Commenting on the late 19th century experimentation on electro-magnetic waves, William Crookes wrote in 1892, “‘Here is unfolded to us a new and astonishing world, one which is hard to conceive should contain no possibilities of transmitting and receiving intelligence.’” (Maclaurin 21) Crooke’s quote is a gross understatement; the world opened up by communication over electro-magnetic waves–the world of radio–was larger and more saturated with information than he could have possibly conceived. Radio allowed for man to hear events on the opposite end of the globe as they happened; his ear now covered all of the earth. The effects of this were striking. Furthermore, radio turned out to be malleable, ensuring it a healthy life span. Radio could easily overpower other media or absorb them; or, when facing a threat, radio could play the chameleon and change its color in order to survive.
Guglielmo Marconi, in 1901, succeeded in wireless transmission of morse code between Britain and Canada (Maclaurin 36) and had soon after won contracts to provide ships with wireless communication technology. (Maclaurin 37) On Christmas Eve, 1906, ship radio operators were startled to hear a human voice over their radios. It was the voice of Dr. Reginald Fessenden, who broadcast a primitive radio program including speaking and music. (Gordon and Falk 40) This historical first audio broadcast caused little stir; it was heard only by maritime radio operators, personal receivers being extremely rare, if not nonexistent. In the period after World War I, a Westinghouse engineer named Dr. Frank Conrad began to use a radio transmitter in a shed behind his house in Wilkinsburg, PA to broadcast programs in which he played records or invited friends to perform. Interest in Conrad’s programs was coupled with a sudden influx of cheap radio receivers. By 1920, Westinghouse offered Conrad a studio in their East Pittsburgh plant, and he began to broadcast under the call letters KDKA, making him the first professional radio broadcaster (although this distinction is infrequently given to WWJ in Detroit). (Gordon and Falk 44) From this point on the popularity and indispensability of radio were ratified and, until the spread of the television, radio became the mass media in the west, a torch previously carried by the newspaper.
It is necessary to pause here to note that the term “radio” is rather broad–radio waves are used for all kinds of communication, from television broadcasts to communication between airplanes. Thus, a definition of radio will be needed to delimit the following inquiry. Radio, in the following essay will refer to the broadcast over radio waves of an audio transmission with little or no reciprocal communication from the listener to the broadcaster, this is radio in the mass media sense of the word. Thus television and two-way radio, such as police radio, are excluded, but all public access broadcasts over the AM, FM, or shortwave bands are included.
From the 1920s until the invention of television, radio was at its peak as a culturally-relevant medium. It was during this period that radio had a truly unique niche as a form of mass entertainment and a source of breaking news. Radio was able to bring comedy and drama into the home of a listener like no medium before it. Also, early broadcasts of sporting events like boxing and baseball were extremely popular because live radio was able to capture the excitement of these events and actually bring the sounds of these events into a listeners home. (Gordon and Falk 47) Likewise, radio was able to bring the excitement of world events to home listeners, lending personality and immediacy to the news. In 1940, Edward R. Murrow gained fame by standing on a London rooftop and providing live news coverage of the Battle of Britain, and the sound of explosions around him. (Gordon and Falk 28)
By the 1950s, radio had significantly diminished in importance. The Korean War was covered by the television, pushing radio to the back burner as an obsolete medium. (Gordon and Falk 24) Radio, rejecting the conquest of the television, had to adapt in order to endure. During the post-television era, much radio programming shifted to music formats; many began to play the most popular records of the day. (Cox 145) The development of rock and roll music occurred simultaneously, and radio and rock-and-roll fell into a symbiotic relationship, perhaps largely due to the seduction of radio disc jockeys by record companies. (Cox 146) According to Gordon and Falk, post-television radio also saw the rise of “specialized highbrow broadcasting aimed at a sophisticated audience” (Gordon and Falk 161)–the talk shows that are still popular today.
If Marshall McLuhan is indeed correct in his assertion that “the ‘content’ of any medium is always another medium” (McLuhan 8), radio serves to prove his point. There has been a great deal of medium confusion between radio and the mediums he mediates. Once radio took off as a news medium, newspapermen expressed concern and disapproval with radio. Gordon and Falk point out that, after the first broadcast of an opera over the radio, “reporters from the New York Times, Sun, and Herald noted the event with an unexplained lack of enthusiasm and claimed that the broadcast was marred by fading voices, ticking of various kinds and profane interruptions from unidentified sources.” (Gordon and Falk 41) This was despite an overwhelmingly positive response from nearly everyone else. Newspapers also felt that the radio posed a threat to their monopoly on mass news coverage. In fact, the broadcast of news sparked a “war” between radio and newspapers; newspapers stopped running schedules for radio programs and urged their news sources not to cater to radio networks. (Jackaway) Given the overwhelmingly unidirectional flow of information over the radio, it is certainly easy for radio to mimic printed media. Narrations of stories over public radio differ little from the consumption of the stories in written form. A lot of early radio programming can be seen retrospectively as television without a picture. While it would be absurdly anachronistic to label this medium confusion, some radio drama continues today, entirely for kitsch value, and this necessarily seems to be imitative of television. Radio also has a history of mimicking the record player or, today, the personal mp3 player. The earliest radio transmissions were, quite literally, phonographic records. (Gordon and Falk 44) Today, with the consolidation of music stations under corporate umbrellas, and the removal of the DJ in favor of computer-shuffled programming, radio seems to be attempting to establish itself as something of a poor man’s iPod.
In Understanding Media, Marshall McLuhan classifies radio as a “hot medium,” a “‘high-definition’” (McLuhan 22) medium that “[does] not leave so much to be filled in or completed by the audience and is exclusionary. (McLuhan 23) This classification is certainly true in many respects, especially with regard to the earliest uses of radio as news medium and forum for comedy and drama. The lack of participation in such radio puts radio in parallel with literature, a linear medium, which encouraged the private point of view and conformity in the age before the electrical age. Radio has continued in the tradition of literature and encouraged both of these in modern times. McLuhan writes, “the age of mechanical industry that preceded us found vehement assertion of private outlook the natural mode of expression.” (McLuhan 3) Radio helped to cultivate the personalities of authoritarians like Mussolini and Hitler. Today, the idea of the radio personality is important, many of these men make a living through the expression of private outlook. Linear media also encourages conformity. Jim Cox, in Music Radio: The Great Performers and Programs of the 1920s through Early 1960s, attributes the following quote to an “industry insider”: “‘the public [does] not determine its own preference in music, but instead [is] almost completely influenced to accept music played for them by the nation’s disc jockeys’.” (Cox 146) From the 1950s until the rise of MTV, radio was nearly exclusively responsible for setting the public’s taste in music. Radio today continues to play a role in setting musical taste, but it now shares its status as a trend setter with television and the Internet. Radio programming is coupled with advertising, and this adventitious medium also contributes to the encouragement of conformity.
McLuhan also writes: “The hot radio medium used in cool or nonliterate cultures has a violent effect, quite unlike its effect, say in England or America, where radio is felt as entertainment.’” (McLuhan 31) We have already seen how radio has been taken as entertainment in the west. However, radio can certainly have an incendiary effect in certain settings, making it a useful propaganda tool. The Soviets frequently jammed transmissions of the BBC to eastern Europe because they were aware of radio’s ability to stir people up. (Lisann 10)
Since television necessitated a change in the format of radio, radio has experienced something of a cooling. Modern music programs and talk programs allow a listener limited interaction with the broadcaster; music disc jockeys encourage listeners to call in to request songs and opinionated listeners are often allowed airtime to contribute to discussion on talk programs. In the case of talk programs, listener participation forces the host to account for their opinions, slightly disrupting the parallel between radio and literature. However, the fact that all programming on the radio is ultimately moderated by the disc jockey allows radio to maintain most of its heat.
Recent innovations in the distribution of radio have changed its uses as a medium and its effects. The innovation of satellite radio has turned radio into a homogeneous, subscription-based service (although the possibility of subscription service had been proposed at radio’s dawn). Satellite radio eliminates any traces of local focus left in radio broadcasting and allows for more complete homogenization of public tastes. While satellite offers an abundance of stations, this almost seems a token gesture. As a commercial service, satellite radio must provide what will sell; any traces of experimentation or radicalism that could have been found on locally-oriented, independent stations are eliminated in satellite radio.
The subscription-based nature of satellite radio has the potential to further cool radio. People hear on satellite only what they pay someone else to let them hear. Part of a medium’s ability to foment a population to action or change of opinion rests on the potential of accidental exposure to it. Hence, random flyering and public-access broadcasts are used as tools of propaganda instead of cable television or literature that must be purchased. The same line of reasoning leads to the generally accepted notion that pornography and obscenity should be kept off of public-access television, where children may accidentally be exposed to them. Such content seems more acceptable when transmitted over a subscription cable or satellite service. The new roles taken by so called “shock jocks” such as Howard Stern after their transition to satellite radio demonstrates how sterile a medium satellite radio is. Suddenly, these disc jockeys are not so shocking since the fact that they are marketable means they don’t have anything genuinely shocking to say. True radicalism on the airwaves remains in a realm that is publicly accessible and untouched by radio conglomerations: shortwave. Here, the fare is far right-wing, apocalyptic, openly racist, and bordering on fascist. To an unsuspecting listener, shortwave broadcasts can be truly shocking.
While it may be tempting at times to view radio as a dying medium unable to compete with television and the Internet, it is impossible to deny that the radio still retains some cultural significance. Innovation still promises an adaptation of radio to modern times. Whatever the future of radio as a significant medium, its effect on the world has been groundbreaking. With the invention of the radio, the experience available to the common man expanded to cover the whole world, and with it, his awareness. Regarding radio, McLuhan’s theory that “the medium is the message” (McLuhan 9) resonates with truth; while the content of radio may not be constant, the social change brought about by radio remains significant and irreversible.