Occasionally I like to think of myself as a bit of an anachronism. My interest in radio is one of the aspects of my character which I have considered as anomalous among my peers. This is not at all because I do not believe radio has played a role in their lives, but rather because I believe it has played an enormous, perhaps even overly large, role in mine.
Radio serves not only as a means of entertainment for me, it also serves to inform and even as a form of catharsis. I listen to regular FM radio, Sirius radio on the rare occasions I can, online streaming, and National Public Radio. I work at a radio station performing multiple functions as a music director, webmaster, and disc jockey. Without a doubt, radio is important to me. Despite its importance in my life, I have always acknowledged that with most of the people I speak with on a daily basis, it serves as nothing more than another form of entertainment.
That was how I felt prior to going to London. While in London listening to the journalists, it seemed as though so many of them stated radio as a primary source for their news information. Statements like this make an impression on me. After hearing it the first time, I began to listen for more people commenting on their use of the radio as an informational outlet. Sure enough, they were there, hiding among the journos and the tube passengers. Curiosity got the best of me, and I decided to explore the differences between radio usage and technology in the United States and Great Britain. In order to begin to understand the relationship between these technologies and the two countries, one must first comprehend the complex history of radio.
Who invented the radio?
Surprisingly, the history of radio is rather convoluted. Several people can stake a claim on its invention and have substantial evidence that they, in fact, did invent it. In 1895, the American inventor Nikola Tesla was preparing to send radio signals from New York City to West Point, New York (a distance of approximately fifty miles) when a fire struck his lab, leaving his work as nothing more than ashes (PBS). About a year later, the British inventor Guglielmo Marconi was granted the first wireless telegraphy patent in England. It was not until four years later in 1900 that Tesla was granted a U.S. patent on radio (PBS).
At the time, America turned down proposals for patents from Marconi out of the desire to support its own inventor. But, money does what money does, and as the Marconi Wireless Telegraph Company started climbing the stock market, America started changing its mind. Thomas Edison and Andrew Carnegie invested in Marconi’s invention and in 1901, Marconi sent and received signals across the Atlantic Ocean. In 1904, the U.S. gave Marconi the patent for the invention of the radio. It was not until 1943 that the U.S. Supreme Court upheld Tesla’s patent. Unfortunately, Tesla did not live to see this success. He died a few months prior to the Supreme Court’s decision (PBS).
While Tesla and Marconi represent the United States and England, respectively, and are generally those who are credited with inventing the radio, Russia’s Alexander Popov also deserved some credit. In fact, in 1895 Popov sent a signal wirelessly over 600 miles. Ironically, he had been struggling to harness the coherer (a key instrument in the invention of the radio) to predict thunderstorms. In 1897, he set up a land station in Kronstadt to allow a Russian navy cruiser wireless communication. Unlike Tesla and Marconi, though, Popov had no interest in the fame and fortune allotted to the invention, so he did not argue for the patent. To this day, Russia celebrates Popov as the inventor of the radio (FECHA).
Evolution of radio technology and usage
Since the convoluted invention of radio, its evolution has been fast and steady. The varied ways in which it has been used follow a track very similar to that of the Internet. As mentioned, Popov’s first usage of radio was to equip ships with it. This is how radio first gained popularity. By 1912, radio transmitters could be found on all major passenger liners. This allowed the ships not only to keep in touch with one another, but also to communicate with shore stations. One of the main uses of the radio at this point was to alleviate the total isolation of ships in emergencies. In other words, if a ship were sinking, the radio communication would permit them to contact a shore station which, in turn, could contact another ship to rescue passengers, or for the ship to directly contact other passenger ships (Early Radio History).
The capabilities of radio to raise revenue were not embraced until 1901 when high priced stocks were available. This was only the beginning. When World War I occurred, radio was placed under the control of the government. The command of commercial stations passed hands from the government to RCA to Westinghouse over the course of the next few years, and by 1922, broadcasting was the big movement in radio. As broadcasting grew, the government found it necessary to shut down amateur broadcasts. In 1921 the Department of Commerce restricted broadcasts to only those stations approved by them (Early Radio History).
This was the beginning of the entertainment realm of broadcasting. The programming was wide and varied. From programs for children with the Man in the Moon, to music broadcasts and other live shows, the public embraced radio. Obviously, where entertainment comes in, so does commercialism. Businesses took advantage of the popularity of radio programming to form new sectors specializing in the sale of radio equipment. At about the same time, other businesses took to sponsoring specific programs. The symbiotic relationship between businesses and the radio has existed ever since. Businesses willing to sponsor a program could increase their popularity. Turn on the radio today and you will discover a similar relationship between businesses advertising during a favorite music broadcast (Early Radio History).
Skipping ahead into the future a few years, in 1933 broadcasting and radio listenership led to the creation of FM radio. Edwin Howard Armstrong had an interest in static-free radio. In Armstrong’s conception, radio should be more than simply static-free, though, it should “carry the full frequency range of sound that is perceptible to the human ear” (Columbia University).
Current radio technology
For quite awhile radio stagnated with AM and FM radio. The programming changed from formats which promoted live entertainment and use of imagination to purely music and talk programs. It was not until the twenty-first century that the technology of radio made another huge leap. Digital radio is the new wave. With the use of digital radio, everything can be stored and edited on a computer, eliminating the use of analog devices (California Historical Radio Society).
While not necessarily a purely radio technology, one also has to take into account the use of the Internet with things which were originally considered radio programming. The streaming of online music has become increasingly popular. While this technology originally started out with just streaming a couple of songs from a band’s website, now radio stations are taking advantage of the movement to allow full streaming of their programming. It is predicted that in the future, radio will simply be hosted through the Internet, granting anyone with the right technology the title of disc jockey (Historical Text Archive).
The United States
One can see that even in the mixed up history of radio, a link existed between the United States and Britain. While the link use to be one of competition, it is now one of similarity. Radio technology and usage in the two nations is incredibly similar.
Upon an examination of the United States, Harris Interactive discovered that about 37% of Americans listen to talk radio for their news. On top of this, about 19% listen to satellite news programs (All Business). For want of major differences between satellite news programs and talk radio (considering Sirius Radio is considered a satellite program provider), these may be considered one in the same. The current data for this radio usage is from January, 2006 and is based on a survey with 2,985 participants. The main group using the radio is the baby boomers. Generation Xers and echo boomers are said to have varied usage for media when collecting news, and so it may be assumed that a small percentage of them use radio (All Business).
Besides the use of FM radio and satellite radio, online streaming usage is on the rise. Online radio listenership has increased by 27% over the course of the past year. The main stations benefiting from this increase include Clear Channel Online and Yahoo! LAUNCHcast. AOL Radio, while maintaining a high hit rate, has actually lost listeners, with a traffic decrease of 54% over the last year. Those who use online streaming tend to fall within the 35-44 age group (about 22% more likely to visit these sites than the average internet user). Second are 18-34 and 45-54 (about 12% more likely to visit the sites). Online streaming traffic hits its peaks during the workday with 27% increased likelihood of people to log on to the streaming sites, and about 8% of an increased likelihood for early morning hours (iMedia Connection).
National Public Radio
It is certainly no wonder that online streaming is gaining so many listeners considering how specialized it can be. One example is National Public Radio. This nonprofit organization offers hourly newscasts and a combination of other programs, ranging from talk shows to politics, to entertainment. All of this is offered through streaming. Not only does it offer streaming, but it also offers podcasts, which are becoming an increasingly popular radio substitute (NPR).
Americans use the radio for a variety of things, from entertainment to newscasts. The largest amount of listeners tune in to FM radio, satellite radio, or online streaming. England has a similar listenership.
Tracking Radio Listeners
London is considered the area with the highest number of radio listeners in England. Within the vicinity of London alone, there are approximately 36 different FM stations (radiostations.co.uk/, London Radio Stations). The British Broadcasting Company collects data on radio listenership using a RAJAR, which is a diary that works in a similar manner to our Neilsen Ratings. Rather than being a full written diary, however, this has tick box questions based on all of the various forms of media. A card lifts out of the cover and listeners are asked to place the stickers of the stations they have listened to within the past year. These diaries are distributed and collected about once every three months. These readings help stations to understand the demographics they are reaching (BBC).
Digital radio listening is on the up in England. It captures about 18.6% of the adult population. Digital radio is a broader term than satellite radio encompassing all forms of radio which are sent as a digital medium. Satellite radio is only a subcategory of digital radio (BBC News).
Streaming radio in Britain, like the NPR in the United States, runs the gauntlet of programming. One may find music, entertainment, sports, and news. Sports broadcasts are particularly encompassing, covering everything from croquet to rugby (BNET).
Stretching beyond the boundaries of FM, satellite and streaming radio, the UK has a significantly strong underground radio scene. Pirate radio consists of stations operating without licensing. To put it simply, they steal the airwaves. Currently, there are at least 45 pirate radio stations in operation at any given time throughout the UK (Garage Music).
The United States versus England
The key divergence between the two lies in a minor aspect of radio usage. In the United States pirate radio information is either incredibly difficult to find or pirate radio is simply not as prominent. Within the United Kingdoms, however, pirate radio is a burgeoning industry complete with listeners’ guides even though it is still considered illegal.
Marconi and Tesla may have caused tines in the fork of the invention of radio, but since that time the competition between the United States and England for radio has come to an end. Once it did, the evolution of the technology occurred in a similar manner. Both countries used the radio for military purposes, and eventually for commercial purposes. As time continued even further, both countries evolved beyond AM radio to FM and now digital and streaming. Usage of the technology is roughly the same. While England and America may differ on other circumstances, the concept of a global village truly shines through in relation to radio, again supporting the adage that music brings us together.
California Historical Radio Society--http://www.californiahistoricalradio.com/100years.html
Early Radio History--http://earlyradiohistory.us
Historical Text Archive--http://www.historicaltextarchive.com/s/streaming-music.php
London Radio Stations--http://www.londonradiostations.co.uk/