How has the radio survived?

| December 30, 2013

IMG_1586As a child I recall countless hours in my parent’s car’s going to hockey games or visiting relatives miles from our home.  WLS-890 AM or WGN-720 AM seemed to be locked channels on the car radio, intermittently or occasionally only interrupted by big band music and then back to news or talk on one of the other channels.  Early morning departures for school were met with Orion Samuelson doing the farm report on WGN-720.  If you needed to know how March pork bellies were performing or June corn, you were on the right channel.  I still stream this occasionally via the Internet to hear his voice, second only to Paul Harvey, in my opinion as iconic radio voices outside of sports broadcasting.  Paul Harvey of course would give me “the rest of story” after school going to hockey or piano practice in the car. 

When I was a little older I recall high school science class and listening to reports of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster on a transistor radio as our science teacher worked to get a TV on a cart into the room, to learn about what happened, saddened by the loss of the first teacher in space.

Years before this news of an assassination attempt on President Reagan I also recall first learning about from a small radio on our teacher’s desk.

Mike and Mike from ESPN have been driving to work with me for as long as I have been driving to work.   When they are on vacation I turn on Orion Samuelson and listen to the farm report.

I have always admired the one-man radio shows, particularly on sports radio.  These guys have to talk into a microphone for 3 or 4 hours day in and day out and either discuss the issues of athlete exploitation in college sports or how the Cowboys lost to the Packers in amazing fashion.  For hours.  A few guests and some “call-ins” can fill up some time as well as of course playing commercials “to pay the bills” but still, some people I work with cannot get through a sentence without both not organizing a thought or saying “uh” and “um” repeatedly.  Pathologists would make lousy radio show or late-night TV hosts. While I don’t always agree with radio host  perspective and arguments, I appreciate the thought and coherence they put into their work and programs. 

How and why then has the radio survived in this day and age of smartphones, communication apps and instant news and commentary, content by users, for users? How does one justify listening to radio, as I mentioned I do, a lot with other venues for news and information beyond this technology that is quite limited?

I suppose satellite radio has helped.  As opposed to listening to Mike and Mike on ESPN-1000 AM I can listen on SiriusXM 84.  WGN-720 is a mouse click away.  And I get the hometown accents and commercials to boot.

Still, it seems, at its root, dated technology, one-way, simplistic, ineffective, without doing it through an app or listening to it on headphones through a phone.

Perhaps that is the point – the simplicity, in car convenience, free of charge (thanks to advertisers).

September 11, 2001 around 8:30 in the morning I was speaking to a colleague at another hospital in the Washington, DC area when after about 25 minutes on the call he mentioned he had to go – that he was just told a plane flew into the World Trade Center in New York.  Instinctively, I flipped my office radio to the preset WTOP-1500 and for the next 16 hours listened to the news from New York, Northern Virginia and Pennsylvania as the days events unfolded.  TVs in every patient room and waiting area broadcast the horrific scene yet what I will remember most is several pathologists and laboratory personnel huddled around a radio looking at disbelief at one another that morning.

The radio seems like a technology past its prime with streaming news video 24/7/365 on handheld devices and constant news alerts ranging from sports scores to gold prices to stock market highs and world events immediately available to you without thinking about it. 

Over the years, more users have elbowed their way onto the radio spectrum as new technologies arrive. Some need ultrahigh frequencies that allow more information to be transmitted per second. It is no surprise to find a data networking technology like Wi-Fi operating at multiple gigahertz. AM and FM have been joined by many other modulation schemes with exotic names like “quadrature phase-shift keying” and “double-sideband suppressed-carrier transmission.”

Yet, the radio dial still seems to provide a constant that most recently informed me of Sandy Hook Elementary, the death of Nelson Mandela, China going the moon and the groupings for the upcoming World Cup soccer tournament. 

Betamax is gone, VHS is nearly gone, DVDs have been replaced by Blu-Ray, projection TVs have been replaced by flat panel high-definition.  8-track, phonographs, cassette tapes, audio reels, even analog broadcast TV (remember when that happened in 2009?) and many more audio/video technologies are all history, yet the radio has stood the test of time. 

November 2, 1920: KDKA, the first commercial radio station in the United States, goes on the air in Pittsburgh. July 1, 1941: WBNT, the first commercial TV station, starts broadcasting. April 3, 1973: Martin Cooper of Motorola makes the world’s first cell phone call.

Radio has transformed society three times, not to mention giving birth to the entire field of electronics. Perhaps no invention of modern times has delivered so much while initially promising so little. When radio arrived at the end of the 19th century, few thought that “wireless” communications, in which intangible signals could be sent through the air over long distances, would be competitive in a world dominated by the telegraph and telephone.

Here’s to the radio and another 100 years!


Category: Humor, Web/Tech

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