My Music DNA: The FM Years

Until I wrote My Music DNA:  The AM Era I never thought about how my life has been one long experiment with technology.  We like to think personal technology started with personal computers, or for some people, the iPod, iPhone or iPad, but now that I contemplate the topic, I realize The Gadget Age started in the 19th century with photography, then the phonograph, movie camera and radio.  Before gadgets if you wanted to hear music you had to go where the musicians were performing.  If you wanted to see Paris you had to go to France.

Gadgets bring the world to us, whether it’s voice, music, images or movies.  To a degree, books and paintings are proto-gadgets, they bring distant words and images to us created by people, but gadgets bring snapshots of reality, whether it’s images (photography), voice and music  (phonograph, radio) or movies (film and television).  A personal computer or iPad are dazzling devices because not only can they bring us voice, music, images and movies, they can process these media like a word processer processes words.

Although FM radio was patented in 1933, first broadcasts weren’t made until 1939, and stereo not added until the late 1950s, I didn’t get my first FM radio until 1968.  FM radio took a long time to catch on.  If you look at the Fidelity Potential Index Table you will see how sound recordings have evolved since the invention of the wax cylinder.  FM music has more fidelity than the 78 and 45, but not as much as the LP.  I had already started buying 45s and LPs before I got my first FM radio.  My first FM radio came in a small console stereo I bought in 1968 from the Columbia Record Club, when I was 16.  It was my first installment plan purchase.  I don’t have a photo of my first console stereo, but it looked something like this.


Working as paperboy, cutting lawns, babysitting, and eventually as a bagboy didn’t not pay enough to buy all the music I wanted to hear, so my FM radio was a magical piece of technology.  AM radio was all about hit singles, whereas FM was about albums.  FM radio took me out of the teeny-bopper tunes and introduced me to a more mature level of album oriented music.

Among the albums I discovered back in 1968 on my FM radio was Truth by Jeff Beck, which I immediately bought.  I was transitioning from AM radio to FM and I discovered new groups like Cream,  Quicksilver Messenger Service, Moby Grape, Steve Miller, Grateful Dead, etc.  I also got into the albums of artists I had discovered on the AM airwaves like The Byrds, Bob Dylan, Jefferson Airplane, Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Doors, Jimi Hendrix, The Mamas and The Pappas.

I remember friends coming over in 1968 to hear the FM radio for the first time and being blown away – it was that different from AM.

My FM years didn’t last long, from 1968-1972.  It was transitional technology.  FM brought me a wide range of music from around the world, but it was a broadcast technology.  I started buying LPs in the AM era, and by 1970 I had about 300 albums, but they were never enough.  FM radio was my music news and how I discovered new music until I couldn’t handle the disc jockeys.  At first, back in the 1960s, FM was considered underground music, but FM took over the hit parade as more people got FM receivers.  At a certain point disc jockeys became so annoying I gave up FM and AM radio.

In 1969 I started getting my music news from The Rolling Stone magazine.  For a brief while in the late 70s and early 80s I returned to FM to listen to WEVL, a volunteer radio station where music fans hosted music shows rather than professional disc jockeys.  But for the most part I gave up radio listening in the 1970s.  I became a album buying addict, buying over a thousand LPs before I switched to buying CDs in the 1980s, and I went on to buy 1,500 CDs before I phased into streaming music in recent years.

AM radio showcased top hits that were played frequently.  AM hits of the 1960s provide the core music that Baby Boomers share.  On any given day you could hear about 40-60 different songs.

FM radio offered a far larger range of music and styles until it was hijacked by the Top 40 format and became zany entertainment for automobile drivers.  In the early days of FM if you tried hard enough you could hear 100-200 different songs in a day.

Buying LPs offered the choice of thousands of albums at better stores.  And LPs allowed fans to own music, another kind of enabling technology.

With Internet shopping, collectors could buy a million CDs if they could afford it – then the MP3 revolution hit, and collectors could steal those million albums if they had the time, bandwidth and lack of ethics.  Now with steaming music anyone can have easy access to over a million albums, or about 15-20 million songs for $9.99 a month.

iTunes and iPod reinvented the hit singles and almost killed the album.  Streaming music is like combining FM and owning LPs with renting music, and it promotes the album.

FM radio still exists, as does AM radio and even LPs, but they are waning technologies that have been supplanted by the Internet.  FM radio was a stepping stone technology that expanded the world of music over AM.  FM radio is now a trailing technology – it fits a niche market, and has many competitors like Sirius Radio, a paid service, or Pandora Radio, free and paid, that offers music from a very wide selection of albums, and is a far superior to broadcast technology.  Broadcast radio itself is a waning technology, even with HD Radio.

Streaming music offers the greatest selection and control – with instant access to most of the albums in print.

Strangely enough, it’s very hard for me to remember FM songs that I loved because of listening to the radio, versus songs from the same time period that I bought on LPs.  The way I’ve discovered how to tell the difference is to listen to Play Cofi Jukebox at by the years below.  The songs I loved but never bought are songs I can give thanks to FM radio technology.  What’s surprising is just how many of those songs there were.  Just click on a link and listen.  How many of the songs did you buy, and how many are part of your memories because you listened to FM radio?


It’s strange to think that young people today may never have listened to an AM or FM radio, or bought a LP or CD.  But I wonder, just what kind of technologies will supplant streaming music?  Combining streaming music with a smartphone is about as close to thinking of a song and hearing it instantly telepathically as one can get.  Will they ever invent brain transceivers that stimulate the neurons directly, and just bypass the ears?  It’s just amazing to think of all the technological change in one lifetime.

But you know what?  There’s one constant that doesn’t change.  That’s listening to music.

JWH – 2/21/12

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