Every year, the United Nations (UN) celebrates 13 February as World Radio Day, underlining the many ways radio changed the world as we know it today. The UN notes people trust the radio more than the internet or social media.
Radio, the oldest form of mass media, hasn’t just been a technological masterpiece; it has proved to be one of the biggest landmarks in human history.
The radio catalysed the development of the human race and expanded the perimeter of mankind’s quest for knowledge. It is because of the radio that the world was transformed in just one century.
Everything from nautical studies to space exploration has been possible because of the radio. At the same time, it played a pioneering role in keeping the world informed, entertained and united.
The history of radio
The radio appeared on the scene through developments in the late 19th century, starting with Heinrich Hertz detecting and producing radio waves in 1888.
Guglielmo Marconi perhaps made the biggest contribution by building his first radio equipment in 1894. Soon after, radio signals and messages began to be transmitted across distances. In 1906, the first voice and music signals were heard over radio waves from Brant Rock, Massachusetts, US.
As more powerful frequencies were developed, the radio, in the form of wireless telegraph equipment, found a place in ships by the early 1910s. This was a major leap for navigation and communication. In 1910, the US government passed the Wireless Ship Act which required all US ships carrying more than 60 passengers and travelling beyond 200 miles off the coast to have wireless radio systems that could transmit signals up to 100 miles.
Modern historians credit the radio for saving the lives of over 700 Titanic survivors in 1912, when the ship was hit by an iceberg and sank in the Atlantic Ocean. In fact, had it not been for the radio communication via wireless telegraph, there would have been no survivors.
Over the decades, radio became a part of people’s lives as well as everyone from truck drivers and pilots to law enforcement officers and school kids, such as those in Singapore who grew up listening to educational storytelling and other programmes on the radio.
Impact on news and information
Before the advent of the radio, the fastest means of sharing crucial information and getting the news was the telegraph. However, it had several limitations, including the need for knowledge of the Morse Code and the establishment of infrastructure such as wires. Yes, telephones had been invented by the time radio came into being. However, it was more of a system of holding a direct conversation than mass broadcasting.
Radio completely changed the landscape of mass media with its incredible ability to transmit crucial developments from across the globe. Transmission of information thus became easy and widespread.
By the early 20th century, radio became the main source of broadcast news. Instead of waiting for weeks to know what may have happened in another part of the world, people could quickly apprise themselves of the latest events.
On 31 August 1920, the first radio news programme was aired from a radio station in Detroit, US. Two years later across the Atlantic, the British Broadcasting Company (the original name of the British Broadcasting Corporation, BBC), was formed on 18 October 1922. Its daily radio service was launched on 14 November the same year in Marconi’s London studio, 2LO, in the Strand.
Even in the age of social media, the radio has not lost its relevance as a means of information.
Impact on warfare
The radio became a very useful tool to disseminate information during conflicts. Its significance in warfare was first understood during World War I, when most military communications would have to rely on telegraph — a slow, risky and laborious task for those involved in manning the channels.
By the end of the four years of war in 1918, the military had understood that rapid radio communications are vital to future warfare.
Thus, when World War II began, radio became an extremely essential tool in the hands of the soldiers who fought on either side of the belligerents.
Radio communication was essential to the success of massive operations during the war. Faster channels of communication between the varied corps, such as the artillery, infantry and air, could be established.
There were portable radio receivers at the level of platoons to ensure that any decision taken by the higher commands was immediately communicated to the forces on the ground for rapid execution.
Not just the military but resistance forces, such as those in France, used the radio for their communication. The radio, thus, proved to be of immense help to the forces fighting the Nazis.
The radio itself benefited greatly during the war. The need for robust and faster communication led to the improvement of radio technology. Improvements in frequency led to advanced radio systems that could undertake long-range transmissions.
Even after the war, radio technology continued to evolve. Radio-controlled guidance for bombs and missiles was also developed in later years such as the Soviet AS-7 ‘Kerry’. The radio remains relevant to all modern armed forces.
One of the biggest contributions of the radio has been in the development of music and establishing the music industry.
‘Timeless’, an adjective we associate with the voices of many prominent singers past and present, has been possible because of the radio. Countless music icons who the world is familiar with today perhaps would not have been known if the radio hadn’t brought their voices to every living room.
Music programmes on the radio played a crucial role in defining the careers of nearly all successful artists, including Elvis Presley and The Beatles, as well as in the discovery of new music globally.
Also noteworthy is the rise of the frequency modulation (FM) radios. They emerged during the 1930s and 1940s and within 20 years became immensely popular for the audio quality they offered, which was better than that of the amplitude modulation (AM). Thus, FM radio stations became the preferred choice for music lovers around the world.
Despite the rise of television and the internet, FM radio continued witnessing rising popularity. In countries, such as India, with over a billion music-loving population, FM stations are still one of the biggest means of entertainment with people tuning in to their favourite stations at any time of the day while going about their daily business or travelling.
Across the world, top artists continue to appear on radio stations for promotions, talks or performances. The UK’s BBC Radio 1 and Capital FM even have their own music festivals, where celebrities such as Taylor Swift have performed.
Politics and mass movements
A major turning point for radio as a powerful means of political discourse came on 2 November 1920 with a commercial broadcast by the KDKA, the world’s first commercial radio station. It was significant because the US presidential election was taking place on that date. The radio broadcast let people hear the results of the election instead of waiting for the newspapers to publish the news.
Radio broadcasts have been at the centre of all political and mass movements anywhere in the world.
The world was informed that Britain was at war with Germany on 3 September 1939 by British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain.
In Singapore, S Rajaratnam, one of the founders of the People’s Action Party (PAP), wrote a six-part radio play titled A Nation in the Making to unite the country in 1957. Lee Kuan Yew, the country’s first Prime Minister, penned and delivered weekly talks on matters of political significance in 1961 when Singapore was merging with the Federation of Malaysia.
Besides politicians, some of the biggest champions of civil rights and peace have used the radio to spread their message of tolerance.
Mahatma Gandhi, perhaps the greatest icon of the 20th century, delivered his first and only address on All India Radio (AIR) on 12 November 1947, just months after India’s Independence.
Martin Luther King Jr’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech was also broadcast on radio. Calling for an end to racial inequality, the civil rights campaigner united the people behind the American civil rights movement and influenced millions around the world.
A play that became the first ‘fake news’
On 30 October 1938, the legendary Orson Welles directed a live radio play of H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds as a series of news broadcasts. The story of a Martian invasion was enacted by Welles’ Mercury Theatre on the Air.
Radio was a popular form of news and information in those days. Perhaps the play was so brilliantly executed and the voices so convincing that people actually believed that aliens had indeed invaded earth. This led to many fleeing their homes, calling the police, radio stations and newspapers until they realised the truth. The incident made headlines across the US with The New York Times putting it out on their front page under the title: “Radio Listeners in Panic, Taking War Drama as Fact”.
The situation forced Welles to field questions from reporters on what led to the chaos.
Though widely believed to be unintentional, many are of the opinion that it was the first fake news of the world — a phenomenon that has been both deliberate and common in the age of social media.
(Main and Featured images: Will Francis/@willfrancis/Unsplash)