Friday, November 19, 2010

Radio in Mass Transit

In the Fall of 1949 Chicago was installing radio in it's buses. A short list of stations were even being considered for the right to be aired inside the buses: WMOR-AM, WBBM-AM, WFMF-AM, WBIK-FM, WJJD-FM, This was a big change. Car radios debuted in the 1930s, but these were mostly add-ons. Cars did not come with radios standard for a couple more decades.  Ford pushed it as an popular option starting in 1950 and it took off. In 1952 Blaupunkt became the first maker to offer FM receivers but AM remained king for another 30 years. Why were Transit companies and city governments so keen on installing FM radios in their transit vehicles?
The first company was Transit Radio Inc. based in Cincinnati. In July of 1948 they launched the service in Covington, Kentucky installing 100 sets in the cars of the Newport and Covington railway. A Month later St. Louis was announcing plans to install radios in their buses to get news, time and weather reports from WXOK-FM. In Washington D.C station WWDC-FM  worked out a similar deal. Eventually over 1,000 buses and rail cars were equipped. Other cities followed in the first year: Houston TX,  Wilkes-Barre PA, Worcester MA, Huntington WV. It was a captive audience that advertisement wanted a piece of. The public reaction was mixed to say the least. A survey by the Edward G. Doody Company determined that 80% of riders found radio made their ride more enjoyable, 6% found it less enjoyable and 14% were ambivalent. They complaints were initially dismissed as a vocal minority.

When mass transit vehicles added radio to existing vehicles there was nearly no consideration for acoustics.  In the previous century acoustics had been acknowledged, but poorly understood. Even symphony halls were still designed in what's called a "shoebox configuration." The world's first scientifically designed symphony hall was only built in 1900, and it wasn't much different than those that preceded it. Imagine a 48-foot long aluminum and steel tube with an antenna, spark plugs, speakers and a radio. It's a metal box, it vibrates, sounds reflect and scatter. The saving grace of the bus was in that it is usually filled with humans. Compared to steel and aluminum we're pretty squishy. We provide a lot of acoustic absorption. In Chicago General electric and WGNB-FM tested their system and got specific complaints. One account in Billboard magazine described the reaction of the Chicagoan guinea pigs:
"One of the complaints of the public tested with sample uses of transit radio here has been irritation caused by lack of controlled volume. When vehicles were crowded, top volume was used.  But when there were fewer riders continued high volume was disturbing."
In the book Broadcasting the local news Lynn Boyd Hinds described committees forming opposed to radio in transit vehicles. Some people didn't like the idea of being bombarded by advertisements. In 1949, the first year of transit radio, complaints were being filed not just in Chicago, but with the transit authorities in Washington D.C. and others. Eventually it went to the courts. In 1952, after two appeals transit radio was declared constitutional. It was a show trial, with one justice even recusing himself. You can read the legal brief here.  Broadcasting Magazine summed up the verdict with a bit too much entitlement:  
"It sanctions the birth of a new advertising medium.  It affords opportunity to a substantial number of FM broadcasters to earn a return on their investments."
It may seem today to be an over-reaction. But try to compare it to the ire you give TV networks when the commercials are louder than the programs. The problem some thought, was really just one of volume. There was a valid argument for this. While loud speakers were already 70 years old, the electric amplifier was not. More here. Without a a modern amplifier, loud speakers aren't very loud in 1949 they were using tube amps, not solid state. Tubes themselves barely date to 1907 with DeForest. Radio was listed to at home in the parlor, car radios were a luxury.  So in every practical sense, these engineers had little prior work to base their implementation on.
General Electric, REI and Stromberg-Carlson came to the rescue with radios that automatically adjusted volume based on the number of riders. 21 Cities were using the devices so thsi was no small market.  Stromberg-Carlson probably got some Chicago contracts for virtue of being a local company. Alfred Stromgberg and Androv Carlson founded their first company in 1894, then a series of others. In 1910 they began making headsets, and other radio parts. They like others tried to tackle the problem in 1950, but as advertisers shied away in the face of the very public court cases... the service faded  away.