Radio Broadcasting, History of

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No single person in the colorful history of radio can be credited with inventing radio. Radio's "inventors" almost all refined an idea put forth by someone else. Wireless communication became a theoretical proposition in 1864 when Scottish mathematician and physicist James Clerk Maxwell predicted the existence of invisible electromagnetic waves. More than twenty years later, German physicist Heinrich Hertz conducted experiments in 1887 to prove that Maxwell's theories were correct. The fundamental unit of electromagnetic wave frequency, the hertz (Hz), is named for him, though Hertz never promoted wireless communications.

Early Development of Technology

In the 1890s, four inventors simultaneously worked on wireless transmission and detection. French physicist Edouard Branly invented a signal detector called a "coherer" that consisted of a glass tube filled with metal filings that reacted when a signal was detected. English physicist Oliver Lodge worked on the principle of resonance tuning, which allowed the transmitter and receiver to operate on the same frequency. Russian Alexander Popoff developed a better coherer and a vertical-receiving antenna.

The fourth and best-known inventor-innovator was the twenty-year-old Italian Guglielmo Marconi, who began wireless experiments in 1894. Within two years, Marconi created a wireless system that was capable of sending and detecting a signal. When the Italian government showed no interest in wireless communication, Marconi's family contacts enabled him to meet investors in England. He founded British Marconi in 1897 and began marketing radio as a telegraph that required no wires to send Morse code dots and dashes. British Marconi and the U.S. subsidiary, American Marconi, dominated wireless communication for ship-to-shore and transatlantic communications until after World War I.

Canadian Reginald Fessenden created a wireless system that would transmit speech. On Christmas Eve in 1906, Fessenden broadcast programming from studios at Brant Rock, Massachusetts. An audience consisting of startled radio operators on ships at sea, newspaper reporters who had been alerted to his publicity-generating broadcast, and a small number of home experimenters heard Fessenden speak and play the violin.

After several failures and claims that he was a fraud, American Lee De Forest's radio company aired publicity-generating broadcasts, including one from the Eiffel Tower in Paris. In 1906, De Forest also took credit for creating one of the most important wireless components, the Audion—a triode vacuum tube that amplified signals and improved reception. Previously, receivers had difficulty detecting weak radio signals. Though De Forest held the patent for the Audion, historians contend that he did not fully understand what he had invented or how it worked.

Beginning in 1912, Edwin Armstrong studied the workings of the Audion and discovered the principle of regeneration. Regeneration enhanced the quality of signal amplification and produced an oscillating signal, or carrier wave, which became the founding principle behind modern radio transmitters.

Greed, the quest for glory, and, perhaps, simply the combination of many individuals focusing simultaneously on the same topic led to a series of patent lawsuits. The U.S. government halted these disputes after the United States entered World War I in 1917. During the war, as a security measure, the U.S. Navy took over the operation of all radio stations, even those owned by American Marconi, and closed most amateur and experimental stations. After the war, American Marconi attempted to return to business as usual, but opposition to a foreign company having a monopoly over wireless communications in the United States eventually led General Electric (GE) to buy a controlling interest in American Marconi in 1919. Along with co-owners Westinghouse and American Telephone & Telegraph (AT&T), GE transferred American Marconi's assets to the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which would manufacture radio receiving sets. Probably the biggest single breakthrough in receiver design came from Armstrong, who developed a tuner with better amplification and sound quality. The superheterodyne receiver was licensed in 1920 by RCA and soon went into production.

The First Wireless Regulations

After wireless was credited with averting several maritime disasters, the U.S. Congress passed the Wireless Ship Act of 1910 to regulate broadcasting. The act required ocean-going vessels with fifty or more passengers and crewmembers to carry a wireless system operated by a skilled person.

The legislation was put to the test when the Titanic sank on April 14, 1912, during its maiden voyage. More than fifteen hundred passengers and crew died. The ship Carpathia responded to distress calls from the Titanic and ultimately saved approximately seven hundred people. A closer ship, the California, did not respond because that ship's sole radio operator, after many hours on duty, was asleep when the distress messages were being sent by the radio operator on the Titanic. The freighter Lena was closer but, because of its small crew and no regular passengers, the ship was not required to be equipped with a wireless.

The sinking of the Titanic led to newspaper and magazine editorials that called for federal government control over wireless operation and practices. Wireless regulation was viewed as a public good, equal in importance to previous social and antitrust regulation. Within four months, broadcast transmission in the United States was a privilege assigned by the U.S. government. The Radio Act of 1912 required all operators to be licensed, called for all stations to adhere to frequency allocations, made distress calls priority communications, and gave the U.S. Secretary of Commerce power to issue radio licenses and make other necessary radio regulations.

Public Embrace of Radio

The name for wireless evolved along with the technology. Known first as the "wireless telegraph," it transitioned to "radiotelegraphy" and "radiotelephony" (transmission of the human voice). The term was shortened to "radio" around 1912. The word "broadcast" was borrowed from agriculture and referred to the practice of planting seeds by scattering them across a field rather than in straight rows.

Until the invention of radio, it was impossible to transmit entertainment or information simultaneously to thousands of receivers. For the listener in 1920, 1930, or 1940, radio was the only way to learn about distant places and events. Radio programming was first developed as a means of encouraging people to buy receiving equipment. Radio networks were created to supply simultaneous, live, national programming to affiliate stations that encouraged receiver sales and then advertising sales.

Just as the public rushed to use the Internet in the 1990s, the public embraced radio in the 1920s. Middle-class Americans, intrigued with scientific applications and the potential for information and entertainment, purchased radio receiving sets at an astonishing rate. Sales of radio equipment totaled $60 million in 1922, $136 million in 1923, and $358 million in 1924. Individuals and families could enjoy the newly available information and entertainment from the comfort and privacy of their homes, where receiver sets fit in nicely because manufacturers built them to look like elegant furniture.

Regulation of Radio

Station and operator licensing was intended to provide monitored growth of radio, but the U.S. government failed to realize how quickly radio would grow. By the end of 1922, 690 licenses had been assigned to stations airing entertainment and information. These stations occupied one of two frequencies, 360 meters (833 kHz) or 400 meters (750 kHz). Because multiple stations were broadcasting on the same frequency, interference occurred and caused many station signals to become inaudible.

U.S. Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover began to establish a limited number of "super-power" radio stations and to limit the hours of operation for other stations. These actions were supported by the radio manufacturers, who believed that the entire country could be covered by a handful of high-power stations. Their plan was to encourage receiver sales but to limit operational and programming expenses.

Hoover's powers to regulate radio were challenged in 1925 by Zenith Radio Corporation, the owner of a station in Chicago that had been licensed to broadcast for only two hours a week. The related federal district court ruling denied the U.S. Secretary of Commerce the power to regulate radio.

The U.S. Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927 (to create new federal authority to regulate broadcasting) and established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). The plan for the FRC, which had five commissioners to sort out the mess of the airwaves, was to reduce the number of radio stations and to favor the creation of high-power stations. The act revoked the licenses of all radio stations, including commercial stations, transoceanic stations, coastal stations, experimental stations, educational, religious, and training stations, and approximately 14,885 amateur stations—more than 18,000 transmitters in all—and started the licensing process anew.

Development of Radio Networks

AT&T started station WEAF in New York City in 1922 as part of a national "toll" broadcasting service. AT&T was the first station owner to recognize the potential of advertising sales to pay for the operation of radio. The first reported radio advertisement, for an apartment complex in New York, aired on WEAF in 1922. It cost $100.

Antitrust concerns led AT&T to sell its radio stations in 1926 to RCA, which used the stations to form the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The premiere broadcast of the network took place on November 15, 1926, when NBC aired a four-hour program from the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York. The broadcast featured singers, orchestras, and comedy teams. It also included remote broadcasts from Chicago and Kansas City. As many as twelve million people were estimated to have heard the broadcast. In less than two months, NBC was operating two networks, the Red Network and the Blue Network.

The Columbia Phonograph Broadcasting System (named for partner Columbia Phonograph Record Company) was established in 1927 and later became the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS). The Congress Cigar Company bought a controlling interest to promote its cigars. William Paley, son of the firm's founder, took over the network's operation and headed the network for more than half a century.

The Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS) began operation in 1934. The four founding stations— WGN in Chicago, WOR in New York, WLW in Cincinnati, and WXYZ in Detroit—remain on the air. The Mutual Broadcasting System ceased operation as an entity in 1999.

Much of the early network and local programming was musical. Concerts featured live and recorded classical compositions, popular dance music, jazz, and country. Radio drama developed as the complement to the musical programming. Network programming ranged from fortunetellers to gory thrillers. Commercials became more numerous and insistent in their pitch to listeners. Advertisers saw radio as an inexpensive and effective way to reach a national audience.

Golden Age of Radio Programming

Congress passed the Communications Act of 1934 to create the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to supervise wired and wireless communication and to replace the FRC. By 1935, the U.S. Department of Commerce estimated that radio broadcasts served 18.5 million families, or more than 50 million people. Approximately 60 percent of all homes in the United States had radios. The radio sets in operation in the United States comprised 43.2 percent of the world total. For the public, radio offered comforting entertainment in the aftermath of the stock market crash of 1929. Radio receiver sets were not cheap, but once purchased, they supplied free programming. The only additional cost for the owner of a radio was the time spent listening to commercials.

Serial melodramas, called "soap operas" because they were sponsored by soap companies, ran during the daytime and drew a large audience of housewives. Radio news programming in 1933 carried four speeches by newly elected President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Called "fireside chats" because of Roosevelt's informal and relaxed tone as well as the perception that he was sharing his thoughts with the public, Roosevelt's addresses created good will among the public and enabled many of his New Deal reforms to be quickly passed by the U.S. Congress.

Newspaper owners briefly tried to limit radio networks to only two five-minute newscasts to protect newspaper circulation. Eventually, newspaper owners recognized the value of owning radio stations and the stranglehold on radio news ended. During World War II, CBS reporter Edward R. Murrow reported live from London during actual bombings by the Nazis. Battlefield reports brought home sounds of war that listeners had never before heard.

The U.S. government established the Voice of America (VOA) through the Office of War Information to counter international radio broadcasts coming from Germany, Japan, and Italy. By congressional mandate, all VOA programming was transmitted by shortwave for reception by listeners outside of the United States.

The Invention of FM Radio

The prospect of creating an additional radio service, using frequency modulation (FM), was barely an issue until the late 1930s. Prior to that point, all radio transmissions had been based on amplitude modulation (AM). FM service might have died for lack of support but for the dogged determination of Armstrong, who began work to eliminate static in 1923. A decade later, Armstrong received five patents for frequency modulation. He demonstrated his invention to David Sarnoff, who was at that point president of both RCA and NBC. While Sarnoff recognized the superior sound quality of an FM broadcast, he was unwilling to back the system because RCA was developing television. FM was seen as a competitor to AM radio; it would divert scientific and government attention from television.

Armstrong did not give up. He built an experimental FM station in Alpine, New Jersey, in 1939, supplied the financing to have FM receivers built, and petitioned the FCC to create FM stations. Although the service was authorized in 1940, fewer than 400,000 receivers were in the hands of the public by the start of World War II. In contrast, twenty-nine million households could listen to AM radio at that point. After World War II, FM service might have grown had the FCC not changed the assigned frequency range. When FM was moved from 42-50 MHz to 88-108 MHz, all of the receivers that had been produced before the frequency change suddenly became obsolete.

Local Radio Develops

More than fifty million AM receivers were manufactured between 1946 and 1948. As radio set prices dropped, the multiset household developed. Radios spread from the living room to the kitchen and bedroom. The growth of television drew programming and audiences from radio, but radio survived by adopting the all-music format and shifting to a heavier emphasis on daytime listening. Radio became a local advertising medium.

One of the most popular all-music formats used by local radio stations in the 1950s was the Top 40 format. This format resulted from the independent work of four AM station owners, Todd Storz, Gordon McLendon, Gerald Bartell, and Harold Krelstein. In an attempt to develop a new approach to station programming, these four men all made substantial contributions to the development of the Top 40 format, which succeeded in creating a new identity for radio. One of the best explanations for a radio format built around forty songs came from Storz, who said he had observed people playing the same few songs over and over on the jukebox and concluded that listeners most wanted to hear hit songs over and over.

The Decline of AM Radio and the Rise of FM Radio

The Top 40 format helped reposition radio, but it also created a group of similar-sounding stations. AM stations aired similar music and jingles, played loud and lengthy sets of commercials, and generally had poor fidelity (i.e., sound quality). Attention thus shifted to FM radio during the 1960s. Besides the obvious availability of FM channels, operators began to recognize other FM benefits. FM provided day and night service, with uniform power levels and coverage areas. FM channel width meant superior audio, including stereo, and less interference.

If the Top 40 AM formula suggested playing no song longer than three minutes, the FM approach was to play an album cut that was ten-minutes long. Rock music, growing from the "flower children" and "make love not war" anti-Vietnam movements, provided much of the content for FM station programming. The music industry also encouraged the growth of FM radio. The playlists of Top 40 AM stations were tightly controlled, with few opportunities for new songs or new groups to gain on-air exposure. Many FM stations would play virtually anything, so record companies used FM radio to introduce new artists and styles of music. By 1971, nearly half of all radios sold included FM tuners. National FM listener share passed the AM listener share in the fall of 1978; 50.698 percent of the listeners were tuning to FM stations. FM radio subsequently became the de facto standard for most music-radio listeners, which caused many AM stations to shift to talk-radio formats in the 1980s.

In 1985, the FCC increased the limit on how many stations a person or company could own from seven stations to twelve stations. This number was increased to eighteen in 1992 and twenty in 1994. With the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, broadcasters were allowed to own up to eight commercial stations in large markets and as many stations nationwide as they are able to purchase. As a result of these changes, many owners of smaller stations have sold their properties to corporate groups, who have built successful station groups that dominate not only station listening but also radio advertising sales in their markets.

Radio in 2000 and Beyond

By the year 2000, approximately 85 percent of all radio listeners were tuning to FM stations. The question, however, now may be whether AM radio and possibly FM radio are simply transitional delivery technologies. Already, broadcasters are investigating (and investing in) digital terrestrial broadcasting that could eventually replace the traditional AM and FM stations. At the same time, companies are streaming audio via the Internet and offering satellite-delivered audio services.

See also:Armstrong, Edwin Howard; Broadcasting, Government Regulation of; Communications Act of 1934; Federal Communications Commission; Marconi, Guglielmo; Morse, Samuel F. B.; Murrow, Edward R.; Paley, William S.; Radio Broadcasting; Radio Broadcasting, Careers in; Radio Broadcasting, Station Programming and; Radio Broadcasting, Technology of; Sarnoff, David;Telecommunications Act of 1996; Television, History of.


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Greg Pitts