The history of radio technology can be divided chronologically into four main eras: experimentation with basic equipment between the 1890s and 1920s; broadcasting to mass audiences using established processes between the 1930s and 1950s; adjustment to the arrival of television from the 1950s; and, finally, the emergence of digital radio technology from the late 1980s.
This history can also be viewed thematically, by distinguishing between developments in the capture and manipulation of sound by program-makers, the transmission of those sounds across the ether, and the ways they have been heard by listeners. What unites each era and each theme is a recurring tension between the push for technological improvement – such as a desire to attain higher fidelity sound – and an equally powerful determination among producers and listeners to maintain radio’s status as cheap, easy to operate, and instantly accessible. Another perennial tension is between the centripetal and centrifugal forces that technology unleashed on the medium.
The origins of “wireless” are complex. Though Gugliemo Marconi (1871–1937) is popularly credited with being its founding father, most academic authors stress the medium’s emergence through a broad front of inventive acts in electrical science during the second half of the nineteenth century. The British scientist James Clerk Maxwell and the German scientist Heinrich Hertz, for instance, had first theorized, and then verified, the existence of electromagnetic waves by the 1880s. It was another British scientist, Oliver Lodge, who had developed a “coherer” able to “syntonize” sending and receiving equipment to the same electromagnetic frequency – and demonstrated a Morse code signal being transmitted by precisely this means across a distance of some 55 meters by 1894. Alexander Popov in Russia, Augusto Righi in Italy, Edouard Branley in France, and Roberto Landell de Moura in Brazil, all worked along much the same lines at the time.
Marconi’s achievement was thus not to have “invented” radio but to have seen its commercial potential as a signaling system – for merchant shipping, say, or the armed forces – and then to have shown, by sending the letter S across the Atlantic in 1901, just how far a signal could travel when transmitted from tall masts and refracted from the ionosphere to a point over the horizon. It was also Marconi who seized the initiative internationally by claiming general-purpose patent rights in 1896.
This was wireless telegraphy, however, not wireless telephony. Conveying more than a series of dots and dashes required the electromagnetic signal to be “modulated” as a continuous wave – something achieved by the Danish scientist Valdemar Poulsen in 1902, and then demonstrated more sensationally in 1906 by the Canadian Reginald Fessenden when he transmitted voices and music across a wide stretch of the Massachusetts coastline. It was this event that effectively marked the beginnings of radio as a means of mass communication, since it broke with Marconi’s limited conception of the technology as a means of private, one-to-one contact, and hinted at David Sarnoff’s later, and much quoted, vision of a “music box” available in every home providing entertainment and information to the public: a vision that turned the perceived fault in wireless transmission – that it traveled in all directions so that anybody with receiving equipment could listen – into its prime virtue.
What made this feasible technically – and created the potential for a general audience – was a second wave of invention that radically amplified the rather weak signals hitherto achieved: Ambrose Fleming’s adaptation of Edison’s light-bulb into a “diode” valve in 1904; Lee De Forest’s addition of a third valve, the “audion,” in 1906; the creation of simple receiving sets that drew on the electrical properties of crystals – as tested by the German scientist Karl Braun – to “tune” into signals of differing wavelengths; and, by the mid-1920s, the manufacture of “dynamic” loudspeakers that allowed headphones to be discarded in favor of communal listening.
The Domestication Of Radio
Radio’s experimental period therefore ended with its domestication. Simple crystal kits, or unwieldy receivers lashed to a spaghetti of unsightly batteries and aerials, steadily evolved into more aesthetically pleasing – and more effective – valve sets, tastefully wrapped in wood or Bakelite, relatively easy to tune and to run off a mains electricity supply, each occupying pride of place in the living rooms of suburban Europe and America. The period also ended with enforced reductions in the number of those actually broadcasting. As more and more private operators had appeared – there were some 150 in Britain and at least 500 in the United States by 1921 – national regulators and commercial interests asserted the need for interference to be minimized. The drive to create centralized monopolies such as the BBC, commercial cartels such as the Radio Corporation of America, and a panoply of national and international regulatory bodies: all this had many underlying social and political causes. But, at another level, it was a response to the perceived dangers of chaos in the ether, at a time when transmitters were crude and scientific understanding of the effect of atmospheric conditions on electromagnetic waves was barely developed.
The underlying technology of radio was firmly established by the beginning of the 1930s. Yet the fact that regular broadcasting emerged only two decades after the start of wireless communication meant techniques of program-making were still evolving. Mixers, for example, appeared only in the late 1920s. The number of microphones in each studio increased thereafter, creating more “perspective” in dramatic or musical performances. By the 1930s, the BBC was using the dramatic control panel, a kind of mixing desk linking several studios at once and allowing producers to assemble baroque, multilayered programs encompassing recitals, orchestral music, and narration in complex forms – to the evident bafflement of many listeners. Other technology pointed radio in the direction of greater intimacy. More sensitive microphones, for instance, allowed for a less declamatory style of speech – and, as Chanan (1995) has shown, played a part in encouraging a sensual, “crooning” style of singing, as heard on American radio in the songs of Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby.
Early Recording Techniques
The biggest challenge was in finding a convenient means of recording. Within the BBC, three very different types of machine were employed in the 1930s: the Blattnerphone, and its successor the Marconi–Stille system, which impressed signals in magnetic form on steel wire or steel tape; the Philips–Miller system, which used film track; and a machine that recorded directly onto wax discs. None was ideal: material was bulky or expensive, and processing was slow. Steel tape, for instance, could be edited only by the laborious welding of joints.
Nevertheless, by 1940 the Corporation was using some 40 static disc recorders. And for those wishing to record on location, machines were by now regularly carried on large vans. War acted as a major spur to miniaturization, since there was huge demand for reports from the front line. The BBC developed a “Type-C” recorder mounted on ambulances and, from 1943, the “midget,” equipped with double-sided discs allowing nearly three minutes’ recording each side and weighing only 16 kilograms. German engineers, however, had already succeeded in producing an even lighter magnetic tape recorder, which made recordings infinitely easier to edit. When the Allies overwhelmed Nazi forces in 1945, some of these portable Tonschreibers were seized, and subsequently remodelled by British and American firms. Within a decade, most recording was done on magnetic tape. The medium was becoming ever more mobile and fleet of foot in its production capacity.
Responses To Television
By now, of course, there was television, and radio had to carve out a new role for itself. Miniaturization and portability was one means of insuring its continued pre-eminence, since television struggled to report distant events smoothly and cheaply without a great deal of advanced planning: radio was still the more instant of the two media. It also had a reservoir of experience built up over decades. The BBC’s first outside broadcast for radio had been in 1923; in 1939 it was doing some 5,000 a year. By World War II, the ad hoc use of telephone lines for “hook-ups” had been replaced by the permanent leasing of higher-specification cables, so that program material could be distributed easily and quickly from one part of a country to another; mobile transmitters had also been deployed.
Two other technical responses to television came in the form of VHF – which used frequency modulation (FM), as opposed to the amplitude modulation (AM) of medium wave and long wave – and stereophony. Together, they offered vastly improved sound quality. Both technologies were prewar in origin, but took root from the late 1950s. VHF/ FM was largely static-free; stereo allowed producers to create a “sound stage,” overlap dialogue, create movement. The combined effect was to offer listeners a greater degree of clarity and naturalism, in much the same way that color made television images more vivid. Studios, equipped with multi-track recorders and effects units, became the site of experimentation in the new art of “radiophonics.” Among European public service broadcasters, there was even talk in the 1970s of radio creating a form of “sound cinema.”
In the US, stereo and FM had more influence in music radio, where it offered an alternative to an increasingly over-formatted AM sector. It was on FM that aficionados appreciated the complex, layered, rock albums of the period, and where a counterculture seeking heightened sensory experiences briefly thrived. For the radio establishment, however, FM’s overriding advantage was more prosaic: because its signals were highly localized, it multiplied dramatically the number of stations that could be squeezed onto the air. In the US, especially, radio now became more localized than it had been since the early 1920s. The number of formats and markets proliferated, and, as they did so, radio shifted from being a mass, “national” medium to one predominantly serving a range of niche audiences, defined by locality, age, or musical taste. An important dimension to this fragmentation in listening was the widespread adoption of battery-powered, portable transistor radios. The technology, unveiled in 1947, drew on a science of semiconductors more than half a century old, and subsequently took another decade to become commercially viable. By the 1960s, however, its impact appeared irreversible. Though radio was displaced from the living room, it had found a multitude of new homes: the kitchen, the bedroom, cars, and even, by the 1980s, in one’s pocket as a kind of “personal hi-fi.” Television captured the family audience, but portability and cheapness made radio far more ubiquitous, especially in the developing world. In the west, the transistor also helped radio to forge a close association with teenage culture and all its musical subgenres. Technology was applied to the cause of “consumer choice,” and narrowcasting took over from broadcasting.
In one sense, digitization simply accelerates these trends. Digital recording and transmission, first employed systematically by European broadcasters in the mid-1990s, provides even higher fidelity sound than anything captured on tape and aired on FM.
Since binary code also allows more data to be compressed into the broadcasting spectrum, it multiplies again the number of stations that can take to the air. On the Internet, meanwhile, streaming enables new operators to reach small but global audiences, and podcasting pushes radio further in the direction of personalized listening.
As in the past, however, new technology has a paradoxical influence. Authors such as Douglas (1999) rightly acknowledge radio’s continued “technical insurgency”: its protean ability – via the “radio hams” of the 1920s, the pirates of the 1980s, and the bedroom deejays of the Internet age – to be an alternative medium, to evade full rationalization by corporate interests. Others suggest that ever since stations first hooked up to each other via phone lines in the 1920s, “networking” – whether analogue or digital – has created an increasingly professionalized, standardized industry. The current pervasiveness of technology capable of delivering centrally produced programs to every station owned by a single chain, and of “automated” play-out systems that replace human beings in each studio, hints at a rather more mechanized, impersonal future, where the “infinite” choice offered by “unique” formats is largely illusory.
- Chanan, M. (1995). Repeated takes. London: Verso.
- Douglas, S. (1999). Listening in: Radio and the American imagination. New York: Times Books.
- Hendy, D. (2000). Radio in the global age. Cambridge: Polity.
- Pawley, E. (1972). BBC engineering 1922–1972. London: BBC.
- Winston, B. (1998). Media technology and society: A history. London: Routledge.