Thursday, February 16, 2012

World Radio Day highlights how a technology with a long past can also have a bright future

Monday of  this week was the officially declared by UNESCO to be  World Radio day. I was listening to the latest episode of the BBC click podcast which was devoted to this event while out jogging and I was struck by how the audio broadcasting technology has both a long glorious history and a bright future.

Here are a few facts worth thinking about:
  • Radio was effectively the first world wide web. Modern radio stations tend to broadcast at frequencies that have a relatively short range so that neighbouring radio stations won't interfere with each other, but in the early days of radio stations tended to use Long Wave transmission which had a much longer range. In fact the BBC World Service has been broadcasting globally since 1932 by using a network of transmission stations strategically placed throughout the globe that would re-transmit the programs originally transmitted from London (an architecture which is strikingly similar to that of the Internet). Of course they were assisted in the early days by the existence of the British Empire, but this network is still apparently reaching and audience of almost 200 million listeners every day.
  • Radio stations were probably the first  users of social media. As soon as telephones became widespread, many radio programs adapted the phone-in model whereby listeners could phone the radio station to contribute to the discussion happening in the studio. In recent years the technology has been updated to use Twitter and similar tools, but the basic idea has been popular for many years.
  • Radio technology is cheap and truly ubiquitous. While many people listen to radio programs on very sophisticated and hence expensive devices, cheap radio receivers are affordable for even the poorest of people. In fact their power consumption is also so low that batter powered models can be used in remote areas where no mains electricity supply is available. In fact it is even feasible to have devices whose battery can be recharged by manually winding a handle.
  • Audio broadcasts can reach people even when they are busy. For example, many people listen to the radio while preparing breakfast in the morning and almost all cars come equipped with a radio that you can use to stop yourself getting bored on long journeys. I know that some people might read blogs while driving, but this is definitely not to be recommended for safety reasons. However, listening to the radio while driving is perfectly safe.
  • Modern distribution techniques like podcasting complement rather than compete with radio. I follow may different podcasts and I notice many (but not all) of the best shows are radio programs that are simply recorded and turned into a podcast with minimal effort. The skills that radio broadcasters have learned over the years enable them to produce a very high quality product and for minimal extra effort they can transform their existing radio content into podcasts that can reach a much wider audience that are outside the reach of their transmitters. In fact I know that many colleagues who are not natives of Ireland really enjoy the fact that the Internet allows them to easily keep in touch with home by listening to the local radio station from their home town.
  • Audio broadcasting is a field that is open to both professionals and amateurs at the same time. While I was in secondary school, I had great fun working as a part-time DJ on our local pirate radio station. The technology we used was amazingly cheap and low-tech even by the standards of the time. The production standards were not very high and were not really capable of competing with the real professionals, but we did nevertheless manage to build up a loyal group of listeners. It is no surprise that there never was a pirate television station in the west of Ireland despite the fact that there was a clear demand for an alternative to the single station that was available at the time - the costs of setting up even a very basic television station would be several orders of magnitude higher.
When you consider all of these factors it is clear that audio broadcasting is a technology which will flourish in the years ahead even if the tools and techniques we use to produce the program and/or listen to the content will continue to evolve.


  1. As a child,living in a rural village in Ireland, my life was a very small world. Radio expanded my world and my imagination. Listening to stations around the globe, on short wave radio,opened up an exciting world of adventure,from my kitchen tube radio. I collected as much copper wire as I could ,and constructed a 100 meter antennae, which as a child, I was very proud of.
    Then along came transistor radios,which you could listen to pop music in bed at night on Radio Luxemburg,and later the pirate radio ships,which were exciting and rebellious.
    It was all about the human spirit reaching out,and seeking more from their daily existance.
    Fond memories, and yet today we are still creating great memories for the future, with our ever expanding tech gizmos.
    John Dooley

  2. John, Thanks for sharing those lovely memories. Brian

  3. Brian, Thanks for raising the topic.
    The pirates still broadcast/webcast.
    Radio Caroline is worth a visit,as loyal fans still keep the old ship and it's music alive.

  4. Wow! that brings memories!!!
    Did you get to see the movie?