With the prevalent use of the Internet, the ubiquitous smartphones, and the startling rise of music streaming services, a lot of self-described experts have predicted the eventual death of traditional radio. These are the “quaint” electronic devices with antennas, which let people listen to FM and AM radio music and news, along with other frequency bands.
Yet the latest stats show a startling set of facts regarding radio listening. According to Nielsen data, it turns out that in 2019, about 272 million people in America still listen to the radio at least once a week. That’s about 92% of the US population, and it’s even ahead of the 87% of the US population who watches TV at least once a week.
So, how did we go to this current state of radio broadcasting? To further understand just how far we’ve come, here’s a quick look at the history of radio broadcasting.
Radio Broadcasting Milestones in History
Here’s a quick look at the most notable events in radio broadcasting history:
1864: Scottish physicist and mathematician James Clerk Maxwell theorizes through mathematics the existence of electromagnetic waves that are invisible to the eye. He publishes his theories in the paper entitled “A Dynamic Theory of the Electromagnetic Field”.
1887: German physicist Heinrich Rudolf Hertz proves the Maxwell theory of electromagnetic waves. He was able to produce radio waves using an apparatus with a coil, a pair of wires working as the radiator, and an antenna.
1890: French physicist Édouard Branly invents the first radio wave detector called the coherer. He used an evacuated tube filled with metal fillings that were sensitive to electric discharges at short distances.
1894: English physicist Oliver Lodge uses a coherer to demonstrate radio wave transmissions. Lodge worked on the field of resonance tuning, enabling a transmitter and a receiver to operate on the same radio frequency.
1895: After about a year of experimentation, Italian physicist Guglielmo Marconi was able to create a wireless radio system that can send and receive radio signals at a distance of 2 kilometers (about 1.2 miles).
1897: The Italian government of the time disregarded Marconi’s work, so Marconi works with contacts and investors in England. He establishes the British Marconi company and starts offering radio as a wireless telegraph system able to send Morse code messages without using wires. British Marconi (and its subsidiary American Marconi) becomes the de facto leader for the transatlantic communications and wireless ship-to-shore communications.
1898: Marconi sets up a radio station on the Isle of Wight in England. He then establishes the first radio factory in Chelmsford, England.
1899: Marconi is able to send radio signals across the English Channel.
1901: Marconi sends the first transatlantic signals from Cornwall, England to Newfoundland, Canada. The signals travels about 2,200 miles across the Atlantic.
1906: In America, Lee De Forrest generates lots of publicity by airing broadcasts, including one from the Eiffel Tower. De Forrest also discovers the regeneration principle, which involves using a carrier wave to amplify signals.
1906: On Christmas Eve, Canadian Reginald Fessenden startles his audience with radio broadcasts from his studio in Brant Rock, Massachusetts. He was able to transmit speech and also to play his violin over the radio. His amazed audience included radio operators at sea, home listeners from as far away as Virginia, and reporters who were previously alerted to the broadcast.
1910: The US Congress passes the Wireless Ship Act to regulate radio broadcasting. The act required all ocean vessels with at least 50 passengers and crew members to carry a wireless system. This must also be operated by someone with the right skills.
1912: After the Titanic disaster, newspapers and magazines called for the US federal government to take control over wireless radio operations. The Radio Act of 1912 was passed. The Act transferred power to the US Secretary of Commerce to create radio regulations and confer radio licenses. All radio operators must be licensed. Radio stations are required to follow radio frequency allocations. Distress calls are now priority communications.
1920: The public becomes increasingly receptive of radio, just like the people in the 1990s embraced the Internet. Sales of radios skyrocketed, from $60 million in 1922 to $358 million in 1924.
1927: After a legal challenge to the powers of the US Secretary of Commerce (who was Herbert Hoover at the time), the courts deny the Commerce Secretary the power to regulate radio. As a result, the US Congress passes the Radio Act of 1927, establishing the Federal Radio Commission. The licensing process was overhauled.
1933: Several types of radio broadcasts become popular, such as news and music broadcasts. Serial melodramas (called “soap operas” because they were sponsored by soap manufacturers) drew large audiences mainly of housewives during the day. President Roosevelt broadcasts his speeches and thoughts through radio. These “fireside chats” boosts his popularity.
1934: The Communications Act of 1934 establishes the Federal Communications Commission, or the FCC.
1935: About 60% of the US households have radios, with more than 50 million people listening to radio broadcasts.
1940: FM radio is born.
1948: Prices drop for radios, resulting in the sale of 50 million AM radio receivers from 1946 to 1948.
1950s: Music radio stations begin their “Top 40” broadcasts of the most popular tracks for the day and age.
1960s: AM radio declines, while FM radio surges in popularity.
1985 to 1996: FCC increases the limit on how many stations a single person or company can own. This leads to larger corporate music broadcasting companies that were able to dominate and affect the musical tastes of millions of people in the US.
The State of Radio Today
Sure, radio was still popular a year ago in 2019. But what about in 2020 with the pandemic and all the consequences of social distancing? How is the Internet affecting radio listening, with even radio stations like the BBC streaming their radio broadcasts online?
As it turns out, radio is doing just fine in this age of Covid-19. Musical streaming services actually fell significantly. Rolling Stone magazine used information from data provider Alpha Data and concluded that audio streams online dipped by 7.8%. BuzzAngle, the renowned music industry monitor, pegged the drop of US music streaming for the period March 13 to 19 at 8.8%.
Radio listening is still alive and well, as people no longer have the office Internet connection to use. Now they use their home Internet connection for Netflix and other online activities. For music, they still have their trusty radios to rely on. That just goes to show that even today, the state of radio broadcasting is alive and well.