Radio’s new best friend: Rock and roll
Many in media thought television would kill off radio. It did not.
June 14, 2016
By the editors of Media Life
This is one in a number of stories on radio in Media Life’s ongoing series “The new face of radio in America,” examining all the changes taking place in the medium. Click here for earlier stories.
This is part two of our history of radio. You can read part one here.
It’s a media given: When a new medium comes along, everyone says the old medium is dead. Everyone is always wrong.
That was especially the case for radio when TV came along. Over the decade of the 1940s, the hit radio shows steadily migrated to television, taking their sponsors and much of their audience with them.
Early television was radio with pictures.
Two things saved radio.
They also shaped so much of what we think of as radio to this day.
One was the housing boom after World War II. Returning GIs needed places to live, and that set off a rise in home-building and road-building as suburbs popped up all across America.
“The automobile made suburbia possible, and the suburbs made the automobile essential,” writes economist Richard Porter.
Indeed, these new homeowners commuted to work by car, shopped by car, and went to church by car, and they listened to the radio as they drove. The TV set may have replaced the radio in the living room, but it found a new and welcome home in the automobile dashboard.
The second force was far more significant: the emergence of a youth culture in post-World War II America.
America had suffered through a crippling Depression in the 1930s and scarcity and sacrifice through much of the 1940s. But the war won and the GIs back home, the American economy was now booming.
It was the good life. People had money. They had homes. Dad worked in a factory or an office, mom stayed at home, and the kids grew up in a comfort unimaginable just a decade earlier. Few worked. They had money.
And they had rock and roll.
It was the music of the 1950s, the music of kids, and it was everywhere, but especially on the radio, played by DJs kids tuned into and followed much as they might sports stars.
They were the arbiter of youth culture.
They chose which artists to play and which not to play. They told kids who and what was cool. They talked to kids as equals, in the way parents and teachers did not.
They showed up at events, broadcasting from parades and beauty contests and teen dances.
People today, especially radio people, talk of the localness of radio, its singular power to connect with listeners in their communities as local personalities. It is radio’s chief selling point as a medium and to advertisers.
That is what the DJs of that era brought to radio.
Radio was the perfect medium for that, and no one understood that better than radio people.
Much earlier, back in the 1940s, radio executives had caught on to the fact that teenagers tended to play the same songs over and over on jukeboxes, which were then common in restaurants and diners where kids hung out.
That led to the adoption of short playlists and the top-40 format that would come to dominate radio for decades to come. The motto at stations was “Be bright, be brief.” Play the music kids wanted. Chat it up, don’t blather on.
The target audience was 12-35.
It also led to the creation of the radio spot. Until then, radio shows had sponsors, and the sponsors owned the content of the show. The spot, an ad of 30 or 60 seconds, was a boon for stations, allowing them to vastly expand their base of advertisers, and it gave advertisers real freedom in choosing from a wide selection of shows to advertise on.
There was a third development of that era that’s also worth nothing, the arrival of the transistor radio.
There had been portable radios for years, but they relied on batteries, and batteries back then didn’t last very long.
The transistor radio required smaller batteries and were smaller and lighter.
It meant true portability. In a sense it was akin to the mobile phone of a later time.
You could now bring your music with you wherever you went, and kids did, to the beach, picnics and backyard parties. They carried their radios to school and on dates.
It was rock and roll all the time–and now everywhere.
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