Commercial broadcast radio, which began the 1920s in the United States, has millions of daily listeners today. Broadcast radio was the first nationwide mass medium Congress chose to license and regulate. For decades, Federal Communications Commission rules have burdened free speech and, especially in recent years, hampered the ability of radio stations to respond to changing consumer behavior. This regulation has included rules about content like equal time rules for political candidates, prohibitions against indecent speech on the air, and the Fairness Doctrine, which required stations to make their broadcast facilities available to those they disagree with. Other radio-specific regulations include geographic restrictions, advertising restrictions and mandates, and certain prohibitions against merging with TV stations and newspapers.
Using data from the Federal Communications Commission and the US Census Bureau’s Statistical Abstract of the United States, the chart shows the total number of AM and FM radio stations over time. Since their peak in the mid-1990s, AM stations have decreased slightly while new FM stations continue to pop up across the country. FM station growth is beginning to plateau, however, and this coincides with the rise of new types of competition.
Radio is a reminder that, if permitted, regulators will restrict free speech and require certain business models (ad support, in the case of radio, is one example). Broadcast radio’s closest competitors, including satellite radio, podcasts, and streaming services like Spotify and Pandora, face few broadcast rules and are freer to experiment with programming formats, revenue models, and technologies. Federal rules that single out broadcast stations and limit programming variety and operational flexibility in broadcast radio—such as those rules that prevent stations from merging with local newspapers and limit broadcasting companies to owning eight stations in a media market—exacerbate the financial struggles of local media.