Making (FM) Waves: How Radio Changed the World

Picture of By Hahae Son

By Hahae Son

[mks_dropcap style=”letter” size=”48″ bg_color=”#ffffff” txt_color=”#000000″]H[/mks_dropcap]ow are we are able to laugh along with radio show hosts, sing along to oldies, and listen in sober silence as traffic news announces yet another car accident along the highway? This is thanks to the development of modern radios from Edwin H. Armstrong’s discovery of frequency modulation (FM) waves in 1933. Almost wherever one travels, radio waves can be captured. It is possible to experiment with the automatic station finding function on any device with an FM tuner, and explore the character of each locality through its unique broadcast culture.

The birth of broadcast
Radio was disruptive, to say the least. Media industries were drastically transformed, particularly the newspaper, telecommunication and other information industries. Before radio, the dispersal of news required time. It would take days for newspaper printing presses to complete the stages of news compilation, lithography, impression, and distribution. Only with the completion of these stages, information was disseminated, informing the public at large.

However, with radio, information could be relayed instantly to listeners. In the aftermath of Pearl Harbour, the declaration of the war on Japan was announced in real time by Franklin D. Roosevelt on December 8, 1941. It was broadcast to approximately 60 million Americans tuning in on the “wireless”, as it was popularly known back then. Radio made the world smaller, gathering family and friends in the living room to listen to war updates. In 1919, the Radio Corporation of America was formed by General Electric, and with it, the birth of mass media corporations.

Radio broadcast not only news, but also entertainment. Instead of reading the newspaper for the latest updates, citizens began to use their ears to learn. The American newspaper industry panicked as they recognized “the economic threat posed by radio’s increased advertising revenue, some newspapers began reducing the amount of special coverage they gave radio and removed sponsors names from program listings”. However, radios became a household consumer product. In the United States today, there are two radios in existence for every American citizen. Radio’s invention truly birthed the word “broadcast”, meaning communication of messages to mass audiences.

Telecommunication saves lives
Before radio, important information was mostly sent through the official post. However, Morse code, one of the earliest forms of long-distance communication, was transmitted through rudimentary radio technology in the early 1900’s. A crucial beneficiary of this technology was none other than the RMS Titanic. While the ship sank, radio operators Jack Phillips and Harold Bride were able to broadcast an emergency signal to anyone who possessed the technology to pick up on the waves of the sinking ship’s distress calls. Fortunately, surrounding ships were able to receive these desperate messages, saving 706 of the 2208 passengers, who would have perished if not for radio technology.

Later on, the further development of radio allowed for voice communication. The advancement of radio sparked the world’s first transatlantic communication, which was at once acquired and utilized by the United States Navy. FM radio technology is widely credited with speeding along messages, helping the Allied forces win World War 2 over the technologically inferior Axis powers. Radio also gave rise to the walkie-talkie, a two-way communications system that was of great aid from World War 2 until the present, commonly found in police and military units to communicate when instant communication is required. Lower grade walkie-talkies were also developed as a novelty for children, allowing them to communicate from room to room.

World’s first broadcasting station!

The Netherlands holds a special place in the heart of radio’s history. The world’s first ever radio station broadcast from Den Haag, run by the Dutch engineer and radio pioneer Hanso Idzerda. Queen Wilhelmina was present at the 1919 Utrecht jaarbeurs (trade market) at which Idzerda first demonstrated radio broadcasting technology that was able to traverse a distance of 1200 meters. Idzerda went on to organize the first public Dutch radio broadcast in November of the same year. Unfortunately, he also had a penchant for militarily provocative actions. During the First World War, he used his technology to locate radio stations and German zeppelins. Years later, he was ultimately executed for resistance work during the Nazi occupation. In his commemoration, the VPRO radio programme Instituut Idzerda was named after him.

Convenience is king
Although the heyday of radio is a distant past, it is still used lucratively today by people for people in local and public broadcasting. In the past few years, podcasts have taken the places of our beloved radios. One can postulate that this phenomenon stems from the same reason that Netflix has been able to reach unprecedented levels of market occupancy. We have become complacent, yet busier than ever before. No longer are we willing to wait in anticipation for the clock to hit 10 pm, so we can tune in to a particular show. For better or worse, convenience has become the order of the day.


Photo by Eric Nopanen on Unsplash /Final editor: Erica Boyce

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