A traditional radio network consists of a series of radio broadcasting stations connected in some way (typically by broadcast, landline, microwave, or satellite) so that each of the stations can carry the same programs or advertisements. Often, the stations will carry the programs simultaneously, but under some circumstances (e.g., stations in differing time zones), a program or set of programs may be delayed for a given length of time. In both cases, the network serves to extend the audience beyond that which would have been available without the network. The linkage between stations may take the form of very different stations linked for the convenience of sharing particular content, or may take the form of one primary station linked to multiple “repeater” stations in which the repeater simply rebroadcasts whatever it receives from the primary station. More recently, with the advent of satellite channels and the Internet, the radio network label has been applied to describe any audio service involving a large number of receivers, rather than stations, although it is questionable whether a system involving only one transmission device should be considered a network.
The idea of program origination in one location and an audience for the program in other locations is somewhat older than radio itself, having been demonstrated with the telephone during the 1880s and 1890s. In Budapest, brothers Antoine and Francois Puskas linked telephone subscribers to a commercial service offering news and entertainment for about 40 years, beginning in 1893 (Sterling & Kittross 1978, 39). While the Puskas’s service might be more similar to radio broadcasting than radio network broadcasting, experiments in the US in 1885 engaged audiences for music programs in two different locations (New York Times 1885), and by 1890 several cities were connected for telephone transmissions of musical and comedy entertainment. By this time, college boat races had already been “transmitted” to two different audiences 400 miles apart, and predictions were being made that all major cities east of the Mississippi river would soon be joined by telephone entertainment, with various channels available at “the push of a button” (New York Times 1890). In 1909, Lee DeForest included a simultaneous radio/telephone broadcast experiment in which 21 mayors in their own cities talked into the telephones in their offices, engaging in a discussion that was broadcast via radio-waves to all the cities, so that each mayor could hear all the others (Chicago Daily Tribune 1909).
Development Of Radio Networks
Experiments with radio networking began during the early 1920s. By the mid-1920s, permanent radio networks had been established in the United Kingdom, the US, and a number of other countries. One of the earliest radio networks was the British Broadcasting Company, later the British Broadcasting Corporation. In 1922, the Post Office was charged with organizing broadcasting in such a way as to avoid the chaos that had ensued in the US, where inventors, manufacturers, and audiences were all dealing with a “frontier” situation in which, with radio’s rapid development, no one was certain how it could be used to make money, or how it should be regulated. F. J. Brown of the Post Office visited the US prior to beginning work on British broadcasting policy in order to learn from what had happened there (Briggs 1995). British manufacturers and the public were eager for regular radio broadcasting. Marconi had moved to England soon after his demonstration of wireless telegraphy, where his presence helped to spur on other inventors and entrepreneurs. By 1922, the Post Office had licensed some experimental stations (2LO and 2MT), and later the same year the BBC.
Formed in October 1922 by a group of wireless manufacturers (including Marconi), the BBC began broadcasting from Marconi’s London studio on November 14. Broadcasts from Birmingham and Manchester soon followed. Within three years, the BBC could be heard nearly everywhere in the UK. The group of manufacturers who began the BBC saw broadcasting as a commercial enterprise, a stimulus for the sale of radio receivers. A major influence on the growth of the philosophy of regulation of the BBC, and of radio networks in the country, was John Reith, who envisaged the BBC as an independent broadcasting system broadcasting information and entertainment for the public good, free from political or commercial pressure. This tension between the use of the spectrum for the public good and for commercial enterprise became one of the major points of debate in most countries, and has been resolved in many different ways.
In the United States, where privately owned experimental stations had been broadcasting, sporadic hook-ups between stations occurred occasionally during the early 1920s, much like the telephone experiments of the 1890s. For security reasons, amateur stations had been shut down during World War I, and the US Navy had requisitioned Marconi’s and other foreign radio investments in the US. As a result, the US Navy developed the world’s most powerful transmitter and created a patents pool of radio technology from which its suppliers could freely draw for the duration of the war.
General Electric (GE) and American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T) were heavily involved in radio from an early period, and during the war served as suppliers for the Navy. This appropriation of patents and technologies allowed a number of technological advances and standardization to occur. After the war, GE was able to use its influence to help control which patents were being released by the Navy so that a certain level of standardization could be achieved. Along with these developments, British Marconi was able to join with other companies in the formation of Radio Corporation of America (RCA; Balk 2006).
In 1920, the US Navy had transferred the Marconi stations it had confiscated to RCA. With RCA’s collection of stations, a radio network was probably inevitable. There was no generally accepted means of radio support – toll stations, taxes on receivers, or simple funding through set sales were all considered. Additionally, producing programs for many stations proved to be a monumental and costly task. In 1925, plans began for a “broadcasting service association” for stations, and by 1926 the National Broadcasting Company was formed, advertised as “Radio for 26,000,000 homes” (Balk 2006). The first broadcast in late November linked 25 stations. Within two months, a second NBC network, the “Blue” network debuted. In 1927, the Columbia Broadcasting Company (later Columbia Broadcasting System) began operations as a third major network in the US. Although a series of stations formed an educational radio network in the 1930s, it was not until the late 1960s that a truly public (noncommercial) radio network, National Public Radio (NPR), was formed in the US.
Development of radio networks around the world tended to follow a pattern similar to that in the UK (broadcasting as a government-sanctioned public good) or in the US (broadcasting as a commercial enterprise), although elements of both traditions appear in all countries. Egypt, for example, included early experimentation similar to that in the US, but opted for a system heavily influenced by the BBC. In 1932, the Egyptian government employed the British Marconi Company to provide a noncommercial radio service for Egypt (Boyd 1999). In smaller countries, an international audience is often obtained with a powerful radio station rather than through a network. Czech Radio began broadcasting in 1923, and continues today in multiple regional stations as well as Internet locations. Radio Prague, the international component of Czech Radio, began as a station in 1936, and is considered more like a network today because of the array of content it produces in association with stations in other countries (e.g., Croatia, Romania, Australia, and the US), and the extent of offerings in multiple languages via broadcast and over the Internet.
Golden Age Of Radio Networks And After
The motivation behind radio networks is to bring content to audiences that are separated by distance. For most large countries, network radio broadcasting is needed for full Radio Networks geographic coverage, so network broadcasting of some sort became important in providing news, education, and entertainment for the country. In hindsight, network radio broadcasting before the diffusion of television forms a kind of golden age for network broadcasting. In a pre-television era, network news, drama, comedy, and music provide access to information and talent undreamed of before radio’s diffusion. Typically, television takes over many of the news and entertainment functions for most people and provides the added visual dimension, that forces changes in network radio content, whether the network is commercial or noncommercial.
In the television era, radio networks must adapt by finding which particular niches it fills better than television. This may be in terms of geography or content. For example, radio networks may have access to audiences in places where it is difficult to receive television signals, such as remote villages or islands or in places where terrain blocks television signals. In the South Pacific, Radio Polynesia links a number of radio stations through FM and shortwave broadcasting to pool resources to provide a radio network in which the stations are separated by hundreds of miles and different forms of government.
In regard to content niches, radio networks provide all-news programming, religious programming, or other specialized programming geared for particular uses, such as background music in stores or other businesses. In addition, because the bulk of the audience has shifted to television in many countries, highly specialized programming (right or left of the political spectrum, for example) can be successful for certain radio networks. In the US, certain ad hoc networks sometimes form around groups of stations reaching particular audiences, providing advertisers with access to those people in a way that could not be easily achieved through advertising on hundreds of local stations around the country.
Satellite radio broadcasting also provides a challenge to network broadcasting. Satellite broadcasting may not be a true network, but it offers the listener the same kind of experience: the same content wherever he or she may go within the country. Geographically large countries, such as the US and Canada, offer opportunities for satellite radio to have many of the same functions as network radio in the golden age. At the turn of the twenty-first century Sirius and XM satellite radio competed in the US and Canada, although a merger of the two was announced in early 2007. The difference between satellite radio and network radio broadcasting is that network broadcasting is typically thought of as involving a number of local stations, each broadcasting within its own area, and in that way much of the country is covered, while with satellite radio, a few satellites (two or more, depending on the size of the country) cover a huge geographic area, so that the entire country is covered, also offering many different channels. A satellite radio service may be thought of as providing the content of 100 (or more) content-specialized radio networks. In an interesting turn of events, satellite radio in the US, where commercial broadcasting is perhaps at its most commercial, satellite radio is primarily financed by subscription.
In the UK and countries where the population tends to be more densely packed, there is less need for satellite radio networks. Instead, much of the current focus in radio is on achieving higher quality through digital broadcasting or high definition radio. Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB) has also taken hold in southern parts of Canada, where the population is also relatively dense. With traditional radio broadcasting, reflections occur from buildings or natural terrain which tend to interfere with clear reception of signals. With digital audio broadcasting, the reflections are used in selection of the strongest signal at any given time, and competing signals are rejected.
The introduction of digital programming (as opposed to digital broadcasting) has signaled the arrival of a different kind of network as well, with some local stations serving almost as repeater transmitters from a centralized programmer, yet each projecting a unique identity within its base community.
The Internet has seen the arrival of still more types of audio providers who classify themselves as radio networks, although they are more like a station with multiple types of content at the same time. The “network” designation undoubtedly comes from the practice of satellite television services that began referring to themselves as networks in the 1980s, because they covered large geographic areas either through direct broadcasting from satellite or through distribution over cable television.
What began as experimental services designed to provide the same content to audiences separated over distances has evolved during the last century, and continues to evolve today. In current terminology, a radio network refers as easily to an audio service with wide geographic coverage as much as it does to interconnected stations sharing content. Although radio networks in many parts of the world continue their traditional structure and role in disseminating information, educational materials, and entertainment, recent developments in the area of digital broadcasting and multiple audio formats delivered via the Internet insure that radio networks will continue to evolve.
- Balk, A. (2006). The rise of radio. Jefferson, NC: McFarland.
- Boyd, D. A. (1999). Broadcasting in the Arab world. Ames: Iowa State University Press.
- Briggs, A. (1995). The birth of broadcasting. New York: Oxford University Press.
- Chicago Daily Tribune (1909). Unique talkfest of the mayors of twenty-one cities through the new wireless telephone. Chicago Daily Tribune, January 3, p. D1.
- New York Times (1885). A telephone concert. New York Times, January 30, p. 2.
- New York Times (1890). Music over the wires. New York Times, October 9, p. 3.
- Sterling, C. H., & Kittross, J. M. (1978). Stay tuned: A concise history of American broadcasting. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth.