From static to streaming — The history of car radio

(January 5, 2019) A new infographic illustrates the history of the car radio, from the 1930s through the current decade. Since the team at VAIS Technology continues to follow and adapt to the advances in car audio, they wanted to share this chart of the in-car technology upgrades throughout the decades. The journey to today's in-car entertainment was bumpy.

"We've been looking for better ways to enjoy music on the go since the invention of the car radio," says Dennis Hopper, VP of sales at VAIS Technology.

"Some of the inventions were ambitious but were priced too high or poorly executed. Looking at this history makes me appreciate the clear signal and variety of stations SiriusXM offers. Can you imagine being stuck in traffic with a spotty AM radio connection as your only option?"

Here are some highlights from the graphic:

    • When the first car radio, the Motorola, was introduced in the 1930s, it was strictly for the well-to-do. Retailing for $130, it would sell for about $2,000 today when adjusted for inflation. By 1948, Amplitude modulated (AM) radios with monophonic sound reproduction became standard in most automobiles.

Fun fact: In 1930, a few states proposed laws to ban car radios. Concerns about distracted driving or soothing a driver to sleep were the catalysts for the suggested laws.

    • Frequency modulation (FM) car radios were introduced around 1952. While they didn’t cut in and out like AM radios, they were so expensive that most car manufacturers and car buyers stuck with the AM head units.

Fun fact: Some car companies, offered record players in their cars. Since broadcast signals could be iffy, one could keep a few 45s around for convenience. Of course, the baking sun would warp a record and potholes all but guaranteed a scratch.

    • Some car radios became stereos in the 1960s. Musicians were starting to record in “stereo,” so these stereos had one audio channel in the front speaker and another channel in the back. Consumers could now buy their favorite music on either 8-track and cassette tapes and both types of tape players were now available for automobiles.

Fun fact: Early on, 8-track tapes were considered premium and were more popular than cassettes. Their popularity was greatest from 1968-1975. Unfortunately, they were expensive and car stereos often ate them.

    • The early 1970s offered commuters a variety of audio options: cassette players, 8-track players, AM radios and FM stereos. There was still some carryover of the 1960s practice of simulcasting AM music radio programs to FM. Later in the decade the cassette tape pulled ahead because its compact size made it easy to store a few in the glove box.

Fun fact: 8-track tapes ran on a loop – you could not rewind or forward to a chosen song.


• Although cassettes were still selling well in the early 1990s, this decade introduced the in-car CD player. At first, factory head units included a player for one CD and track-skipping with just a push of a button. Both OEM and aftermarket manufacturers soon created multiple CD changers. Some in-dash ones allowed a driver to have up to 6 CDs in the unit at once.

Fun fact: Some CD changers were big, offering up to 12 slots(magazines) for CDs, and had to go in the car’s trunk. The driver controlled the tracks, CD, etc. from the driver’s seat.

    • During the early part of the new century, satellite radio became a more common alternative to over-the- air or hybrid digital radio. Additionally, Apple’s new iPod and imitations now allowed listeners to stream music anywhere. An auxiliary plug made listening in the car even easier. In 2007, the two biggest satellite radio service providers, XM and Sirius, merged.

Fun fact: After the wardrobe malfunction at Super Bowl XXXVIII, the FCC started cracking down on what was deemed “obscene” in the media. In 2006, Howard Stern, a popular shock jock, became so fed up with fines for “indecency” that he moved to satellite radio and immediately increased the service's number of subscribers.


• By 2010, Bluetooth technology was becoming standard in new cars. With features like steering wheel controls and voice activation, this hands-free technology allows drivers to select streaming music or make phone calls hands-free. As the decade progressed, large audio-screen head units became the norm in most automobiles. Whether connected to SiriusXM radio or streaming music through a smart phone, the new screens offer details-at-a-glance about the song that’s playing.

Fun fact: Bluetooth is named for the 10th century King Harald “Bluetooth” Blaantand. The inventor of the technology was impressed by the king’s story, and the Bluetooth logo is actually a combination of a K and a B.

Currently, in-car touchscreens are getting larger, voice-controlled personal assistants are becoming the norm, and new stations are added to SiriusXM all the time. What’s next for the car radio?