Wednesday, March 09, 2011

42-50 MHz: the Other FM Band

In 1937, Edwin H. Armstrong built the first FM radio station, W2XMN. It first operated at 600 watts and broadcast from Alpine, NJ on 42.8 MHz. Contemporary accounts record that after it increased to 40,000 watts that it was audible 100 miles away. He had run tests as early as 1925, and there were a few other contemporary FMs, but this was the big commercial venture. The original Apex FM band reached from 42–50 MHz before it was rudely unseated in 1945.  To be succinct, it was the fault of David Sarnoff and it set back the AM to FM conversion by at least a decade, maybe longer... so long that today it may be coterminous with radio broadcasting (at least as we know it.)  

In all honesty it's not all that cut and dry. Two totally reliable sources disagree with me. Gary Lewis Frost claims that Armstrong lied to the FCC about FMs requirements to try to keep it in place which may have effected the outcome.  Hugh Slotten argues that RCA didn't get their proposals core requests and that the relocation wasn't what we currently assume. the conflicting engineering was fact. TV and FM could not effectively occupy the same band. Sarnoff also definitely lobbied government regulators. It's also a fact that FM lost and had to move. You can make your own decisions about the nuance.

But that early FM era was 8 years long and for early adopters had it's own radio band very different than the one listeners know today. But they had prefab radios already; both Zenith and GE were making FM radios.  In 1936 the FCC was still expanding the FM band due to demand. TV made it all go pear-shaped. In 1942 there were 82 FM stations on the original band in the U.S. [List Here] And as you'd expect they were clustered around the largest U.S. Markets. New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Boston, San Francisco, Etc. By 1939, Apex stations were operating in 34 cities in 22 states.  Let's take New York for example at it's peak. More here. In 1941 the following was reported by the weekly Broadcasting Magazine:
"As there are 35 channels set aside for FM broadcasting—six Class A, 22 Class B, and seven Class C—and it is not feasible for stations in the same locality to operate on adjacent channels, the number in New York is limited to 17—three Class A, 11 Class B, and four Class C."    
That's a pretty accurate statement. Since stations cannot be on adjacent channels of the 35 possible frequencies only half can be used in any one market. Half of 35 is 17.5, and there's no such thing as half a station. So in an ideal well-engineered world you could have up to 17. It's not that simple but you get the point.  You'll count only 13 below. I'll get into the difference in the next paragraph. 

42.1 WNYE
43.9 WNYC
44.7 W47NY (WGYN)
45.1 W2XWG (W51NY, WEAF)
45.5 W55NY (WFGG)
45.9 W2XQR (W59NY, WQXQ)
46.3 W63NY (WHNF)
46.7 W67NY (WABC-FM)
47.1 W71NY (WOR-FM, WBAM)
47.5 W75NY (WABF)
49.5 W95NJ (WAAW)
49.9 W99NY CP

The FCC had made north New Jersey and New York City into separate service areas. As you know today that's not very practical. Arbitron considers those precious New Jersey metros to be "embedded" in the New York City MSA including Morristown, Monmouth, and Middlesex-Somerset. 

But after the move all that went kaflooey. In 1945 the FCC announced a plan of frequency allocations plan for over 1,500 FM stations.The Apex band would go to Television. The only fight left was how it would be chopped up. Armstrong held out with court injunctions but Sarnoffs money was talking loudly in DC. It was clear that Armstrong was going to lose. By September the FCC has issued a new band including new allocations including nine New York Stations, and WAAW in that funky north New Jersey market. In July 1946 the Apex band was closed to FM save for Armstrong's experimental KE2XCC holding on with just a court order. He died in 1954 and the station held on for another 4 weeks. By 1946 the big move was essentially over and the new FM band (below) was settled. It was expanded and was re-engineered repeatedly but it might look a bit familiar already.

91.7 WNYE
92.1 W2XMN / WFMN
95.3 WNYC
95.7 WAAW / WAAT
96.1 WGYN
96.5 WBAM
96.9 WABC / WCBS
97.3 WEAF / WNBC
97.7 WQXQ
98.1 WGYN
98.5 WABF
98.9 WFMN
99.3 WHNF / WMGM
99.7 WFGG / WGHF