The first commercial FM station went on the air in Nashville in 1947. For nearly 20 years thereafter, FM was mostly a curiosity. FM stations generally simulcast the programming of their AM sister stations. But in the early 60s, the FCC ordered stations to run separate programming for at least part of each broadcast day. FM stereo technology became widely available. Combine that with the growing demographic bulge of young boomers and their percepton that AM radio was leaving them behind, and you’ve got the necessary conditions for the rise of progressive FM radio.
Although the format was born in San Francisco, the most historically significant progressive FM station was a continent away. In New York City, WNEW-FM went on the air on October 31, 1967, as the East Coast pioneer of free-form progressive radio, where the jocks played what they wanted and a sophisticated audience lapped it up. Its slogan: “Where rock lives.” Several WNEW jocks became icons of the radio biz. Listeners across the country got to know Dave Herman and Scott Muni after they began hosting nationally syndicated programs, and Alison Steele, “the Nightbird,” became one of the most successful female jocks in American radio history. The station’s heyday was longer than heydays usually are, lasting until the early 80s, when the demands of corporate owners brought an end to free-form radio in lots of places, not just New York. Nevertheless, WNEW remained an album-rock/classic-rock station (albeit one that was tweaked several times over the years) until 1999, when it abandoned music for talk. The WNEW call letters remained, however, until 2007.
This week, WNEW returned from the great beyond, reincarnated over the air in New York City on an HD channel. It’s programmed by Norm Winer, whose resume is long and impressive, including many years at Chicago’s legendary WXRT. The station plans to be as adventuresome as it was back in the day, spanning the spectrum of rock’s last 40 years. For example, the first hour on the air yesterday featured classic-rock staples “Love in an Elevator” and “Trampled Under Foot,” but also tunes by the Wallflowers, the White Stripes, and Wilco.
WNEW will also be streaming online. In addition to the live stream, the WNEW website will provide plenty of extra content—among other things, it’ll be posting interview excerpts from the WNEW vaults featuring classic artists and WNEW personalities. In addition, a group of bloggers will be writing regularly about all subjects musical. One of the bylines may be familiar.