The other day I passed a big sign “For travel condition updates, tune to 1630 AM.” That put me in the “wayback machine,” as we say.
Let's be honest: How many people these days think of turning to their radio — especially AM — to find out what's going on, day-to-day or in a crisis? We now routinely get our information from the web, Twitter, and many other sources. In fact, I’d bet that many folks don't even have an AM radio conveniently located at home, at least one that actually still works. Do you know more than a few people who consciously “listen” to the radio, except perhaps as audio wallpaper?
Even autos, which almost always now come with an AM/FM radio as a standard feature, now often go way beyond it, with satellite radio (SiriusXM), 3G/4G, MP3 and other players, and much more.
The fading away of radio's signal and presence (literally and figuratively) gives me both a historical-nostalgia twinge and also worries me on a practical level.
First, many of the advances now embedded in wireless and other technologies were driven directly and indirectly by vacuum-tube, transistor, and IC-based broadcast radio:
- The superregenerative receiver, the superheterodyne receiver, and FM technology (thank Major E.H. Armstrong for those three!)
- Various types of signal and power filtering
- Single sideband (SSB)
- Low-noise front ends
- Power amplifiers
- Receive and transmit antennas
- Synthesized tuning
- Signal-to-noise ratio (SNR) analysis and signal-processing advances
- Software defined radio (SDR)
- Adaptive signal-processing algorithms
- High-volume, low-cost production of assembled products
The list goes on; I am sure you can add many more items to it.
Further, basic radio has also been the entry point for hobbyists and experimenters, since anyone can build a zero-power crystal-diode AM radio receiver and experience the basic thrill of making something that performed a kind of “magic” out of almost nothing — and many have done so.
My other concern about the loss of basic radio is its usefulness as a communications link in times of crisis. Recent major storms and hurricanes in the US, for example, knocked out AC power and many other functional links of the communications infrastructure. All the high-tech interconnectivity we count on suddenly didn't work or was inaccessible. The only way to get the word out in many places was via radio.
Why is that? It’s simple: As long as the studio, transmitter, and antenna functions are OK, the link will work. There are no complicated switching nodes along the way, with routers, gateways, and protocols needed for the whole chain to work. There's simplicity to the setup that can't be denied.
Equally important, the technical cost of supporting more users is zero (yes, individuals have to get their own receivers, but that's not the same thing). Whether you have one listener or a million, they are all served by the same setup, and you do not run into problems of channel overload, inadequate servers, router latency, inadequate bandwidth, and all the other issues that non-broadcast technologies are prone to suffering.
In other words, it's a no-cost, no-effort, no-brainer way to serve an audience that can shrink and grow with differing situations, yet the source doesn't have to do anything. Yes, it may want to increase its power to reach farther, but it does not have to increase it to reach more people in a given area. Thus, unlike our advanced, web and IP-based world, conventional broadcast has some unique and interesting attributes we should keep in mind.
Does broadcast radio have a future? I don’t know; no one does. Listenership has been shrinking over the past few years. It's certainly no longer the medium of choice for many people — especially younger ones — to get news, views, music, and more. I know that the radio industry has tried to paint a positive picture, with statements such as “x percent of the public listens to radio in a given week.” (I can’t immediately find the value of “x” that they claimed; it's around 80 percent, I think.) The only problem is their definition of “listens to” is pretty weak: Anyone who hears a radio for 15+ minutes, whether deliberately trying to do so, or merely as background at a store, counts in their surveys.
Before we dismiss “broadcast radio” as a dinosaur, to be used only by those trapped or forced to listen to it, let’s at least acknowledge how much it has done for us in terms of technology, inspiration, and even knitting together communities and societies.
Where do you stand on the past, present, and future of conventional broadcast radio? What has its technology taught you?