Beautiful music (also known as semiclassical music, and sometimes abbreviated as BM, B/EZ or BM/EZ for "beautiful music/easy listening") is a mostly instrumental music format that was prominent in American radio from the late 1950s through the 1980s. Easy listening, light music, mood music, elevator music, and Muzak are other terms that overlap with this format and the style of music that it featured. Beautiful music can also be regarded as a subset of the middle of the road radio format.
Beautiful music initially offered soft and unobtrusive instrumental selections on a very structured schedule with limited commercial interruptions. It often functioned as a free background music service for stores, with commercial breaks consisting only of announcements aimed at shoppers already in the stores. This practice was known as "storecasting" and was very common on the FM dial in the 1940s and 1950s.
Many of these FM stations usually simulcast their AM station and used a subcarrier (SCA) to transmit a hitch-hiker signal to a store receiver by subscription. The signal was usually a slow-moving audio tape of "background music" or Muzak-type service, which was independent of the simulcast AM signal.
Some FM stations made more income from these music subscriptions than from their main programming. WITH-FM, in Baltimore, Maryland (1950s and 1960s), had to keep its FM carrier on the air until 2AM for restaurant subscribers, and could not sign-off the main FM carrier until that time and thus had to run a repeat of its previous day's evening concert on its main FM program line.
Growth as a radio format
One of the first beautiful music radio stations in the US was KIXL in the Dallas-Ft. Worth, Texas, area. As early as 1947 it played orchestral music on AM radio (1040), and later on FM (104.5). The format endured a name change to KEZL (as in "easy listening") in 1973, but ended with a change to adult contemporary in 1976.
In 1959 Gordon McLendon, who had interests in Top-40 radio in Dallas as well as other markets, decided to "counter-program" in San Francisco since several Top-40 stations were already there. McLendon established beautiful music AM station KABL (a tribute to the San Francisco cable cars, named by McLendon's executive assistant Billie Page Odom) which was successful through the 1990s. It then experimented with combining elements of Big Bands and soft rock until its demise in the early 21st century. It was reborn as an Internet radio station where it can be heard today.
In the early 1960s, the Federal Communications Commission adopted a standard for transmitting and receiving stereo signals on a single channel of the FM band. In addition to delivering stereo sound, FM broadcasting provided clearer sound quality and better resistance to interference than AM, thus being ideal for broadcasting the beautiful music format.
In Baltimore, Maryland, programmer Art Wander developed a beautiful music format for the 50,000-watt NBC affiliate WBAL/1090. The station format launched in the fall of 1960 featured music sweeps of lush instrumentals with subtle comments from their staff announcers. The format changed to sports and talk when competing FM stations broadcast beautiful music and easy listening.
In 1963, Marlin Taylor created a custom-designed beautiful music format at Philadelphia's WDVR. Within four months, WDVR became the #1 rated FM station in the Philadelphia market. This was one of the first big successes in FM broadcasting, and was instrumental in establishing the viability of FM. WDVR was a resource for mature listeners who were driven from AM radio at the time when WFIL and WIBG (and others) switched to rock 'n' roll programming. WDVR's billboards made the adult audience aware of the new station.
Peters Productions was one of several radio format syndicators—including Schulke Radio Productions (SRP), Bonneville Program Services (BPS), and Century Broadcasting—who created automated tape reels for hundreds of radio stations across the US during the 1960s and 1970s. The company supplied music tapes as well as pre-recorded announcements of the time of day, and other announcements used to promote the format. Peters' beautiful music format was first called "Music Only for a Woman" and later "Music Just for The Two of Us". Peters was the first beautiful music syndicator to sell its library in the late 1980s to Broadcast Programming, Inc., which then bought several other syndicators. (BPI, later part of Jones Radio Networks, is part of Dial Global as of 2012.) Bonneville, which had acquired the SRP and Century catalogs in the 1980s, sold its beautiful music assets to Broadcast Programming in November 1993.
Some beautiful music stations (especially on AM) successfully transitioned to adult contemporary formats, often with call letter changes to shed the "elevator music" identity. Many of these stations marketed themselves as playing many of the same songs from the original artists; adult contemporary had the benefit of having core acts that could much more easily be marketed and were more familiar to listeners, as opposed to the lesser-known and poorer-selling studio acts that made up the majority of the beautiful music format.
Beautiful music stations declined in the late 1980s and early 1990s as country music became popular and moved to the FM dial (formerly, country was relegated to AM). Many beautiful music stations, especially in rural areas, switched to country around that time.
The beautiful music format has not yet died completely. Today's smooth jazz radio stations maintain the structure and style of the beautiful music format. The format continues on a few non-commercial radio stations, including KCEA (89.1 FM) in Atherton, California; KLUX (89.5 FM) in Corpus Christi, Texas; KHOY (88.1 FM) in Laredo, Texas; KNCT-FM (91.3 FM) in Killeen, Texas; and KGUD (90.7 FM) in Longmont, Colorado.
Jones College of Jacksonville operated WKTZ-FM, a beautiful music noncommercial station, from its 1964 founding until 2014, when it sold the station (and sister station WJAX) to national Christian broadcaster Educational Media Foundation for $3.375 million. EMF ended the beautiful music format and switched WKTZ-FM to WJKV, broadcasting its in-house satellite K-Love network.
Some commercial beautiful music stations still exist, often in areas with large retiree populations. These are often popular in their markets. An annual influx of vacationers from colder climates has helped such stations as KAHM (102.1 MHz) in Prescott, Arizona, and KWXY (1340 kHz) in Cathedral City, California. Most of the remaining commercial beautiful music stations are primarily in markets with major resorts. An exception is WGCY in Gibson City, Illinois which serves rural areas in Central Illinois with mostly instrumental beautiful music. Today most stations that play beautiful music are either characterized as nostalgia, smooth jazz or easy listening. In Canada, Evanov Communications' "Jewel"-branded stations in Ontario and Quebec (including CKDX-FM in metro Toronto, CJWL-FM in Ottawa, and CHSV-FM in metropolitan Montreal, among others), which play soft adult contemporary music during the day and standards in the evening, feature an hour of traditional beautiful music from 11:00 p.m. to midnight, dubbing the program "The Instrumental Concert Series". The Cleveland market features non-profit WKHR 91.5 which also streams live on WKHR.org and plays many classic beautiful and light jazz instrumentals from the thirties through the sixties as well as timeless pop and jazz vocals. After financial difficulties forced a sale and subsequent format change of KNXR in Rochester Minnesota, the original owner in 2016 revived its easy listening format on the internet, at 97five.com.
Sirius XM Satellite Radio programs a dedicated beautiful music channel, Escape, for its subscribers, and such services as Music Choice and DMX provide the format as part of their offerings to cable and satellite television subscribers. Muzak also provides several beautiful music channels which are described as "environmental" background music channels. Instrumental beautiful music can also be found on a number of Internet radio feeds.