“Radio, live transmission.” – Joy Division, Transmission
TheOxford English Dictionary has two definitions for transmission. The first definition is, “The action of transmitting or fact of being transmitted; conveyance from one person or place to another; transference”. The second definition is, “Conveyance or passage through a medium, as of light, heat, sound, etc.; spec. in Radio and Television; also, a series of electric signals or electromagnetic waves transmitted, a broadcast”. The latter definition is pertinent to our study of media, especially through the mediums of radio and television. Radio and television are broadcast with electric signals, electromagnetic waves, and now digitally, thus making them media that are easily transmitted.
Media can unify through the transmission of auditory and visual content with transmitters such as radio and television. Raymond Williams stated this in his book, Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Williams states that the transmission of media “could come to serve, or seem to serve, as a form of unified social intake, at the most general levels” (Williams, 17). Radio and television have certainly unified society because the same content is being transmitted to the masses. One must keep in mind that this audience is not always entirely passive. Evolving technology is influencing the ways that an audience interacts with media. The audience is more in control of the transmissions they receive. Those individuals that make up this audience do not receive and absorb what is transmitted like everyone else, they have their own individual reactions to what is transmitted and can choose to absorb that or not. This is apparent when individuals choose to shut off the radio or television when they decide not to receive what is transmitted through these mediums. Ross and Nightingale say “being an audience is now a much more active and interactive experience than in the broadcasting era. … The information age has brought about fundamental changes in the ways people approach the media and in their engagements with media texts” (Ross & Nightingale, 49 ). Thus, the relationship between the transmitter and the audience (receiver) has significantly changed since radio and television’s first broadcast.
How does transmission work? To transmit or broadcast either radio or television, a transmitter and receiver are needed. Through the transmission medium, a path is created between the transmitter and the receiver and may be guided with wire or unguided (wireless). The communication between the mediums is achieved by using electromagnetic waves. “A radio wave acts as a carrier of information-bearing signals; the information may be encoded directly on the wave by periodically interrupting its transmission or it may be impressed on it by a process called modulation” (Columbia Encyclopedia). Modulation is the process in which “some characteristic of a wave (the carrier wave) is made to vary in accordance with an information-bearing signal wave (the modulating wave)” (Columbia Encyclopedia).
Technological advancements in amplification and distribution helped radio and television reach the masses. It was thanks to the vacuum tube, the physics and mathematics of electromagnetic frequencies that radio and television established themselves as forerunners in the media market. These technological advancements in transmission helped “devices code messages into signals, which are subjected to medium-specific modes of noise, then decoded by receiving devices for delivery to destinations” (Mitchell, 134).
Transmission began with the invention of the telegraph in 1844, followed by the invention of the radio, telephone, and subsequently television. In 1876, Alexander Graham Bell patented the broadcasting of voice and music over telegraph wires, which sparked the race to solve the problem of radio frequencies, their amplification, and the ability to send them over long distances. In the process, “many of these inventors combined telephone and telegraph technologies, untethering them from lines and discovering the means to broadcast voice and music over the airwaves” (Kokler, 134). This ultimately led to the broadcasting of radio and television. In Simon Haykin’s book, Introduction to Analog and Digital Communications, modern transmission through broadcasting is defined as a process that “involves the use of a single powerful transmitter and numerous receivers”. Through this broadcast process, “ information –bearing signals flow only in one direction, from the transmitter to each of the receivers”. (Haykin, 4). Transmission can also occur with the human voice. When people verbally communicate, they are transmitting words to each other. These words become opinions, questions, and responses that are reciprocated by the transmitter and receiver.
The word “transmission” is used by many media theorists to describe the sending and receiving of messages from certain mediums such as radio, television, and speech. The process of transmission is defined by Bruce Clarke in his essay Communication, as a “process in which meanings, packaged in symbolic messages ….are transported from sender to receiver” ( Mitchell & Hansen, 132). It is through this process of transmission, that we, the receivers, receive messages in the form of songs, news, speeches, and advertisements from these mediums. It is through the transmission of these mediums that we receive the messages that Marshall McLuhan so famously discusses in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man.
In order to understand transmission, one must understand how different mediums transmit information. Therefore, I will describe how radio, television, and communication/speech are transmitted.
Radio, although not as popular in the twenty-first century due to the emergence of other technological advancements such as the mp3 player, is still one of the most powerful transmitting mediums. Whether we listen to it in our homes, cars, or even stream it on our computers, it is according to Robert Kolker, “constituted, on the technological level, as a delivery medium”(Kolker, 132). Radio is a transmission technology that can be defined by the fact that it provides a channel for the transmission of other media and its messages.
The two most common types of modulation used in radio are amplitude modulation (AM) and frequency modulation (FM). There are certain differences between AM and FM receivers. In an AM transmission the carrier wave is constant in frequency and varies in amplitude; in FM the carrier is constant in amplitude and varies in frequency. The noise that affects radio signals is partly evident in amplitude variations and wideband FM receivers are less sensitive to noise. Thus, frequency modulation minimizes noise and provides a greater reception than amplitude modulation, which is the older method of broadcasting. “Both AM and FM are analog transmission systems, that is, they process sounds into continuously varying patterns of electrical signals which resemble sound waves” ( Columbia Encyclopedia).
When television was invented, its “power as a medium of news and entertainment was then so great that it altered all preceding media of news and entertainment” (Williams, 11). The engaging and interactive elements of the television, helped it become one of the most popular mediums. The arrival of television, as McLuhan states, affected “not only the movies, but the national magazines as well” (McLuhan, 312).
When a television program is broadcast, many electrical signals are amplified and used to modulate a carrier wave; the modulated carrier is usually fed to an antenna, where it is converted to electromagnetic waves and broadcast over a large region ( Columbia Encyclopedia). The waves are sensed by antennas connected to television receivers and television spectators then receive the moving images visually.
Television viewers in the United States no longer receive signals by using antennas since the change to digital transmission in 2009. This alludes to what Kolker states, that these “regular modes of transmission are changing dramatically, moving into the digital realm to converge with computers and the Internet” (Kolker, 4). With the emergence of Mp3 players, digital radios, online radio, digital television, cable, satellite, and online television, the old forms of transmitting radio and television are on their way to becoming obsolete.
Although the radio and television are transmitted similarly, the radio differs from television because the radio’s transmission is auditory and received through the ear. The television, on the other hand, is both visual and auditory. It is received through both the eyes and ears.
Information can now be transmitted through different forms of transmission. Technological advancements have made it easy and much more affordable for us to access different types of mediums through one medium alone, the internet. People can now listen to the radio, watch television, and communicate visually and verbally through video chat on the internet. These forms of transmission are no longer uniquely transmitted because they can now be transmitted through only one medium that allows you to receive the messages both visually, orally, and through audio. Most things such as radio and television waves are still essentially transmissional, it is only the mechanisms for facilitating such processes that have changed.
Communication is the transmission of information through a particular medium, whether it is through radio, television, telephone, or internet chat. In the 1st chapter of his book, Communication as Culture, James Carey considers communication to be the “most common, mundane human experience” (Carey, 23-24). He quotes Marshall McLuhan’s assertion that “the one thing of which the fish is unaware is water, the very medium that forms its ambience and supports its existence.” For him, similarly, communication comprises the setting or atmosphere for human existence.
Carey goes on to mention that one of the reasons why communication is not considered a medium is because:
“Communication, through language and other symbolic forms, comprises the ambience of human existence. The activities we collectively call communication–having conversations, giving instructions, imparting knowledge, sharing significant ideas, seeking information, entertaining and being entertained–are so ordinary and mundane that it is difficult for them to arrest our attention.” ( Carey, 24)
The Shannon and Weaver model of communication further helps solidify the method of transmission for communication. The communication model was developed by Claude Shannon and Warren Weaver in 1949. This model, similar to the radio and television transmission models, is the “prototypical example of a transmissive model of communication: a model which reduces communication to a process of transmitting information” ( Shannon & Weaver, 380).
Shannon and Weaver’s original model consisted of five elements:
1. An information source, which produces a message.
2. A transmitter, which encodes the message into signals
3. A channel, to which signals are adapted for transmission (“The channel is merely the medium used to transmit the signal from transmitter to receiver.” Shannon and Weaver 1964, page 5)
4. A receiver, which ‘decodes’ (reconstructs) the message from the signal.
5. A destination, where the message arrives.
( Shannon & Weaver, 382)
Although in Shannon and Weaver’s model a speaker and a listener would strictly be the source and the destination rather than the transmitter and the receiver, the participants can be commonly humanized as the sender and the receiver.
Michael Reddy has noted our extensive use in communicating the English language through ‘the conduit metaphor’. In this metaphor, “The speaker puts ideas (objects) into words (containers) and sends them (along a conduit) to a hearer who takes the idea/objects out of the word/containers” (Reddy, 289).
The assumptions his metaphor involves are that: “Language functions like a conduit, transferring thoughts bodily from one person to another; in writing and speaking, people insert their thoughts or feelings into the words; words accomplish the transfer by containing the thoughts or feelings and conveying them to others, and that in listening or reading, people extract the thoughts and feelings once again from the words (Reddy, 290). Just like television and radio, the transmission of language is a process that requires the transferring and conveying of messages. Therefore, it can certainly be argued that communication itself can be transmitted through mediums such as television, radio, and the internet.
In his book, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, Marshall McLuhan shows us the importance of communication and speech by comparing the act of communication to that of the transmission of radio air waves. McLuhan says that “if the human ear can be compared to a radio receiver that is able to decode electromagnetic waves and recode them as sound, the human voice may be compared to the radio transmitter in being able to translate sound into electromagnetic waves” (McLuhan, 80). Thus, making the analogy of the transmission of verbal communication more apparent.
Communication is just as important to media theorist Bruce Clark. Clarke states that both aspects of social connectivity and material contact, “bring communication closer to the concept of media, as that now names the various technologies for the transport or transmission of communications” (Mitchell & Hansen, 132). Clarke defines the materiality of communication as “the physical and technical infrastructures necessary for any conveyance of messages or transmission of information” (Mitchell & Hansen, 132).
Oxford English Dictionary, Online edition.
Carey, James W. Communication as Culture: Essays on Media and Society. Boston: Unwin Hyman, 1989. Print. 13-35.
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Haykin, Simon S. Introduction to Analog and Digital Communications. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley, 2007. Print.
Kolker, Robert. Media Studies an Introduction. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2009. Print.
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Mitchell, W. J. T., and Mark B. N. Hansen. Critical Terms for Media Studies. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2010. Print.
Reddy, Michael J. (1979): ‘The Conduit Metaphor: A Case of Frame Conflict in our Language about Language’. Andrew Ortony (Ed.): Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Ross, Karen & Nightingale, Virginia (2003) Media and Audiences. New Perspectives. London: Open University Press.
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