The Invention of Radio


When radio was invented, its primary use was for communication between people that were usually great distances apart.  Early uses for radio were limited to military and marine communication in the early 1900’s.    The actual inventor of the radio is up for debate, names like Hertz, Marconi, Tesla, and Maxwell all contributed aspects to what we now know as the radio.  Widespread use of the radio didn’t really happen until the 1920’s.  Before this, individuals across the world began to transmit and receive radio signals on a smaller scale.  These early adopters were the first to realize the potential of radio and were able to use it without restriction.  As this new media’s popularity began to spread, large corporations began to realize its money making potential.  As Postman (1992) states,  “it is not always clear, at least in the early stages of a technology’s intrusion into a culture, who will gain most by it, and who will lose most.” (p.12)

Who was to gain by this new form of media? Before analyzing this question it is important to look at some of the benefits of radio as a medium.  Radio had the ability to reach a massive audience.  You did not have to be able to read.  You did not have to sit in front of the radio and watch it. All you had to do was listen.  By listening you could hear the latest weather report, a breaking news story or your favorite song.  Radio had the ability to capture people’s attention, inform and connect people like no other form of media before it.  “We might call each shift a “remediation” in the sense that a newer medium takes the place of an older one borrowing and reorganizing the characteristics of writing in the older medium and reforming its cultural space.” (Bolter 2001, p.23) Radio was reorganizing and changing the way people sent and received information. Prior to radio, information was primarily transferred to large groups of people through text.  Radio had changed that, and now was challenging newspapers as a way to get up to date news.  Radio gave listeners information in real time.  This meant that they could get the news they desired as it happened, and were able to experience it live.  This is where large companies began to see radio’s potential.

The Radio Corporation of America (RCA) was owned by a conglomeration of large companies including General Electric, Westinghouse and AT&T to name a few. (Crawford-Franklin 2012)  The first commercial broadcast took place in 1912. Westinghouse began broadcasting from station KDKA in Pittsburgh.  These regular broadcasts served as a means to advertise their products, namely radio transmitters and receivers.  Soon after this first broadcast, the popularity of radio exploded across the nation.  The number of stations expanded exponentially as people realized the potential impact of this new form of media.  The programming on radio began to become more diverse as well.  Along with this sudden expansion came government regulation.  Along with the Radio Act of 1927, the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) was appointed to oversee the issuing of licenses, assignments of frequencies, and control of broadcasts.   The purpose of the radio act was to ensure that broadcasting remained a public domain and was not monopolized.  Although these were noble intentions, many of the large companies still had a major influence within the commission.

A resurgence of oral communication

Before text, oral communication was the dominant medium for the transfer of information.  With the advent of radio, oral communication again became important.  Learning through listening became popular again. When reading text, it was difficult to interpret the tone of what was being communicated.  When you listened to someone speak over the radio, tone was quite evident.  “A key concept here, which applies in both oral history and listening-to-radio settings, is that one person exudes affect and another person picks it up.” (McHugh 2012, p.192) Emotions could be heard over the radio, which added a dimension that text did not always make clear.  The tone of voice, intonation, accent and other speech patterns, could make a difference on how information was communicated and interpreted.  Listening to dialogue over the radio made it come to life.  The listener could form a more complete picture of the situation then what text alone could provide.  The idea of affect theory can have an impact on the learning process.  “Put simply, the affective power of sound and voice, combined with the intimacy of the listening process, means we can be moved by listening to oral history; this in turn, affects how we absorb and retain its content, as well as how we judge that content.” (McHugh 2012, p.195) When a listener heard something that made them feel an emotion, it was better retained.

Radio in Education

This is just one of the many reasons why radio technology was looked at as an essential educational tool.  Radio was used in education in essentially two different formats or “Schools of Air”.  One format involved large commercial networks in the U.S. like NBC and CBS, which reached listeners on a national scale and the other format involved state run programs.    One of the most popular educational programs on NBC was launched in 1928 called the Music Appreciation Hour (MAH).  Walter Damrosch, former conductor of the New York Symphony Orchestra created a program for students from grades 4-12.  NBC saw providing educational content as beneficial because it gave the appearance that the company did something to benefit the general public and also helped fill up programming slots during the day.  (Bianchi 2008)

Damrosch broke up his program into four sections, each section had a recommended grade and instructional focus.  Teachers could choose the section that they would like to listen to, or listen to the entire program with their class.  Teacher’s guides and student workbooks were also available to supplement the program.  The program soon became popular across the country.  Damrosch’s intention was not to replace current music programs but to supplement what was already in place.  One of the benefits of his program was the ability to provide small, low income schools the chance of having a high level music program. (Bianchi 2008) The success of the program helped NBC gain the public’s trust as a network that wasn’t just out to make profit.  The reality was, the more popular the program became, the more receivers sold across the country.

The state run “Schools of Air” had a longer impact mainly because they were more localized, catered to state curriculum and were helped run in part by state universities. One successful school was the Wisconsin School of Air (WSA) which broadcast for almost half a century.  Besides having a huge following, its appeal was that it was innovative, it supported classroom teachers and it built a community of learners.  The programming served students from K-8 and covered a wide variety of subject areas.  “Let’s draw”, was an art program in which the instructor believed that “radio allowed children to exercise their creative imagination more than did TV.” (Bianchi 2008, p.40)  This shows that some of these programs were so successful that even after TV was invented, these state run radio programs still had a loyal following.  These programs also helped rural students become exposed to similar quality educational experiences as those in bigger cities.  In fact, there were stories of students in poor communities gathering around a teacher’s car to hear one of the programs because the school could not afford a radio of their own. These “schools of air” ran in several parts of the country including Portland, Cleveland, Chicago, New York and Ohio.

Radio helped spread knowledge across a vast expanse of people across different areas of the country and around the world.  Used in the classroom, it acted as a supplement to what teachers were already teaching.  For some students in rural areas, it gave them access to information that they wouldn’t normally receive.  Music instruction from a conductor from a major city, or Art instruction from a famous artist who in many cases would never physically travel to these remote areas to provide direct instruction.  These educational programs also gained popularity with a listening public who wasn’t in school.  There was a large part of the listening public who was comprised of seniors or adults who were just eager to learn.  The great thing about radio is that these listeners were able to multi-task.  They could run daily errands, clean the house, go to the store but were still able to listen and learn from the radio.  Another part of the public who wasn’t in school but relied on radio for information was farmers.  “Until the advent of broadcast radio, farmers were forced to use unreliable or out dated information, particularly in relation to the current market value of their goods.”(Crawford-Franklin 2013, p.429)  Weather reports, and other such information also helped farmers and the agricultural industry in general stay informed.  Radio also helped various genres of music become popular, as radio was seen as instrumental in the 1920’s to help spread the popularity of Jazz music.  Radio truly was one of the first forms of mass media.  It had a hand at influencing such a vast expanse of popular culture and affected many facets of our life.

One of the true tests of any form of media is if it can survive the test of time.  Is the radio still relevant today?  Obviously, many people around the world still listen to the radio on a daily basis for news, traffic reports and music.  Clearly it is not as impactful as it was when it was first introduced because of further “remediation” and competition from smart phones, digital radio and the internet.  Educational use of the radio is still happening today in areas of the world where these other technological innovations are not readily available.  In Nigeria, radio is used to educate nomadic populations estimated up to 10 million people.  (Perkins 2011) These people like many others in remote areas will never see the inside of a classroom and without radio would have no means of an education.  Another aspect of radio that has been developed and is continuing, is the value in student broadcasts.  One major innovation in this area is the popularity of podcasts.  Students and teachers are using open source software to broadcast and receive thoughts and opinions from across the world, truly helping to create a global village. “A new technology does not add or subtract something. It changes everything.” (Postman 1992 p.18)  The advent of the radio was a major step in communication as it provided a means for information to reach great distances.  It has had affects in all areas of our culture, from education to entertainment and still continues to influence our culture today.


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1 Response to The Invention of Radio

  1. Christina Luciak says:

    Thanks for this interesting look into radio broadcasting and how it has evolved. My dad was a university DJ and my nephew works as a radio producer so I found this topic interesting for personal reasons as well. As I am reading the research projects one aspect stands out for me and that is how reading and writing has evolved, in large part, due to the demand of the powers in charge and how they envisioned the cultures they led.

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