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Celebrating 60 Years of WNYC-FM in 2003

What were the first FM programs? For answers, read on…

This year, WNYC celebrates 60 years since its FM transmitter began full operation, a breakthrough that expanded the station's wealth of music, cultural, and news programming. What led WNYC to adopt FM at the height of World War II? What were the first FM programs? For answers, read on…

WNYC-FM Anniversary Programming Specials Calendar

The FM Revolution on WNYC

FM broadcasting was a recent innovation on February 24, 1943, the date WNYC began experimental FM operations on 43.9 megacycles* under the call letters W39NY. Only a few stations in the U.S. had adopted the technology after Major Edwin Armstrong, a Columbia University professor, began his pioneering transmissions from atop the Empire State Building in 1934. But as General Electric and other companies began making FM receivers commercially available in the early 1940s, it was only natural that WNYC would make the leap. WNYC-FM began full operations on March 13, 1943 from a one-kilowatt antenna on the Municipal Building (above).

What led WNYC to adopt FM during frugal wartime conditions? According to a report by Morris Novik, WNYC's director from 1938 through 1945, the station saw several advantages to FM. For one, it allowed WNYC to remain on the air around the clock, since FM stations didn't interfere with one another (whereas WNYC-AM shared its wavelength with WCCO in Minneapolis). FM also represented an acoustic improvement over the raspy, static-plagued AM band. And the FM transmitter was erected without any additional costs to the city.

Admiral Chester Nimitz salutes Mayor F. H. La Guardia on Chester Nimitz Day, October 9th, 1945. Nimitz was the commander of the U.S. Pacific fleet. (Photo: WNYC Archives)

In its early years, WNYC-FM was the only FM station in the U.S. that broadcast programs created expressly for FM. Among these was "Nights at the Ballet," a series of broadcasts of the ballet orchestra from the Metropolitan Opera House and the New York City Center. Also featured were opera broadcasts by the City Center Opera Company (later New York City Opera) and the San Carlo Opera Company. New York listeners soon came to associate FM with classical music.

The FM signal also had utilitarian advantages, like issuing presidential addresses and civil defense information when AM was off the air. During the newspaper strike in July 1945, WNYC-FM listeners were treated to "The Comic Parade," a daily reading of the funny papers which Mayor La Guardia took part on two occasions (pictured, above, with Jimmy Durante**). That same year, WNYC received its first-ever Peabody Award for Outstanding Public Service by a local station.

 

On the 86th-Floor of the Empire State Building, the dedication of the 2500 mgs antenna in 1966. Photo: NYC Municipal Reference Library

Post-World War II Developments

After the war, new uses for FM emerged. A December 1945 report by Novick asserted that FM allowed for "broadcasting music of all types including Stadium Concerts, Juilliard Goldman Band, City Center Symphony and Opera, Frick Collection Concerts and Ballet programs." He added, "WNYC today carries more 'live' music than any other station in the country."
(View an FM brochure from 1947.)

On February 11, 1948, a new 20-kilowatt transmitter went into operation atop the Municipal Building, 560 feet above City Hall Park. Installation of the Cloverleaf Antenna was a unique achievement in itself. The thirty-foot steel tower weighed three tons and had to be raised by Brooklyn Bridge ironworkers. The innaugural broadcast, on September 15, 1948 featured Debuty Mayor John Bennett, Major Edwin H. Armstrong, Frederick Lack, the Vice President of the Western Electric Company, and other guests.
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During the 1950s, WNYC-FM became known as the "high fidelity voice of New York City," and a surge in listenership led to gradual lengthening of the FM airtime, until November of 1956, when the station began a 24-hour-a-day operations. Audience ratings skyrocketed in response to many live concerts and music-and-discussion programs including Speaking of Music, Music Roundtable, This is America's Music, Music for the Connoisseur, Ballet Time, the annual Opera Festival, and the American Music Festival, among others.

Further improvements came in 1966, when the station moved its transmitter to the 102-story Empire State Building. A year later came the debut of stereophonic broadcasting, a development that bolstered the station's summer season of outdoor concerts. While the antenna moved to the World Trade Center during the 1970s, it returned once again to the Empire State Building on November 26, 2002. Today, both the AM and FM signals can be heard around the globe, streamed on the station's newest broadcast voice, WNYC.org.

* In the 1930s, when the FCC permitted FM broadcasting to begin, the band from 42-50 MHz was originally assigned for use. More Information
** Photo of LaGuardia and Durante: Courtesy of the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, The University of Texas at Austin.

July 2003 marks the 79th year of operation for WNYC-AM. Read more in this History of WNYC

This feature was created with generous assistance from WNYC's Archives.