Wednesday, August 2, 2017


Frequent readers of this blog know that I am a fan of Major Edwin Armstrong, the man who literally invented frequency modulation (FM) radio despite years of hassle and resistance from the nation’s biggest broadcasters and equipment manufactures.

After World War II, the FCC relocated the frequencies for FM stations at the behest of RCA. Though RCA told the FCC that the change was necessary because of “interference issues,” RCA wanted the FM spectrum for its soon-to-be-built television service. Plus, RCA had a decade-old grudge against Armstrong.

Professor Lawrence Longley, in his article The FM Shift of 1945 (below), summed up the situation this way:

Major Edwin Armstrong
Armstrong had stoked the ire of big corporate broadcasters by introducing FM broadcasting, a superior system to the status-quo AM system.

In June 1936, Armstrong debuted FM with a public demonstration at FCC headquarters in Washington, DC. It went very, very well.  Perhaps, too well.

During Armstrong’s presentation for the Commission, he used jazz recordings to demonstrate the differences in fidelity for FM an AM. FM blew AM away.   

The FM signal was as clear as a bell. A reporter who witnessed the demonstration wrote:

"If the audience of 500 engineers had shut their eyes, they would have believed a jazz band was in the same room. There were no extraneous sounds. Several engineers said after the demonstration that they considered Dr. Armstrong's invention one of the most important radio developments since the first earphone crystal sets were introduced."

RCA and other big broadcasting interests certainly noticed. Armstrong’s FM system could disrupt the established order. Not only was the FM fidelity superior to AM, the FM system was owned by an outsider – an independent college professor from Columbia University.

The Mighty W2XMN in Alpine, NJ
In 1938, Armstrong had signed on the first FM radio station, W2XMN, at Alpine, New Jersey, just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. 

The Mighty W2XMN was at 42.8 on the then-FM dial. W2XMN’s 40,000-watts covered the entire New York City market, surpassing many AM stations.

Then the US entered World War II and FM was “frozen.”  As the war ended 1945, RCA began its push to squash FM at the FCC.

The FCC subsequently moved the FM spectrum to its current location – 88.1 mHz to 107.9 mHz. This move made hundreds of thousands FM receivers obsolete. It ruined Armstrong’s business. RCA tied Armstrong up with litigation into the 1950s.

Late on the night of January 31, 1954, Armstrong had had enough. Armstrong opened a window of his apartment on the thirteenth floor and jumped to his death.
Lawrence D. Longley
Enter Lawrence D. Longley, political science scholar and political activist at Lawrence University, Appleton, Wisconsin.  One of Longley’s specialties was investigative reporting about government agencies that favored corporate interests. He wrote about the back-scratching relationship between RCA and the FCC for the Journal of Broadcasting in 1988.

The article (below) is called The FM Shift of 1945. Today it is considered the definitive work on the topic. It is also a warning about the impact of big money's influence on government decisions.
(click on images to expand them)

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