First Mass Medium.


The radio is a clear example of a machine in existence ‘invented’ but not recognised as such. It developed over time, step by step, in laboratories that began between 1886 and 1888 with a ‘spark’ transferred from a crude form of transmitter to an aerial and despite the crudeness of the apparatus it was demonstrated that these ‘radiations’ did have wave like properties and could, for instance, be reflected or refracted. Prior to this the microphone had already been in place and combined with the ‘spark’ device the age of radio dawned.

Nobody really thought about using ‘radiation’ phenomena for signalling or any other purpose. Radio was without social necessity and thus inconceivable. Thus the technology was invented but useful only in a laboratory environment. Over the next decade more complex devices based on the prototypes’ started to emerge and it was soon discovered that effective transmission of the radio wave depended on ‘tuning’. If both were on the same frequency (syntonised) they could communicate. Still, radio remained without an identified need and nobody had, at least in public, suggested their usefulness as signalling machines. It was not until 1892 that the idea of radio was articulated. It was envisaged as telegraphy without wires, posts, cables or any other costly appliances. It was seen as a person-to-person system and no more than that. Still nothing happened for another two years; the ideas were in place but the necessity had not yet come into focus.

It was not until the scientist Marconi garnished the benefits of previous research and development when he experimentally demonstrated that ‘radio transmission’ was possible. His crucial contribution was not the ‘invention’ of radio as is conventionally understood but rather the discovery that the taller the transmission mast, the further the signal would travel. His greatest accomplishment is that he discovered a supervening necessity for broadcasting.

Necessity, Diffusion And Suppression: Ironclads And Telegrams: Marconi saw the value of the device for the Shipping industry and decided to patent his advances in 1896. Just as the telegraph became the solution to railway’s communication problems, so the wireless telegraph began as a solution to shipping communication problems. Without the wireless a ships usefulness in battle would be very curtailed. As Marconi continued his work in Britain his contemporary A.V. Popov was doing the same in Russia. Wireless communication became an integral part of shipping on many levels. The transmission of distress signals, communication with shore, communication with other ships and by 1912 when the Titanic issued its SOS it was received by nearby ships and in New York and passed on to the White House. Radio proved to be without competition because no other long distance signalling system was possible at sea. However, in view of the fact that radio was prone to atmospheric conditions and this added to the fact that broadcasts were open and not private was deemed risky at best. Sending distress signals or private communications to all hearers was perceived as a dangerous act. Interestingly, In Ireland in 1916 from the roof of the GPO in Dublin those who proclaimed the state as independent were heard and declared revolutionaries.

Invention: From Wireless Telegraphy To Invention: Edison’s light bulb experimentation yielded results passing electric currents through filaments and this development moved radio wave detection and manipulation research rapidly forward. This development led to the use of tubes to amplify weak radio signals and enable longer distances. In 1906, using these tubes (valves) the first radio broadcast of music was made from Massachusetts. However in 1907 speech was transmitted over long distances and radio was ‘invented’ but, with the exception of those sailors out at sea, nobody was listening.

Ideation And Necessity: The Idea Of Broadcasting: Nobody really knew the potential of ‘non point to point’ communication and the main issue was that nobody knew where signals would be received and heard. The fault was ‘anybody could listen’ but for some this was not a fault but an advantage. David Sarnoff was very interested in radio and its possibilities. He saw it as a ‘music box’ for every home and was aware that music was listened to collectively and radio would have to allow for that if it were to become a mass medium. He set about achieving this and it was not long before Corporate America saw the possibilities and financed the development of the medium. Soon after, 1922, radio arrived into the living rooms and became the centrepiece of home entertainment.

Suppression And Diffusion: Valves, Tubes, and FM and Cartels: The radio system that swept the world in the early 1920s was not flawless. A radio system with less interference and noise needed to be created. By 1933 a new system of absolute (by standards back then) clarity was launched. The idea was to amplify frequency rather than modulation (AM and FM) and thus the FM band was created. FM was not just an invention but a revolution.

Living With Radio: Radio had used recorded sound from the very beginning. The relationship between records and radio is complex but radio quickly became a major patron of music and musicians and even financed Orchestras to produce it. The film industry, not really bothered with radio other than to see seats in cinemas, still achieved a mutually beneficial accommodation with the radio industry in that they held valuable assets on the programming side of the radio game. Newspapers continuously fought to suppress the journalistic aspects of radio. News was ‘immediate’ and deadlines were twenty-four-seven. Newspapers gave up the fight very quickly and just bought up the stations. However, newspaper owners failed to realise that radio and newspapers could continue to co-exist; people who heard radio news still bought newspapers and secondly newspaper owners and radio owners (often one and the same) were divided amongst themselves. However, these problems aside, radio progressed and by the 1930s it had successfully become a mass home medium over the entire developed world. The first mass medium.


About Gerard Hannan

Media Student at MIC/UL in Limerick, Ireland. Worked as a Broadcaster/Journalist in Limerick for over 25 Years and has also published four local interest books.

Posted on March 28, 2012, in Media and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. Wonderful article. I am at present addressing a few of these matters too.


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