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Radio in the time of digital tech: the surprising ways in which radio sneaks into our daily life

Sutrishna Ghosh
13th Feb 2019
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Today is World Radio Day. In the midst of streaming music, Google Home and Amazon Echo, let's take a look at how the humble radio sparked this saga of technological innovation.


“So don't become some background noise

A backdrop for the girls and boys

You had your time, you had the power

You've yet to have your finest hour.”


It's tough to read those lyrics without singing them out loud. Queen frontman Freddie Mercury’s 1984 hit Radio Ga Ga not only captured the essence of this ever-evolving medium but also immortalised it. While it is true that broadcast in the current times – television, streaming video and what have you– has cast a shadow on radio, let's not forget that none of today’s cool tech would have been possible without it.


To understand the history of radio, one needs to understand the history of radio wave technology that was first used for wireless communication. Much of what defines our modern day life is, in fact,  based on the premise of the development and evolution of radio technology. From wireless connectivity to Bluetooth and even smart homes equipped with IoT-enabled devices - it all started with the radio.



The question is: who discovered it first?


Experiments with electromagnetism began as early as in the 1700s. Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell laid the foundation in theoretical form with his Treatise on Electricity and Magnetism way back in 1873. But it was German physicist Heinrich Hertz, who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves through experimentation. However, it wasn’t until the late 1800s that the concept was utilised in telecommunication.


Two names crop up when one looks at this - Serbian-American inventor Nikolai Tesla and Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi. Although Tesla is believed to have first demonstrated what would be an early version of the radio in St. Louis in 1893, the invention is usually attributed to Marconi. Why? For the simple reason that he was conferred the first-ever patent for a wireless telegraphic system. While this was a monumental achievement, it continues to fuel debate over the original inventor even now.


Radio during World War I and II


How we view the radio today is very different from its earliest counterpart. After Marconi popularised the wireless technology, radio was mostly used for communication through telegraphy. It was especially significant in terms of naval communication as ships out in the sea used it to communicate with other ships and even the land station. The true potential of radio technology, however, wasn’t realised until World War I.


Source: Flickr

The military usage of radio, to send and receive critical intelligence, became quite popular during this period. Riding on this wave, radar technology, the first remote-controlled vehicles, and various surveillance tools were also built.


Radio becomes public


The post-World War II era would usher in a new age for radio. Not only did countries start integrating this technology for public use, but the way information was sent and consumed changed also drastically. Around this time, television broadcasts over radio waves became immensely popular. In fact, broadcast companies like the British Broadcasting Company or BBC in the UK and the AT&T in the US, which had cropped up between WWI and WWII, shifted gears and began incorporating entertainment.

Even the content of the programming witnessed a transition from information-centric broadcast and episodic formats to music-heavy programmes. Tune in to the radio was a commonly-used phrase to the point where music and radio almost became synonymous. 


Radio, as we know it today 


The Kermode and Mayo's Film Review, BBC's "flagship film programme", is a radio show that has grown its distribution by leaps and bounds. It started with a local programme in the UK in 2001. As the years went by, the show introduced simultaneous webcasts, made its programming available on BBC iPlayer and as a podcast, growing its audience globally. No easy feat for a radio show, if you should know. 


Contrary to popular belief, radio thrives beyond the stereo set in your car. In the current digital-heavy landscape, radio has taken a newer shape, and has even entered newer platforms. It lives on the Web. It survives as content in audio files and podcasts. It continues to touch a million lives as a tech, growing with 5G networks and high-speed connectivity. Tesla and Marconi couldn’t possibly have imagined what they would bring about while tinkering with electromagnetism. 


Growing at a dizzying pace, wireless technology has impacted nearly every sector in one way or the other. In the field of medicine, IoT-connected healthcare devices and equipment are steadily becoming popular. IoT sensors appear to have replaced traditional methods of farming while increasing yields by ensuring precision. Even logistics and transport is no longer strangers to satellite trackers, internet-connected trackers, and wireless sensors for fleet management.


Ahead of the eighth World Radio Day, UN Secretary-General António Guterres aptly summarises, “Even in today’s world of digital communications, radio reaches more people than any other media platform.”


True, the style and shape may have changed. But the essence remains the same as agencies like the UN and broadcasters from across the world use radio to foster conversations around the theme of “Dialogue, Tolerance and Peace” on this World Radio Day.


So, in the midst of streaming music on your iPods, smartphones, Google Homes and Amazon Echos, remember the humble radio that sparked this saga of technological innovation.


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