Goodnight, Moon...FM Sinks Below the Horizon

Norway is sundowning its FM broadcasting system, an interment that will undoubtedly prove the first of many. Before we sod over the grave and move the backhoe over to the compact disc’s plot, it’s worth taking a moment to recall FM’s salad days.

Frequency-modulated broadcasting was developed as a way to provide wider frequency-response, better signal-to-noise radio, which it certainly achieved. But it also revolutionized broadcasting by delivering a strictly localized medium. AM stations, especially high-powered ones, could be tuned over tremendous distances, which made coverage agreements and advertising structures complex, but absent a honking big Yagi receiving antenna on a hilltop, no FM transmission is going to reach much beyond 60 miles, regardless of tower-height or weather and atmospheric conditions.

This meant that local markets, especially in off-peak time-slots, were cheap and in fact close to free. The most obvious consequence of this state of affairs was the rise of “underground” FM. With very few exceptions these stations started much as did Boston’s WBCN, the one I listened to as a teen. “BCN” was originally a commercial-classical station (“Boston Classical Network”), which in the late ’60’s permitted a handful of long-haired freaks to take over its Saturday night late slot. Since nobody listened to radio on Saturday overnights there was little loss to the station if the venture failed. For its lead DJ it soon tapped a logorrheic, blues-aficionado suburbanite named Peter Wolf — soon to become fairly famous as leader of the J. Geils Band.

The “Woofer-Goofer” (Wolf) and company, and their compatriots at similar stations springing up around the country, played what they liked without regard to Top 10 or Hot 100 lists, promoter pressures, or payola, and in doing so changed the music. The underground stations played the long (full) versions of tracks like The Doors’ “Light My Fire” and Buffalo Springfield’s “Bluebird,” and even full album sides; the music business would never be the same.

All too soon underground-FM would morph into that modern-day easy-listening anathema, Album Oriented Rock, bringing us such joys as Journey and 38 Special: but let’s not hold that against it. For a couple of years there, the FM airwaves were the counter-culture agora, anywhere within reach of a major city.

Meanwhile something quite different was happening on the FM band: early audiophiles awoke to the fact that FM radio held potential to be the highest-fidelity medium available for musical reproduction. One manifestation emanated from WGBH, Boston’s lead public-radio station and then still a mostly-classical programmer. 'GBH had long broadcast the Boston Symphony’s Saturday evening concerts live from Symphony Hall, and thanks to a few “in-the-know” geeks on the station’s engineering staff — most notably the late, great Bill Busiek — these became astonishingly good.

Today’s vinyl-heads may squeal in protest, but the fact is that at its best FM radio rivaled the LP.

Audio-limiters were bypassed, dedicated phone lines were installed (this was how radio stations moved location audio in those days), and transmitters aligned, so that Saturday’s concert could exploit stereo FM’s full frequency and dynamic ranges potentials. In the early days of the quad, um, experiment, Busiek even organized dual-station Quadraphonic broadcasts; you needed two tuners and two stereo systems. Today’s vinyl-heads may squeal in protest, but the fact is that at its best FM radio rivaled the LP; in fact, optimal FM could be quieter than any but the best sort of audiophile pressings, and its frequency response and dynamic range, particularly in the bass, were arguably superior.

As a result, those BSO broadcasts were hi-fi happenings, and ‘philes all around metro-Boston would fire up their reel-to-reels to collect off-air recordings. And the sound was astonishingly good. I vividly remember one, of French composer Olivier Messaien’s “Turangalîla” symphony, some time in the late ’70’s. I’d been lucky enough to audit the Thursday rehearsal, sitting directly behind the le mâitre himself (an idol of mine at the time) in about the 15th row, orchestra. I was pretty familiar with Symphony Hall’s sound back then, and the broadcast three nights later did it remarkable justice. With near-70 dB dynamic range and response truly flat from well below 40 Hz and fully to 15 kHz, those BSO broadcasts were the shizz, and Messaien’s frankly over-the-top extravaganza was just the sort of piece to exploit them. I listened on a state-of-the art studio system of Snell Type A’s, Mac 275s, and MR78 tuner, and let me tell you, the experience was memorable.

Can HDRadio do this? Internet radio? Umpty-kilobit streaming? I don’t think so. WCRB (now a partner-station to GBH) still carries the live broadcasts, but they don’t sound the same to me. And while the station (and the BSO itself) commendably offers a year’s worth of concerts on-line for free streaming, they’re in 128kbps data-compressed format. I just listened to the Brahms second piano concerto — a warhorse to be sure, but some of the greatest music written nonetheless — and the very slightly brittle and washy piano and flattish hall-sound simply didn’t live up to my memories of the golden age.

Sure, I may just be a bitter old guy mourning better days. But I don’t think so. Good night, FM. I’ll miss you.

dommyluc's picture

You are honestly saying you can remember what the audio quality was of an FM broadcast that occurred in the late '70s?
Jeez, no wonder you guys think vinyl sounds better than CD.
Oh, an I'll make sure I contact the Linn company - a company praised by this magazine for their high-quality audio products and innovations - and tell them they may as well stop their audiophile 320kbps streaming classical station because, heavens!, it couldn't possibly compare to an FM broadcast from the late 1970s.

brenro's picture

I fondly remember the station near me growing up in upstate New York. DJ's that put a lot of thought into their programming, playing whatever they felt like. Firesign Theater. Flo and Eddie. Great stuff.

Billy's picture

My fondness for FM came from stations playing easy listening instrumentals, AKA elevator music. Don't laugh, I really enjoyed it and now I dearly miss the format. KEEY from Minneapolis comes to mind. The local FM power house nearest me today in Eau Claire, Wisconsin now playing Brittney Spears crapola and other equally nauseating material (I94) once was this format back in the mid 70s.

John_Werner's picture

Great article. I think I know why you remember and it's because it did truly surprise you in a most wonderful way. We remember the really great stuff, try to forget the horrid, and do often romance and enhance the good a bit when the present state of FM is such as it is. I remember McIntosh who did make all-time great gear like those amps you had pushed FM as a worthy front-end source. I would get their FM directory every year at Lawrence Hi-Fi in Birmingham Alabama. I just enjoyed seeing how FM was really growing like an epidemic! It must have served many well. And boy do I remember underground FM. In Birmingham it was happening in the early seventies on a day-time soul and R&B station. At midnight each night something (to me at least as a 12-year old) magical happened. A weird DJ called "Father Tree" took over and he played whole sides of then quite uncommercial (i.e not top 40) rock. By around '75 or "76 his like minded predecessors took over. I mean 24/7. They tweaked it a bit to be sure. They played the most accessible progressive rock you might say choosing say one cut instead of a side from an artist. That didn't mean you wouldn't hear a side of Floyd or Hawkwind though. It just meant you heard things like early AC/DC too. As so many of these "underground" bands became the mainstream of the day the station morphed a bit with big sellers like Fleetwood Mac, Led Zeppelin, and such. Not really singles but the cuts on the albums that everyone seemed to latch on to. Then in about 1979 the end came. At about high noon one day (why, I can't imagine?) the station did what I had already read about in The Birmingham News. It switched to all country programming. The station had been bought out and it was, apparently, worth more in advertising dollars as a country format. Until I made it to The University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa I never heard progressive rock again and by then it was written on the wall that FM had matured into a mass medium money machine except for student stations and their ilk. FFW about twenty years and I got my first XM Radio tuner. A Sony car unit w/ cradle that made it movable (I only had one in my business). We listened to Deep Tracks and then later Little Steven's Underground Garage and some of that radio wonder was suddenly back. I did miss the local ads for delis, record stores, and head shops a bit, but I was grown up now and I could revisit some of my musical youth. I thought it was cool and eventually I had a car with XM. One thing I noticed was XM would sometimes have that swishy washy sound in the cymbals so even though it beat FM on a lot of fronts I found that a bit off-putting. My next car had Sirius and the same stations sounded least I thought so. So, what is FM radio to me today? It's talk radio and public radio. Not exactly inspiring stuff to be sure. I, like you, have fond memories of FM even though I feel the local stations I loved never pushed the quality bar like yours in Boston did. It was simply the discovery place and something that brought me and my friends together with music at the center. That made it absolutely essential land great. That time is gone but I totally get your fond memories and thoroughly enjoyed your trip down this soon to be forgotten rite of passage. Oh, by the way. I read I think it was Joel Vance's article about J. Geils Full House LP. He called it the party album of the year and I was 12-years old hoping to go to such a party! I'd been hearing Whammer Jammer and I Can't Do My Homework Anymore on that WJLN Birmingham radio station. I got my sister to buy the LP and it is still to this day one of my favorites. I learned of many over-the-top live albums from my radio such as Edgar Winter's White Trash "Road Work" and Wet Willie's "Drippin' Wet", not to mention Europe '72 and Live At Fillmore East. I wish I heard something from the past twenty years that moved me so much.