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American radio has played a prominent role in both utilitarian applications and in the transmission of American news and popular culture. The proliferation of programming options and technological development since its early days is staggering.

From those early days, radio has served for utilitarian purposes of ship-to-shore communication and military uses, as well as entertaining the nation with game shows, children’s story hours, mysteries, soap operas, science fiction, operas, news and sports.

The golden age of radio is generally considered to be the period between the mid-1930s and 1950. Radio provided “free” entertainment during the Great Depression of the 1930s, and brought the war into the living rooms of the American public.

As television asserted its emerging role in the late 1940s and early 1950s, radio had to re-define itself. As programming once only heard on radio moved into the new medium, the FM band emerged, public broadcasting developed, and new opportunities for programming arose.

FM stations account for 75 percent of radio listeners today and about 60 percent of advertising dollars. Stations live or die by the ratings they receive from the Arbitron company which produces a “book” on each major market for advertisers. The advertisers see the demographic breakdown of each station’s listeners, and purchase the time and format most likely to reach their target audience.

The most popular formats for radio programming in the late 1990s are (in order of decreasing popularity) country, adult contemporary, news/ talk/business/sports, religion, rock and oldies. More than half of US radio stations play country music, particularly in the Deep South and West. Its standing as the number one program format attests to its grassroots popularity.

Adult contemporary integrates soft rock with what used to be considered “middle of the road” or “chicken rock” from the 1950s. Talk radio/ news/business/sports provides local stations, especially AM stations, a niche for attracting listeners and revenues. While satellite delivers pre-packaged talk programming, such as Rush Limbaugh and G. Gordon Liddy, a community’s individual personalities can host talk and interview programs that meet the interests and needs of a station’s hometown.

Public radio provides programming that might not be commercially viable and also that is educational, to some extent. National Public Radio and Public Radio International disburse government and private funds to non-commercial radio stations.

Their content includes All Things Considered, Morning Edition and Prairie Home Companion.

Important legislation regarding radio includes the Radio Act of 1927, the Federal Communications Act of 1934, which replaced it, and the Telecommunications Act of 1996. The 1934 Act provides the legislative foundation governing broadcast and radio transmission in the United States. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has affected ownership restrictions and technological requirements, among other issues related to radio.

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