The future of radio | Sunday Observer

The future of radio

People listen to the radio as the results of the presidential election is announced in Kireka, Uganda, in February. Many rural Ugandans don’t have Internet access, and the radio is a central source of news -- and platform for citizens’ opinions
People listen to the radio as the results of the presidential election is announced in Kireka, Uganda, in February. Many rural Ugandans don’t have Internet access, and the radio is a central source of news -- and platform for citizens’ opinions

Radio can be even more powerful than television. You can listen to the radio regardless of what you are doing – just try watching television while driving. And radio lets you imagine things. Once, a well-known radio personality aired a drama which depicted Lake Erie being drained of water and filled with ice cream. “Now, try that with television”, he challenged his listeners. Sure enough, his listeners had imagined the whole scenario in their minds. That was impossible with television then and I guess even now, with special effects.

The power of radio is even more important today, in this age of the Internet when anyone can listen to any radio broadcast over the Internet from anywhere on Earth.

Radio has indeed expanded its boundaries beyond the FM or AM transmitter range. Hence the importance of World Radio Day, which falls on February 13, the day on which UN Radio was established.

This year’s theme is “we are diversity, we are radio”, to reflect the variety of voices and opinions we hear on the radio. The objectives of the Day are to raise greater awareness among the public and the media of the importance of radio; to encourage decision makers to establish and provide access to information through radio; as well as to enhance networking and international cooperation among broadcasters.

The UNICEF describes Radio as a powerful medium for celebrating humanity in all its diversity and constitutes a platform for democratic debate. At the global level, radio remains the most widely consumed medium.

This unique ability to reach out the widest audience means radio can shape a society’s experience of diversity, stand as an arena for all voices to speak out, be represented and heard. Radio stations should serve diverse communities, offering a wide variety of programs, viewpoints and content, and reflect the diversity of audiences in their organizations and operations. Radio is a low-cost medium specifically suited to reaching remote communities and vulnerable people, offering a platform to intervene in the public debate, irrespective of people’s educational level.

It also plays a crucial role in emergency communication and disaster relief. Radio is uniquely positioned to bring communities together and foster positive dialogue for change. By listening to its audiences and responding to their needs, radio services provide the diversity of views and voices needed to address the challenges we all face.

Radio is now more than a century old – only the telephone is older. The main radio stations of most countries are now more than 100 years old.

In Sri Lanka, the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC) is nearing its centenary year. Although radio remained in state hands in most countries until recent times, private radio stations are now common all over the world, including Sri Lanka, where around 50 radio stations function in all three languages.

In an 1864 presentation, published in 1865, James Clerk Maxwell proposed theories of electromagnetism, with mathematical proofs, that showed that light and predicted that radio and x-rays were all types of electromagnetic waves propagating through free space.

Between 1886 and 1888 Heinrich Rudolf Hertz published the results of his experiments wherein he was able to transmit electromagnetic waves (radio waves) through the air, proving Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory.

Over several years starting in 1894 the Italian inventor Gulglielmo Marconi built the first complete, commercially successful wireless telegraphy system based on airborne Hertzian waves or radio waves.

In 1896, Marconi was awarded British patent 12039, Improvements in transmitting electrical impulses and signals and in apparatus there-for, the first patent ever issued for a Hertzian wave (radio wave) base wireless telegraphic system. Marconi demonstrated the application of radio in military and marine communications and started a company for the development and propagation of radio communication services and equipment which survives to this day.

Radio would not have become so popular if not for the technical advancements made both in radio broadcasting and radio sets. The first radio sets were bulky, valve tube affairs. Following the development of transistor technology, bipolar junction transistors led to the development of the transistor radio.

In 1954, the Regency company introduced a pocket transistor radio, the TR-1. In 1955, the newly formed Sony company introduced its first transistorized radio. In 1957, Sony introduced the TR-63, the first mass-produced transistor radio, leading to the mass-market penetration of transistor radios.

Digital transmissions began to be applied to commercial broadcasting in the late 1990s. In 1995, Digital Audio Broadcasting (DAB), a digital radio standard, launched in Europe. Moreover, the development of Short Wave (SW) radio enabled various countries to launch their own stations for worldwide consumption. Due to the unique nature of SW radio waves, someone in Sri Lanka can tune into a station broadcasting from England. However, the rise of direct-to-home satellite radio and of course, the World Wide Web means that most SW services are now obsolete.

Indeed, the World Wide Web has revolutionized radio broadcasting. Today, all radio stations around the world are on the Internet, either via webpages or apps on smartphones.

I can tune into a station in South Africa or Australia just as easily as listening to a local station on my FM tuner. Moreover, the Internet itself is replete with podcasts – audio clips and programs that mimic radio programs. There are also specialist web radios with a global audience that do not have conventional over-the-air transmissions. It is now not very expensive to set up a radio broadcasting studio, though one has to factor in running costs as well.

But conventional radio itself is still thriving, though advertising revenues have taken a hit thanks to both television and the Internet. In the early days of television, there was a fear that radio would go the way of the Dodo. This did not happen and the two media co-exist to this day.

In fact, most media houses have separate TV and radio channels, which sometimes simulcast programs. Radio has received an unexpected boost from the rise of the smartphone, with people tuning into local and global stations during their rush-hour commute.

There is no immediate threat of radio going off the airwaves anytime soon, but some countries have seen it fit to auction off the analogue radio spectrum for other purposes and go entirely digital or cable, in which case the stations have to migrate to the new platforms.

But there is no question that radio as a medium will survive at least one more century. Even then, the concept of radio will never fade – a voice coming from the ether to address you in your home, car, garden or workspace. Nothing can be more magical than that.