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The Impact of Radio on Pop Music

Updated on May 8, 2011

The Impact of Radio

From the inception of radio broadcasting, especially of the sort featuring musical content, it can be said that the radio had and still has a large impact on music and popular culture. To measure this impact it may be easiest to examine the radio’s relationship with the recording industry, as the recording industry provides a direct link between music and popular culture. This can be done by detailing the birth and rise of the recording industry and the subsequent consequences of the introduction of radio broadcasting. It is also necessary to examine the ongoing relationship of the two industries and illustrate how individuals such as John Peel had a major affect on music and popular culture.

Before radio, the only way to listen to recorded music was on phonographs and gramophones. The phonograph, invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison was a machine that played wax cylinders which had sound waves cut into them. Berliner’s invention of the gramophone ten years later, utilised discs rather than cylinders, which had an advantage over the cylinder format as discs could be more easily duplicated. These so called talking machines were however first marketed towards businessmen as a means to record meetings and important notes. It was not until about 1885 that recorded music was firmly established as a liable form of entertainment. From here the young recording industry continued to grow with three million sales made by the Edison, Victor and Columbia companies in 1900. In 1905 The Preacher and the Bear became arguably the first song to sell a million copies. These early sales figures suggest that by the time of the introduction of radio the recording industry was the dominant form of musical entertainment and exposure.

The first broadcast of music over the radio was on the 24th of December 1904. It involved Reginald Fessenden playing 'O Holy Night' on his violin. Though it would be another twenty years before radio established itself as a form of musical entertainment. The first radio sets became available to the US public in 1920.

The recording industry saw little threat from this though as these machines provided poor sound quality and broadcasters were disallowed the use of recorded music by the record companies. This forced radio stations to use local musicians to recreate popular records live. In a major effort to compete with the record market, radio network owners spent big money on lavish production to outdo what was available on record. This, coupled with improving technology meant that the popularity of radio increased steadily, mirroring the declining sales of records. By the mid-twenties, record industry productivity had halved and sales rates would not recover until 1938.

As was shown in the previous paragraph, the initial impact of radio on the recording industry was largely negative, crippling sales and putting many companies out of business. Since then though the recording industry and radio have worked side by side in what Stan Liebowitz describes as a symbiotic relationship. At first small things contributed to building this relationship, such as the machines that acted as both radios and gramophones. However the rise of the radio DJ in the thirties was the major starting point in showing how radio could benefit the recording industry. Early DJs would showcase whole records while providing information about the record and artists in between songs. This meant radio stations were forced to buy many records which helped keep sales figures steady. More importantly as records were played on the radio, the sales of these records increased, meaning that the radio was providing free advertising for the record industry’s product. This theory has provided the basis for the relationship up until current times and is the reason why radio stations do not have to pay royalties to artists when their music is played on radio.

Stan Liebowitz, when writing on the symbiotic relationship between the radio and recording industries rejected the notion that radio play benefits record sales. Liebowitz acknowledges that radio attracts large numbers of listeners and that many stations use musical programming as the basis for their station, but he suggests many people are listening simply for enjoyment rather than as consumers. He proposes the idea of substitution, which means that many people will listen to the radio rather than buying recorded music as they are happy to be fed popular music that is comfortable and enjoyable. Liebowitz also argues that radio exposure of an artist or song will not always benefit sales. His theory simply put is that a song played on the radio acts a preview to a product, which may lead to a listener buying the single or album. Adversely the potential customer may dislike the preview or in the case of overexposure feel that their desire for the product has been met, which will lead the listener not to buy the song or album.

Liebowitz provides a few case studies to support his theories. The first being the previously discussed initial negative impact radio had on the record industry in the USA. He also writes on the rise of commercial radio in Britain from 1973. Radio in Britain is traditionally more conservative than in the US and before 1973 the BBC was the sole legal radio broadcaster. Copyright laws on the use of songs on radio in Britain are also harsher than in the US, meaning it was harder for artists to gain exposure. The introduction in 1973 of privately owned stations according to Liebowitz should have meant an increase in record sales, but the fact that sales remained steady is used as another example to support his theory. The final case study Liebowitz uses is that of payola, traditionally something seen as proof that radio play can increase record sales. Payola involves radio stations being paid to play specific songs, a popular ladder to chart success in the fifties. Liebowitz argues that while this process helps the exposed artists it takes sales away from others, meaning it has neither a negative or positive effect on sales as a whole.

Where Liebowitz is concerned it seems is the category of radio described as ‘top 40’, affectively excluding those stations and broadcasters who affectively champion underground and alternative music. Liebowitz is also coming from an economic background meaning he based his theory on sales and ignores the cultural influence of radio. Therefore it is important to mention the culturally significant British DJ John Peel. Amongst the traditionally conservative backdrop of British radio, Peel discovered and launched many new and alternative artists through air play. A great example being his exposure of the punk scene in 1976, which helped kick start a whole new cultural movement.He allowed many fresh and unsigned bands to be recorded live on radio with the Peel Sessions, invaluable exposure which often led to the signing of these artists by record labels. Peel shows how radio can impact upon the recording industry in the case of artists unlikely to gain major exposure in any other form.

The impact of radio on the recording industry is a profound one, though it is not easy to tell whether overall it has had a negative or positive impact. The fall of the record industry after the introduction of radio has long since stabilised and grown stronger. Though Liebowitz suggests that radio may not actually be as good a marketing tool as commonly believed, it does provide those artists with exposure who are unable to gain it through television or the internet, the latter medium currently providing a much greater threat to the recording industry than radio. It seems that as long as both industries are happy with the current arrangement and that some presenters follow John Peel’s example, radio will continue to impact on popular culture and music.



Egan, Sean, ed. The Little Black Book: Music. London: Octopus Publishing Group Ltd., 2007.

Electronic Sources:

BBC, “1974-1979 – The Wedding Present,” Peel Biography Home page on-line; available from; Internet accessed 22 April 2010.

Duke University, The History of Recorded Music Home page on-line; available from; Internet accessed 22 April 2010.

Liebowitz, Stan J., ’The Elusive Symbiosis: The Impact of Radio on the Record Industry,’ Review of Economic Research on Copyright Issues (2004), [e-book] (accessed 21 April, 2010).

Morton, David. Recording History Online Home page on-line; available from; Internet accessed 22 April 2010.


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      Paul Furniss 

      10 months ago

      It seems to me that too much heed was paid to one Stan Liebowitz?


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