Why do we have “Top of the Hour” News on Radio?

Why do some stations have news at the top of the hour and others don’t?   Is it a law?  an FCC regulation?   Tradition?  Because listeners expect it or want it?

If you have done testing or just pay attention, there is a wide difference in what news/talk radio stations do for the first six minutes of every hour.   Some stations run maybe 1 minute of news surrounded by 5 minutes of commercials – others run a few minutes of network news followed by a few minutes of local news, and a shrinking handful of stations still do the entire newscast themselves.

In the 1920s as the legal and technology battles were raging over the future of radio, the Federal government was involved in formulating radio policy – in part because radio waves don’t stop at national boundaries, and it was important that countries around the world agree on what part of the radio spectrum is used for what purpose.

Herbert Hoover called a series of conferences to bring together the people with an interest in Radio to sort out what the rules for radio would be.   Republican Herbert Hoover was strongly of the belief that commercial radio had a responsibility to operate in the public interest.   Licensing and regulation of radio had been located in the Department of Commerce, and as the conferences started to identify the problems, the Radio Act of 1927 established the Federal Radio Commission – which laid out the Class A/B/C system for allocating AM radio frequencies that survives pretty much unchanged after 80 years.

Part of the shakeout of the early phase of the radio business was that AT&T agreed to not operate radio stations in exchange for the agreement that NBC and the other radio networks would rent long distance circuits from AT&T to create the early radio networks.   The Radio Networks were a physical network built on 1000s of miles of coax cable that formed the early long distance phone system – deciding on which network to affiliate with was an expensive long term commitment – just not a matter of changing the tuner on your satellite dish as it is today.

The FRC operated from 1927 to 1934, when the FCC was created to regulate communcations (of which Radio was only one type of communication).   The Communications Act of 1934 – which established the FCC as a “commission”, which is an independent decision making entity, not part of any Federal government department – as a compromise between government regulation and the self-regulation model championed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) since its founding in 1922.

In the 1930s, a war broke out between newspapers and radio as newspapers demanded that AP and UPI stop allowing radio stations to use their news stories – in response, CBS Radio established its own news service – which was enough of a competitive threat to get the newspapers to back down and allow radio to use the wire services stories. It’s no coincidence that CBS still dominates in all news radio stations.

Part of the self-regulation NAB model was the “Standards and Practices” rules created in 1937 -which applied to NAB members – but not all radio stations are members of the NAB. This set of rules was called the “NAB Standards of Good Practice for Radio Broadcasters”. At the time, NBC dominated the radio business and the NAB Code largely reflected David Sarnoff’s set of rules regarding advertising, programming content and politics (Sarnoff refused to sell time or advertising to labor unions, for example)

During World War II, the appetite for news about the war led CBS, NBC and Mutual to begin regular hourly news broadcasts. TV and FM radio did not yet exist other than as experimental devices. AM Radio was the only way for news to be distributed immediately.   Video of the war were seen mostly from the News Reels that were shown in movie theaters.   Newspapers came out several times a day, with the possibility of an Extra addition in the event of a major breaking news story.   Magazines could show pictures (Look Magazine) and stories weekly or monthly.

News, local events and radio drama were the backbone of AM radio into the 1950s and most radio stations had affiliated with one of the radio networks for their national news.   When FM radio arrived in the 1950s and really came to the forefront in the 1960s, FM stations did not generally have news, unless they were just a simulcast of the AM station.

The NAB encouraged its members to carry news as part of their obligation to operate in the public interest.   Starting in the 1980s as satellite delivery of radio content became practical, stations began to carry syndicated programming and news without relying on leased phone lines.   With stations with many different ideas about programming wanting to pick up syndicated programming (See: Rush Limbaugh) it was important for the syndicated programming to accommodate a variety of approaches to how stations wanted to do local portions.  The result was that every syndicated talk show publishes a “Show Clock” so that stations know when they are expected to fill in with their own commercials and local programming.  Techniques were developed to allow unattended operation of stations – the most obvious used to be Mutual Radio’s bee-deep tones that were sent “in band”.

So the rigidity of the show clocks force a break of about 6 minutes  before the show starts.  A few shows lay down a “bed” of audio playing music for about 30 seconds allowing the station to play another short commercial and allow for some sloppiness in exactly when they rejoin.   These days clocks are very precise and it isn’t generally necessary to signal the times for hard commercial breaks that occur at a specific time, however “soft breaks” that can move by a few minutes require automation cues.

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2 Responses to Why do we have “Top of the Hour” News on Radio?

  1. Art Stone says:

    Syndicated programming also was distributed on records and tapes back before satellite delivery. Moody Bible sent out its programming on records to its affiliates…. Casey Kasem’s Countdown show was recorded ahead of time and sent to stations on records with 30 minutes of progamming per side.

    • foyle says:

      In the mid-1980’s when I was working in college radio we still played a weekly show from the BBC (hosted by John Peel I think). The program arrived each week on LP records and I played both sides during my shift. My how technology has changed!

      I also used to love going into our station ‘news room’ and watch the news feed come in over the teletype. I used to catch the late night baseball scores and some breaking news stories that way.

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