 1,413,500 last year); the "highs" total 2,140,000. The best guess is that the final 1960 figure will be closer to the high estimate than the low one.

What of the future? Write this down and paste it inside your hatband: You're going to see more and more FM sets in the coming years, and FM radios will some day rival AM in popularity. Here are some of the reasons FM radio can't go any place from here but up:

FM achieved its sales record this year despite the fact that it isn't yet a nation-wide medium. Many areas have few FM stations - or none at all. This situation is rapidly changing, and FM broadcasting will be transformed in the next few years from a basically big-city service to a type of radio which reaches into every nook and cranny of America.

New types of FM receiving devices are just beginning to come on the market. The one with the biggest immediate potential is the FM auto radio. German manufacturers (including Blaupunkt and Becker) have been offering FM car radios here for several years. Smaller US manufacturers (Gonset, Automatic, and others) have also had FM tuners and converters for cars. But the big-business FM car radio push is just beginning.

It actually started with Motorola's introduction this year of an FM-only car radio at $125, which reportedly has been accepted well by the customers despite its relatively high price.

The race was really on with the debut Granco converter (marketed by Emerson Radio) at $49.95. Granco, which specializes in low-priced FM sets, hopes its converter will do for the auto market what its $29.95 FM table model did for the home market. Its president, Henry Fogel, sees a "reliable market for 100,000 auto FM sets a year" beginning in 1961.

You'll see other FM car radios in the coming months. Sears, Roebuck even has one now in its fall catalog.

The portable FM transistor radio is just in its infancy, too. Zenith is now competing with Japanese manufacturers with a battery-operated set. You can expect many more models - from Japan, Europe and the US - next spring. FM clock radios, too, will be coming into their own soon. Other FM receiving devices are on the way also, including the return of the combination TV and FM set (Magnavox introduced a new one this year).

But FM's biggest push will come from the source that gave hi-fi its largest lift - stereo.

Nobody knows when the FCC will finally establish standards for FM stereo multiplexing. Engineering work and field testing of all proposed FM stereo systems have been completed by the National Stereophonic Radio Committee, an industry-wide group established by the Electronic Industries Association.

The opening gun for FM stereo broadcasting could. come very soon. Or it could be delayed for months by legal action and bureaucratic red-tape. But it's coming-and every radio manufacturer is poised to be off and running with the "first FM stereo radio."

The FCC, too, is eager to get FM stereocasting started almost immediately. But delays could result if its decision on a specific multiplexing system is challenged either through the FCC's own rule-making machinery or the federal courts. Because so much depends on the FCC's decision, this is a distinct possibility.

The establishment of FM stereo multiplex standards by the FCC will mean - almost immediately - that FM tuners will be a must in all new stereo phonographs; stereo tuners will be added to existing ones; a whole new field of stereo FM table radios will open up; all hi-fi rigs must be equipped with multiplex converters.

Every radio manufacturer now has engineers designing multiplex receiver circuits-even before the FCC itself knows which system will be adopted. Radio makers expect the FM stereo decision to touch off the biggest consumer-electronics boom since TV, and to vastly increase stereo phonograph sales as well.

Will FM ever realize its proponents' long-time dream of replacing AM? We don't think so. But it is being increasingly accepted for what it really is - a far superior form of radio. It's building up real momentum now, and with the introduction of stereo multiplexing there'll be no stopping it.



Posted June 16, 2021