Radio's "End Of An Era"

An important even some in the business don't know coming.

May 10, 1982 is a day radio listeners in part of the country still remember.

It's not significant for most of us, unless you remember something called "The Falkland Islands War", which was going on at that time.

But radio fans along the East Coast know it as "The Day The Music Died".  For the rest of the audience, it is a day which marked a major change in radio formats.

Talk radio did not begin in the 1980's. It was around, and in some cities, even popular, during the 1960's. But talk stations basically popped up at stations which had been unsuccessful playing music, or, which just wanted to offer something different than their competitors.

For two decades, New York's WABC was NOT one of those stations. At one time, it had, depending on how you compare audiences, the most listeners of any radio station in the country with its "Top 40" rock and roll format. It often had more than 20% of the listeners in the New York market, which has a lot of radio stations.

But those numbers began to change in the late 1970's.

First, a music genre called disco captured young audiences. It had songs longer than the three-minute average AM radio was used to, and stations like WABC had difficulty playing those songs because of the amount of time it devoted to advertising-ironically, because it had those high ratings.

Another-larger phonomemon-was the rise of FM radio, which could accomodate those longer songs. By the end of the 1970's, FM had, overall, topped AM radio in terms of numbers of people tuning in to individual stations. (In some cities, individual AM stations remained dominant well into the 1980's.) WABC's rating numbers started a slow decline, which was still happening in 1982, when the station decided to drop its music format.

The format change happened at high noon on Monday, May 10.  Two of the station's long-time personalities spent the last three hours before the change reminiscing about WABC's glory days before the switch happened. The last song played, just before noon, was "Imagine" by John Lennon (who had died less than a year and a half earlier).

As the 1980's and '90's went on, more and more AM radio stations followed WABC and dropped music in favor of talk or "News/Talk". That accelerated as syndicated shows by hosts like Rush Limbaugh came on the air and became popular with listeners.  A lot of AM stations in smaller cities still have music formats (there currently are three of them in the Parkersburg-Marietta area), but FM music formats usually have the highest ratings in nearly every city in the country.

But AM radio was about personality and information as much as it was about music, which is one reason (besides politics) why the AM talkers are prevalent today. Still, the songs played on the FM "oldies" and "classic hits" stations first became familiar to listeners who heard them on AM radio stations in the 1950's, '60's and '70's.

That's the legacy of stations across the country like WABC. And that's why May 10, 1982 represented a major change in radio history.

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