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Radio, or wireless, technology developed in the late nineteenth century and became the basis of a widespread broadcasting medium beginning in industrial countries during the 1920s. By the early twenty-first century, analogue AM and FM radio service was available in nearly every nation, and digital services were rapidly developing.
James Clerk Maxwell (1831–1879) was the first to make a theoretical prediction of a wireless means of transmitting information in the 1860s in Britain—and thus began a series of experiments that culminated in the widespread medium of radio, today available in nearly every nation. (Note that although radio can refer to any electromagnetic radiation, in this article the term is used for broadcasting and related services but not, for example, for television broadcasting signals, radar, or mobile phone service.)
The German physicist Heinrich Hertz (1857–1894) proved Maxwell correct with small-scale experiments in the late 1880s, but took the idea no further. The Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi (1874–1937) began experimentation in the mid-1890s, and soon moved to Britain and interested the government and military in potential applications of wireless. In 1901 he transmitted the Morse code signal for the letter “S” across the North Atlantic. By then other experimenters had begun work with radio in Germany, the United States, Russia, and elsewhere.
Wireless telegraphy was first used to communicate with (and between) ships at sea and also for long distance (often transoceanic) links. Before and during World War I, wireless telegraphy was also applied to naval and military needs. Nations that made effective use of radio (especially at sea) enjoyed a decided advantage over other countries. Japan beat the Russian fleet in 1904 at the Battle of Tsushima in part because of superior radio communications; British signaling failures at the Battle of Jutland in 1916 were due in considerable part to confused radio messages.
To transmit voice or music signals (wireless telephony as opposed to telegraphy) requires more complex continuous-wave transmitting equipment that developed only slowly in the first two decades of the twentieth century. Reginald Fessenden (1866–1932), a Canadian working in the United States, was one of the first to realize this important distinction and sought to develop the needed transmitter. Lee de Forest (1873–1961) had by 1906 developed his Audion, an improved vacuum tube which, it was eventually discovered, allowed amplification of electrical signals, and thus more effective transmitters and receivers. Edwin Howard Armstrong (1890–1954) developed several important wireless circuits that made effective radio receivers possible. Patent fights among these and other inventors often delayed radio’s progress. Few of them had radio broadcasting in mind.
Early U.S. Radio Broadcasting
What was probably the world’s first broadcast (that is, a noncode transmission sent out to all who cared to listen) took place in 1906 at Brant Rock, Massachusetts, south of Boston. Fessenden, using equipment of his own design, transmitted voice and music signals to witnesses and a small audience of amateur (“ham”) and government radio operators. Though he repeated the feat several times, he did not establish a continuing service. Others, including Lee de Forest offered occasional broadcasts, but again did not offer a regular service. That role fell to Charles D. Herrold (1875–1948), who in about 1909 began what is probably the world’s first regularly scheduled radio broadcast service in San Jose, California. It expanded and continued until early 1917, when U.S. entry into World War I brought most private radio transmissions to a halt.
Radio broadcasting began in earnest in parts of Europe, Canada, and the United States between 1919 and 1921, as nations lifted their wartime bans on private use of wireless technology. The earliest stations were experimental affairs, often on the air for only a few hours a week and offering no set schedule. Equipment was often handmade. Few in the potential audience owned or knew how to make receivers. Only slowly did this change, as interest in and then demand for the new over-the-air service expanded. By the end of 1922 there were more than five hundred stations on the air in the United States, all sharing a handful of frequencies.
The years 1927 and 1928 were crucial in defining U.S. broadcasting as a commercially supported and federally-regulated system. Receivers improved (easier operation, plug-in rather than battery power, and internal speakers), the first regular networks were established (NBC in late 1927; CBS a year later), programs became more standardized as to their variety, content, and length, advertisers were attracted to radio’s growing audience, and preliminary audience research made clear the medium’s growing availability and impact. Finally, federal regulatory standards and licensing were standardized and given enforcement teeth. The present AM band of frequencies was reserved for broadcasting, allowing many more stations. Radio’s golden years were in the 1930s. Depression pressures made “free” radio (once you owned a receiver) a bargain when money was tight. Drama, comedy, variety, and eventually news programs were all honed to a high standard by late in the decade. Many companies using radio advertising enjoyed growing product sales. Radio programs were widely discussed and listeners identified with popular drama and comedy characters. Radio news became important by the late 1930s, edging out newspapers for breaking stories. World War II events were brought to home-front listeners thanks to improving technologies that allowed radio’s reporters to broadcast live or recorded from battlefronts. On CBS, for example, Edward R. Murrow (1908–1965) and his colleagues broadcast vivid reports of wartime events home to U.S. listeners. Radio journalism was fully developed during the fighting in the early 1940s.
European Public Service Radio
In contrast to the U.S. commercial model, starting in the late 1920s, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) established a very different approach of public service and noncommercial programming, becoming a model for radio systems in many other nations. BBC leadership saw radio as a means to improve the country and its people, and therefore offered considerable culture, education, and arts programming, but not much light entertainment. Other European nations followed suit with their own domestic radio systems, and applied the same approach to radio in their colonial possessions. In the United States, on the other hand, public service radio before the 1960s was relegated to a small number of educational and noncommercial stations, most run by schools or universities. Radio was of greater social importance in Europe (because of its public service emphasis) than in the United States (where radio focused on musical formats) after the introduction of television.
By the start of World War II, radio systems in Europe, Africa and Asia (but not North and South America), were under some degree of government control, supported by fees paid by listeners (few carried advertising). For nations in which the government controlled radio systems, the purpose of radio was to advance national arts and culture and perhaps forward government policies. Little entertainment or popular music was offered, which led, along with advertisers’ demand for access to listening audiences, to the formation in the 1950s and 1960s of numerous “pirate” (unlicensed) stations in Europe, some of them broadcasting from ships offshore, all following the American model by playing popular music and supported by advertising.
International Radio Services and Propaganda
Governments often co-opted radio broadcasting for the purposes of persuasion and sometimes terror. Radio Moscow in 1929 was perhaps the first international shortwave radio service; it was designed to extol the virtues of Communism beyond Russia. The BBC’s Empire Service (the predecessor of today’s World Service) to British colonies and French colonial broadcasting followed in 1932, as, after 1933, did Nazi Germany’s radio service. The Nazi official Josef Goebbels (1897–1945) bent the medium to promote German superiority while striking fear into the hearts of potential enemies. The United States, which had relied on private networks for international radio services in the 1930s (especially into Latin America), by 1942 formed the Voice of America, which became the official voice of the United States outside its shores.
Broadcast propaganda continued from all belligerents during World War II and expanded further during the Cold War as the Soviet Union, China, and several of their satellite states developed their shortwave radio systems and added airtime. The United States created Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty in the 1950s to broadcast into Eastern Europe and Russia, respectively. Dictators sometimes made personal use of radio: the Egyptian leader Gamal Nasser (1918–1970) used radio extensively to reach his people in the late 1950s, as did Fidel Castro (b. 1926 or 1927), who made hours-long speeches regularly after taking over Cuba in 1959. Both leaders sought to strengthen their popular domestic support, often by attacking external enemies (and especially the United States). With the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, international radio became somewhat muted, focused more on nationalistic messages and culture than on persuasion. Yet U.S. services into Cuba (Radio Marti) and the Middle East (Radio Sawa) demonstrated how international radio could still be applied to political and cultural persuasion. Cold War radio propaganda served primarily to keep true believers on both sides in line—it probably persuaded few listeners to totally change their thinking.
Radio in a World of Television
Postwar domestic radio broadcasting faced a changing media context worldwide. In the 1930s Edwin Armstrong had perfected FM technology, which largely eliminated static and offered far better sound and more predictable coverage. FM was a boon as Europe rebuilt its war-devastated radio systems, allowing more stations and diversified content. The service developed slowly into the 1950s in the United States as money was poured into new AM stations (which expanded from 900 in 1945 to 2,400 by 1952) and television. FM radio was especially valuable in tropical countries, where electrical interference often drowned out AM’s medium wave transmissions.
As commercial television expanded after 1950, however, radio soon shed much of its program variety (and, in the United States, its network service) to the newer television business. Radio became “background” to most listeners as it sought a new role— which turned out to be that of purveyor of modern popular music. “Formula” or “top-40” radio appeared in the mid-1950s in the United States as radio stations became jukeboxes for the latest musical fads, rapidfire newscasts, and a growing amount of advertising. U.S. radio DJs (disc jockeys) became media heroes to millions—and models for the European pirate stations. A growing number of listeners used easily portable transistor radios after the mid-1950s, making radio the “take it with you” medium.
Educational radio became known as public radio in the United States after 1967, with National Public Radio being founded in 1969 to connect what would become hundreds of local outlets. National Public Radio and other program syndicators provided public affairs and cultural programs that stations used along with local expression and other alternatives to commercial pop music stations. By the late 1990s, more than a thousand small community FM outlets operated, largely with volunteer staffs. In the United States, FM radio’s vastly better sound quality and programming made it more popular than AM radio by the 1980s; by the end of the century it was attracting more than 75 percent of the total U.S. audience. Music of all kinds was more likely to be heard on the growing number of FM stations (from 2,500 in 1970 to nearly 9,000 three decades later). By the 1990s, talk and news formats dominated AM stations, many of the most popular programs featuring conservative political commentators or religious broadcasters who paid for the time they used, just like advertisers. Such programs—much like international propaganda—tended to reinforce listener thinking, but probably persuaded a few to change their mind. Some political campaigns were clearly affected by such broadcasts, but evidence was divided on their long-range impact. Radio became more widely available in automobiles as well (half of all cars had an AM radio in the early 1950s; by 1990 more than 95 percent had FM capability as well)—important because of the increasing number of “drive time” (commuting) listeners.
Deregulation of radio in the United States allowed ownership of national chains of hundreds of stations run by a single entity, while one owner could own up to eight stations in the largest markets. Considerable controversy arose as to whether this harmed or aided diversity of programming, but most observers agreed that deregulation contributed to the decline of news and public affairs programming on U.S. stations. By 2010, the commercial radio business was in financial trouble as advertising revenue declined and many listeners turned to alternative (and usually portable) audio sources. On the other hand, listeners of public radio news and public affairs programs appeared to be increasing.
After about 1990, the U.S. model of commercially supported popular music radio became more widespread worldwide. Some countries adopted competing public service and commercial radio systems as early as 1974 (in Britain) and even the 1940s (in Canada). Others moved away from noncommercial systems supported by government funding to a commercially supported structure, a move driven most by the need to conserve government money.
Radio’s Digital Future
By the late 1990s, radio entered a lengthy transition from existing analogue AM and FM broadcast transmissions to digital transmissions. The latter are delivered from terrestrial stations in some countries, while in others (including the United States) satellites transmit digital radio programming on a commercial-free, subscription basis. Digital radio provides vastly superior sound quality but requires new receivers. After more than eight decades of service, sometime in the early twenty-first century analogue AM and FM radio services are likely to disappear in the face of these newer digital offerings. While changing technology will make for clearer signals, there is no evidence thus far that it will either improve or diminish radio programming diversity or quality.
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