Radio has been popular since sometime in the nineteen twenties. I don't know if much recorded music was played (believe it or not I wasn't around then), but rather live programming -- serials (i.e., soap operas), comedy acts, even game shows commanded the airwaves. WSM began broadcasting the Grand Ole Opry in 1925, but a radio was expensive -- about one hundred and fifty dollars (equivalent to more than $2,000 today). These units were so large, they were essentially part of the furniture. But as more and more people clamored for this wondrous new entertainment outlet (really, what other means of diversion was there?), mass production kicked into gear. This, along with "vacuum tube" technology brought prices down and soon everyone was listening to Jack Benny, The Lone Ranger, and something called Fibber McGee and Molly.
By the mid-thirties, recorded music wafted out of folks' radio speakers more frequently, and that essentially birthed the dreaded "music industry". Bing Crosby was huge, along with multiple incarnations of big bands, like Artie Shaw and Benny Goodman. Individual radio stations had autonomy in choosing the music they played, and listener demand was crucial.
It is said that listener preferences held less sway starting in the sixties, but as a kid I often called up my local DJ to request a specific record and he played it. Too, a big thing in the early-to-mid sixties was record giveaways. "If you can name this group, you win a fantabulous copy!" The only time I ever was the designated fifth caller, it was for a '45 I already owned, but I still had Mom drive me over to the local Dairy Queen to politely request my free record from the counter girl whose fingers were sticky with vanilla soft serve. I won! The waitress was rather blase about the whole thing, I must say.
And as a child in the country, radio was everything -- a glimpse of an unknown world. I carried my transistor with me everywhere. Tramping through the shelter belt behind our farmhouse and perching on a big fallen log, traversing dirt back roads with nary a soul in sight, I could imagine I was inside a recording studio in Liverpool (it was actually London) or I was at a party with Lesley Gore when Johnny walked in with another girl. Radio allowed my imagination to soar.
By the mid-sixties I began to suspect that there were actually more than twenty singles released at any given time, but my local station never owned up to that. Thus we can all rightfully blame commercial radio for those tracks that have rattled around in our brains for decades, ones we never even liked.
FM became more ubiquitous in the late sixties, but the FM station in my town was insular, and clearly the DJ's hated the country music they were tasked with playing. Oh, man! I gotta play 'country' music? What the hell? No Pink Floyd? What the fuck did I sign up for? Thus, they spun the pale music of Willie Nelson, who was a such a niche, nobody who gave a whit about country music bothered giving him the time of day. I still can't hear the track, "Me and Paul" without shuddering. Glen Campbell's version of "Elusive Butterfly" was another apathetic DJ's pick. Everything spun was awful. Simply awful. And not country.
In short order I abandoned my FM experiment and returned to AM's chattering disc jockeys and ear-splitting commercials. Pearl-white Ford LTD, fully loaded! White-wall tires! Stop down to Parzley Motors and grab a free cookie! Say hi to Phil!
I stuck with AM throughout the seventies and most of the eighties. AM was everywhere -- at work, in the car, on my bedside radio. I didn't even have FM in my car, where the bulk of my radio listening commenced. AM still played the same twenty songs, but they were good songs, so I didn't quibble. FM got a firmer foothold and got its act together, and AM eventually migrated to talk, surrendering music to better sound quality, which was entirely dependent on one's musical conveyance. With popularity came the same plethora of ads, though, just as annoying, mostly now for the big payouts at Paha Sapa Casino!...and the same twenty tracks. But by now all autos came equipped with cassette decks, and later, CD players, so an impatient driver was no longer held hostage.
By the 2000's it began to dawn on listeners that radio didn't care what they liked, only what their computerized software instructed them to play. DJ's stopped mattering. They were there to provide weather updates and to tell us that it was five minutes past the hour. Paid plugs interrupted songs -- "Chelsea Chippins is my favorite country singer!" some voice-over hack would erupt and the DJ would pretend he was having an actual conversation with the recorded voice. "Did'ja catch her at the Bronze Center last Saturday?" Thirty seconds into the track they'd finally stop jabbering, proving that anyone listening to this dreck didn't actually give a damn. It was just noise. (There was an early period when I actually taped songs off the radio, and I fumed anytime the stupid disc jockey couldn't manage to shut his stupid mouth.) A dentist I used to frequent had this blather playing loudly in the background, perhaps to muffle the zzzzz-ing of the drill, but if it was meant to be relaxing, I would have preferred gas.
But now, mercifully, we had subscriber radio in our cars. That, too, was hit or miss, but at least we could punch up a different pay channel if necessary. We could listen to virtually any era of music and hardly anybody talked, much less jabbered. Then, even better, we could jam a cable into a slot from our phones and hear music we chose.
Now, if anyone still listens to radio, it's because they're simply lazy. Charts don't mean anything, because who is the decider? Streaming counts toward the charts, sure, as does actual purchases (as if), but radio is still right there in the mix. That might explain a lot.
Nineties country music is experiencing a resurgence and it's certainly not because radio is playing it. Luke Combs caught fire with a 1988 cover, not because radio played it. Radio played it after it erupted (with, I'm sure, the inevitable talk-over). Hey-ey! Here's the huge Luke Combs hit! Are you traveling to his arena show in Des Moines? Word is he drew 50,000 at Lunar Field last weekend! Call us if you were there! By now, Luke is well into the second verse.
Radio is dying a merciful death, much like that set of Encyclopedia Britannica your grandparents spent years collecting, only to find that the info contained within was now outdated. At least a radio is easier to toss away than twenty-two ponderous faux-leather tomes, though just as outdated.