What FM is free radio?

What is FM Radio?

FM radio, or Frequency Modulation radio, refers to the technology used for broadcasting radio signals by modulating the frequency of the radio wave carrier. This differs from AM (Amplitude Modulation) radio which modulates the amplitude of the carrier wave. FM was invented by American engineer Edwin Armstrong in 1933 to overcome the limitations of AM radio such as static, interference, and audio fidelity.

The key differences between FM and AM radio are:

  • FM uses higher frequencies than AM, generally between 88-108 MHz, which allows for higher audio fidelity and stereo sound. AM uses lower frequencies between 535-1605 kHz.
  • FM transmits in a narrow band whereas AM has a wider transmission band. This makes FM less susceptible to interference.
  • FM encodes audio information by modulating the frequency of the carrier wave, while AM encodes audio by modulating the amplitude. This gives FM a significant advantage in audio quality.
  • FM signals can be transmitted in stereo, while AM is monaural. FM stereo was introduced commercially in the 1960s.

After initial resistance from AM broadcasters, FM radio began to grow in popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. The improved audio quality made it well-suited for musical programming. Today, FM remains the dominant radio broadcasting standard, used for audio media like music, news, talk shows and more.


What is Free FM Radio?

Freeform radio, also known as ‘free FM’ or ‘underground radio’, is a radio broadcasting format that emerged in the late 1960s. It gave disc jockeys complete freedom over the music they played, breaking from the typical structured playlists used by most commercial stations.

Instead of adhering to typical Top 40 formats, freeform DJs created unstructured playlists that specialized in less mainstream genres like psychedelic rock, avant-garde jazz, and alternative music. The DJ served as a curator, selecting a diverse mix of underground and experimental artists. With no rules on what could or couldn’t be played, freeform radio provided exposure to counterculture musicians ignored by commercial pop stations.

Pioneering freeform stations like KMPX in San Francisco, KPPC in Los Angeles, and WNEW-FM in New York City were known for niche programming catering to local youth and hippie movements. Their freeform approach heavily influenced album-oriented rock radio formats that later emerged in the 1970s.

The Rise of Free FM Radio

Freeform radio emerged in the 1960s as underground and progressive rock music was growing in popularity, particularly among the counterculture youth. College radio stations were some of the first to adopt freeform programming, allowing DJs total control over their playlists and on-air style. This was a radical departure from the tightly formatted commercial radio of the time.

One of the earliest freeform stations was KMPX in San Francisco, which flipped to the format in 1967. According to the radio historians at Freeform Portland, KMPX “gave birth to freeform rock radio as we knew it.” The DJs, including Tom Donahue and Larry Miller, were able to play long album cuts and whatever they felt like. This freedom and personality-driven approach resonated with counterculture youth.

On the East Coast, WNEW-FM in New York City also adopted freeform programming in 1967. Led by DJ Rosko, the station embodied the progressive rock sound and improvisational nature of freeform radio. However, most early freeform stations were non-commercial college and community stations, not major commercial outlets like WNEW-FM.

Freeform radio gave exposure to artists like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and others associated with the hippie and anti-war movements. DJs helped discover and popularize this new wave of psychedelic, folk and progressive rock by putting it into freeform rotation.

Notable Free FM Stations

Some of the most pioneering and popular freeform radio stations emerged in major cities across the United States in the 1960s and 1970s. According to Wikipedia, stations like KMPX in San Francisco, KSAN also in San Francisco, and KMET in Los Angeles were at the forefront of the freeform radio movement in the 1960s. DJs at these stations had broad freedom to play a wide array of music genres and experiment with creative formats.

In the 1970s, stations like WMMR in Philadelphia, WNEW-FM in New York, and WBCN in Boston helped define freeform radio for a new generation of listeners. With their eclectic music mixes and laidback personalities, DJs at these stations came to embody the spirit of freeform radio in the 1970s.

Famous Free FM DJs

Some of the most well-known and influential DJs in freeform radio history include:

Tom Donahue: Donahue is considered the founding father of freeform radio. He pioneered the progressive rock format at KMPX in San Francisco in 1967, giving DJs total freedom to play whatever they wanted. Donahue helped launch the careers of many iconic rock acts and influenced a generation of freeform DJs.

Larry Miller: Known as the “Father of Underground Radio,” Miller hosted late night shows on stations like KMPX and KSAN-FM in the late 1960s and 70s. He was one of the first DJs to play artists like the Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, and Janis Joplin. Miller championed psychedelic rock and the counterculture movement.

Vin Scelsa: Scelsa was a pioneer of freeform radio at New York’s WFMU. He was known for his diverse taste and championed new wave, punk, folk, and experimental artists. Scelsa interviewed icons like John Lennon and Bob Dylan and helped break alternative acts like R.E.M. and Hüsker Dü.

Carol Miller: Known as the “Rock and Roll Lady,” Miller has hosted shows for over 40 years at stations like WNEW-FM and WAXQ in New York. She helped expose artists like U2, Motley Crue, and Cyndi Lauper. Miller is celebrated for her rock knowledge and interviews with legends like Mick Jagger.

Music Discovered on Free FM Radio

One of the most important legacies of freeform radio was the exposure it gave to new and cutting-edge music genres and artists. DJs on freeform stations had the freedom to play whatever they wanted, which allowed them to highlight talented musicians who were overlooked or ignored by mainstream radio.

Freeform radio was particularly critical in breaking progressive rock bands that were crafting ambitious concept albums with complex instrumentation. Groups like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, and Yes might never have found widespread popularity if not for freeform radio stations spinning their psychedelic records. The extended jams and experimental sounds of progressive rock were a natural fit for the freeform format. Radical Radio notes that freeform DJs “placed artistry and creativity above all else,” making them receptive to progressive rock’s artistic ambitions.

In addition, freeform radio provided early exposure to punk rock, new wave, and indie artists who were forging fresh sounds outside the mainstream music industry. Legendary freeform station KSAN in San Francisco was the first radio station to play the Sex Pistols and The Clash, helping to break punk rock in America. College radio picked up this torch, but freeform radio led the way in pushing musical boundaries. Artists like Patti Smith, Talking Heads, and The Ramones might not have reached wide audiences without the support of progressive freeform DJs. The DIY spirit of freeform aligned with the raw energy of early punk and new wave acts.

The Decline of Free FM Radio

By the mid-1970s, freeform radio was on the decline as stations began shifting to more formatted programming like album-oriented rock (AOR). AOR focused on playing album cuts as opposed to singles, but still adhered to a more structured playlist than freeform stations. The rise of AOR and other formatted stations put pressure on freeform stations to deliver higher ratings.

As Kenny Weissberg recounts on his website, freeform station KRNW-FM in Boulder, Colorado shut down on April 1, 1977, marking the end of freeform radio in the city. The rock station KBCO took over the frequency, bringing a more formatted approach (Weissberg, 2016). According to Weissberg, a former KRNW DJ, the freeform format struggled to compete as listeners wanted more of a consistent sound. Stations across the country faced similar pressures as freeform struggled to attract advertisers and deliver the ratings that formatted stations could.

The decline of freeform radio also coincided with the rise of FM radio in general. As FM became more popular and profitable, stations were less willing to take risks on freeform programming. While a few freeform stations held on into the 1980s, the format was increasingly rare on commercial radio.

Lasting Impact of Free FM Radio

Although freeform FM radio’s popularity declined by the late 1970s, it left a lasting impact on radio broadcasting and music discovery. Specifically, freeform radio heavily influenced the album-oriented rock (AOR) format and enabled the discovery of niche and underground music.

Freeform DJs were early pioneers of playing full albums rather than just hit singles. This helped condition listeners to appreciate the artistry of full LPs and paved the way for AOR stations focused on album cuts. While freeform DJs played a diverse mix, the freedom to spin entire albums was a cornerstone of the format.

Additionally, freeform radio enabled the discovery of niche genres and underground artists that mainstream Top 40 stations ignored. Listeners relied on freeform stations to learn about emerging styles like psychedelic rock, progressive rock, and punk. The genre diversity and airtime given to non-hit songs allowed new bands to attract a following among freeform’s niche audience.

While freeform’s unpredictability and loose structure eventually lead to its decline, the legacy of airing full albums and exposing listeners to non-mainstream musiclives on in modern radio formats. Its influence is still felt in independent internet radio and satellite radio’s dedication to deep cuts.

Freeform Radio Today

While most freeform radio stations have disappeared from the traditional FM airwaves, the freeform spirit lives on today in online radio stations and streaming audio. One of the most prominent sources for freeform radio online is SomaFM (https://somafm.com/), an independent commercial-free radio broadcaster since 2000. SomaFM features diverse specialty music streams in the eclectic freeform tradition, covering genres like indie pop, psychedelic, lounge, digital punk, and more. The array of freeform offerings provides listeners with a continuously evolving musical journey.

In addition to dedicated online stations, freeform radio can still be found in small doses on terrestrial radio, usually through public radio stations. Some community and college radio stations have freeform specialty shows focusing on experimental music, open format DJ sets, and diverse mixes not constrained by traditional radio formulas. While not as prevalent as in freeform radio’s heyday, these specialty shows keep the creative spirit alive on the airwaves.

The Future of Freeform Radio

With the rise of digital streaming and on-demand content, the future of freeform radio is uncertain. Some argue that the open format, freeform style of radio programming is less relevant in an age where listeners can easily choose exactly what they want to hear at any time. However, others believe that streaming and podcasts actually allow even more flexibility for freeform-style shows than traditional radio ever did. As Neil Ruud said, “It is more than possible for freeform radio to survive and thrive in the Internet age” (Ruud).

There remains nostalgia and interest in the sense of discovery that freeform radio provides. While digital algorithms can recommend music to us, the human touch of a real DJ making connections between songs and introducing listeners to new artists and genres creates a different experience. As Hollow Earth Radio launches its capital campaign to fund a new studio, there are clearly still devoted fans of eclectic freeform programming (Hollow Earth Radio). The future lies in continuing to cultivate this engaged community and evolving the format for modern audiences.

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