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Ask a 10 year old what radio is, he may point to the LCD on the dash of the car. That explains everything. Ask any American teenager to explain where the sound comes from, he will say something like, “91X rules” or in some families, “PBS”.

The most important concept is far from common understanding, which is that in the language of European culture, the word, radio, is an interchangeable euphemism for audio theater of any kind AND it has other meanings, related to broadcast journalism as well as sport and civic events of interest to mass audiences and those who wish to influence political will and/or public opinion.

But if you ask anyone in America, who decides what is broadcast in the audio spectrum, for the most part, they won't really know. Who makes the programs? “I don’t know.’ How do they decide what to broadcast? “Whatever they think people will like, I guess.” What do you like to listen to? “Metal”.

SDRT is really dealing strictly with radio transmission as one form of audio theater.

To clarify "audio theater", however requires a look at the commonly understood meaning of the word, “radio”?

Scientific Explanation

Scientifically, we understand radio waves to be electromagnetic energy propagated by an accelerating electrical charge through a medium in a succession of adjacent contacts, radiating from the source and, depending on the energizing force, having a wave length varying between one half a centimeter to 30 kilometers in length. Imagine the electrical charge as a pebble dropped in a lake and radio waves are like the ripples that move in concentric circles away from the point of impact.

Early applications used sound waves to control the propagation of electromagnetic signals that travel along copper wires for telephones and through amplification circuits to move the diaphragm or cone of a loud speaker.


A Brief History of Radio Technology

Radio broadcasting technology uses sound waves picked up by microphones to control the size or shape of electromagnetic waves that travel through the atmosphere. Differences in their strength (AM radio) or frequency (FM radio) is in proportion to differences in the sound waves. A radio receiver translates these differences in the radio waves back into sound waves by reversing this process.

Subsequent inventions refined radio technology for radar, in which a radio wave is transmitted and received by the same device which measures the time it takes for the transmitted radio wave to echo back from a target to determine its distance, and by repeating this measurement, determine the relative speed and direction of motion of the target, as well as its profile, size and the material of which it is made.

This capacity for imaging was further refined by image scanning devices that used measurements of light reflected from objects, rather than a transmitted radio wave, to control the radio transmitter. Receivers of these signals use changes in the incoming radio wave to control an electron gun that fires a stream of electrons at a glass plate covered with a phosphorescent coating that lights up when struck by electrons. By matching the speed of the scan to the speed at which motion picture frames are viewed (25 or 30 scans per second) the illusion of live action occurs and thus was television born. By creating cameras that make multiple simultaneous scans through filters of different colors, we have color television.

Digital signals simplify the mechanism of transmission and reception since they only need to convey two values. Receivers only need to interpret the difference between a “1” and a “0” instead of nuances of thousands of changes in an incoming wave. Computer programs read the digital code and drive the mechanisms that cause screens to light up and loudspeakers to sound. Because radio waves can be propagated at infinitely divisible wave sizes and frequencies, digital transmission can occur simultaneously on an infinite range of frequencies, based on the design of receivers and transmitters.

Radio waves are obviously indifferent to the meaning they carry and the medium through which they travel (conventionally, optical fibers, the atmosphere and copper wires). Similarly, computers that interpret digital signals are indifferent about how they receive signals or who they receive them from provided they have a program that can read them. The technology uses wave in sizes well beyond the spectrum initially envisioned.

With more efficient programming, the number of bits required to reproduce a given sound or image is reduced, translating into an increase in transmission speed and/or the amount of data that can be carried on a bandwidth per second. On the production and receiving ends, higher speeds and greater amounts of data mean more information about a sound or image and thus, greater definition: more pixels per square inch. Since, we are limited by our ability to hear, see and recognize or use only that which is in human range, the supply of bandwidth is much greater than we can possibly use.

So, what exactly is radio?

Radio, like print on paper, is a medium, for communication.

What is radio doing? Personal and broadcast communication.

What can radio do? Everything is possible with communication.

What should radio do? That depends...

Imagine if literature had been taken over almost completely by commercial interests, if more than 70% of the pages of books contained advertising, and a good percentage of the “content” copy was salted with plugs for products, services, places, political views and politicians. Barnes & Noble would be out of business. How could a novelist adapt to this? How would Moby Dick read with an ad on every other page? Yet, this is precisely what has happened with radio and TV in America, and to a slightly lesser extent, motion pictures. The more a medium depends on the box office, and the less it depends on commercial advertising, the more attractive it is for an audience.

While literature has not been affected by commercial interests, a survey of periodicals on the racks of supermarkets, drug stores and airports presents a different picture. Educators say they are stunned by the results of a recent adult literacy assessment, but commercial periodicals have made reading more like elevator music than like reading a good book. Why should people read when for many, periodicals like these, and pulp fiction are what they are exposed to? They would do just as well to email their phone numbers to a list of telephone solicitors and wait for calls.

If the same effort and interest level was required to watch a TV program as it takes to read a typical magazine article, TV audiences would presumably decline faster than literacy. Such a decline appears to be happening because of competition from the Internet. People are consistently attracted to content that interests them. This is why they buy and read books and why they are turning to the Internet in growing numbers.

What has this to do with what radio should do?

21st Century Radio Renaissance (next page)

RADIO HISTORY INDEX

Copyright for much of the material on these pages belongs to Michael Winn and San Diego Radio TheaterĀ® or others.
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