The history of broadcasting began with early radio transmissions which only carried the dots and dashes of wireless telegraphy. The history of radio broadcasting (experimentally around 1906, commercially around 1920) starts with audio (sound) broadcasting services which are broadcast through the air as radio waves from a transmitter to an antenna and, thus, to a receiving device. Stations can be linked in radio networks to broadcast common programming, either in syndication or simulcast or both.
Broadcasting around the World
One of the first signals of significant power that carried voice and music was accomplished in 1906 by Reginald Fessenden when he made a Christmas Eve broadcast to ships at sea from Massachusetts. He played “O Holy Night” on his violin and read passages from the Bible. However, his financial backers lost interest in the project, leaving others to take the next steps. Early on, the concept of broadcasting was new and unusual—with telegraphs, communication had been one-to-one, not one-to-many. Sending out one-way messages to multiple receivers didn’t seem to have much practical use.
Charles Herrold of San Jose, California sent out broadcasts as early as April 1909 from his Herrold School electronics institute in downtown San Jose, using the identification San Jose Calling, and then a variety of different call signs as the Department of Commerce began to regulate radio. His station was first called FN, then SJN (probably illegally). By 1912, the United States government began requiring radio operators to obtain licenses to send out signals. Herrold received licenses for 6XF and 6XE (a mobile transmitter) in 1916.
He was on the air daily for nearly a decade when World War I interrupted operations. After the war, the Herrold operation in San Jose received the callsign KQW in 1923. Today, the lineage of that continues as KCBS, a CBS-owned station in San Francisco.
Herrold, the son of a farmer who patented a seed spreader, coined the terms broadcasting and narrowcasting, based on the ideas of spreading crop seed far and wide, rather than only in rows. While Herrold never claimed the invention of radio itself, he did claim the invention of broadcasting to a wide audience, through the use of antennas designed to radiate signals in all directions.
By comparison, David Sarnoff has been considered by some, arguably and perhaps mistakenly, as “the prescient prophet of broadcasting who predicted the medium’s rise in 1915”, referring to his radio music box concept.
A few organizations were allowed to keep working on radio during the war. Westinghouse was the most well-known of these. Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse engineer, had been making transmissions from 8XK since 1916 that included music programming.
However, a team at the University of Wisconsin–Madison headed by Professor Earle M. Terry also had permission to be on the air. They operated 9XM, originally licensed by Professor Edward Bennett in 1914, and usually sent Morse code weather reports to ships on the Great Lakes, but they also experimented with voice broadcasts starting in 1917. They reportedly had difficulties with audio distortion, so the next couple of years were spent making transmissions distortion-free.
Following the war, Herrold and other radio pioneers across the country resumed transmissions. The early stations gained new call signs. 8XK became KDKA in 1920. Herrold received a license for KQW in 1921 (later to become KCBS). 9XM became WHA in 1922.
The National Broadcasting Company began regular broadcasting in 1926, with telephone links between New York and other Eastern cities. NBC became the dominant radio network, splitting into Red and Blue networks.
The Columbia Broadcasting System began in 1927 under the guidance of William S. Paley.
Radio in education soon followed and colleges across the U.S. began adding radio broadcasting courses to their curricula. Curry College, first in Boston and then in Milton, Massachusetts, introduced one of the first broadcasting majors in 1932 when the college teamed up with WLOE in Boston to have students broadcast programs.
Several independent stations formed the Mutual Broadcasting System to exchange syndicated programming, including The Lone Ranger and Amos ‘n’ Andy.
A Federal Communnications Commission decision in 1939 required NBC to divest itself of its Blue Network. That decision was sustained by the Supreme Court in a 1943 decision, National Broadcasting Co. v. United States, which established the framework that the “scarcity” of radio-frequency meant that broadcasting was subject to greater regulation than other media. This Blue Network network became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Around 1946, ABC, NBC, and CBS began regular television broadcasts. Another TV network, the DuMont Television Network, was founded earlier, but was disbanded in 1956.
The first experimental broadcasts, from Marconi’s factory in Chelmsford, began in 1920.
Two years later, a consortium of radio manufacturers formed the British Broadcasting Company (BBC). This broadcast continued until its licence expired at the end of 1926. The company then became the British Broadcasting Corporation, a non-commercial organisation. Its governors are appointed by the government but they do not answer to it.
Lord Reith took a formative role in developing the BBC, especially in radio. Working as its first manager and Director-General, he promoted the philosophy of public service broadcasting, firmly grounded in the moral benefits of education and of uplifting entertainment, eschewing commercial influence and maintaining a maximum of independence from political control.
Commercial stations such as Radio Normandie and Radio Luxembourg broadcast into the UK from other European countries. This provided a very popular alternative to the rather austere BBC. These stations were closed during the War, and only Radio Luxembourg returned afterward.
BBC television broadcasts in Britain began on November 2, 1936, and continued until wartime conditions closed the service in 1939.
Before the Nazi assumption of power in 1933, German radio broadcasting was supervised by the Post Office. A listening fee of 2 Reichsmark per receiver paid most subsidies.
Immediately following Hitler’s assumption of power, Joseph Goebbels became head of the Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. Non-Nazis were removed from broadcasting and editorial positions. Jews were fired from all positions.
The Reichsrundfunk programming began to decline in popularity as the theme of Kampfzeit was continually played. Germany was easily served by a number of European mediumwave stations, including the BBC and domestic stations in France, the Low Countries, Denmark and Sweden, and Poland. It became illegal for Germans to listen to foreign broadcasts. (Foreign correspondents and key officials were exempt from this rule).
During the war, German stations broadcast not only war propaganda and entertainment for German forces dispersed through Europe and the Atlantic, but provided air raid alerts.
Germany experimented with television broadcasting before the Second World War, using a 180-line raster system beginning before 1935. German propaganda claimed the system was superior to the British mechanical scanning system, but this was subject to debate by persons who saw the broadcasts.
Sri Lanka has the oldest radio station in Asia (world’s second oldest). The station was known as Radio Ceylon. It developed into one of the finest broadcasting institutions in the world. It is now known as the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.
Sri Lanka created broadcasting history in Asia when broadcasting was started in Ceylon by the Telegraph Department in 1923 on an experimental footing, just three years after the inauguration of broadcasting in Europe.
Gramophone music was broadcast from a tiny room in the Central Telegraph Office with the aid of a small transmitter built by the Telegraph Department engineers from the radio equipment of a captured German submarine.
This broadcasting experiment was a huge success and barely three years later, on December 16, 1925, a regular broadcasting service came to be instituted. Edward Harper who came to Ceylon as Chief Engineer of the Telegraph Office in 1921, was the first person to actively promote broadcasting in Ceylon. Sri Lanka occupies an important place in the history of broadcasting with broadcasting services inaugurated just three years after the launch of the BBC in the United Kingdom.
Edward Harper launched the first experimental broadcast as well as founding the Ceylon Wireless Club, together with British and Ceylonese radio enthusiasts on the island. Edward Harper has been dubbed ‘ the Father of Broadcasting in Ceylon,’ because of his pioneering efforts, his skill and his determination to succeed. Edward Harper and his fellow Ceylonese radio enthusiasts, made it happen.
The 1950s and 1960s
Television began to replace radio as the chief source of revenue for broadcasting networks. Although many radio programs continued through this decade, including Gunsmoke and The Guiding Light, by 1960 networks had ceased producing entertainment programs.
As radio stopped producing formal fifteen-minute to hourly programs, a new format developed. “Top 40” was based on a continuous rotation of short pop songs presented by a “disc jockey.” Famous disc jockeys in the era included Alan Freed, Dick Clark, Don Imus and Wolfman Jack. Top 40 playlists were theoretically based on record sales; however, record companies began to bribe disc jockeys to play selected artists, in what was called payola.
In the 1950s, American television networks introduced broadcasts in color. (The Federal Communications Commission approved the world’s first monochrome-compatible color television standard in Dec., 1953. The first network colorcast followed on January 1, 1954, with NBC transmitting the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, Calif. to over 20 stations across the country.) An educational television network, National Educational Television (NET), predecessor to PBS, was founded.
Shortwave broadcasting played an important part of fighting the cold war with Voice of America and the BBC World Service augmented with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty transmitting through the “Iron Curtain”, and Radio Moscow and others broadcasting back, as well as jamming (transmitting to cause intentional interference) the western voices.
Radio Luxembourg remained popular during the 1950s but saw its audience decline as commercial television and pirate radio, combined with a switch to a less clear frequency, began to erode its influence.
BBC television resumed on June 7, 1946, and commercial television began on September 22, 1955. Both used the pre-war 405-line standard.
BBC2 came on the air on April 20, 1964, using the 625-line standard, and began PAL colour transmissions on July 1, 1967, the first in Europe. The two older networks transmitted in 625-line colour from 1969.
During the 1960s there was still no UK-based commercial radio. A number of ‘pirate’ radio ships, located in international waters just outside the jurisdiction of English law, came on the air between 1964 and 1967. The most famous of these was Radio Caroline, which was the only station to continue broadcasting after the offshore pirates were effectively outlawed on August 14, 1967 by the Marine Broadcasting Offences Act. It was finally forced off air due to a dispute over tendering payments, but returned in 1972 and continued on and off until 1990. The station still broadcasts, nowadays using satellite carriers and internet.
When the Federal Republic of Germany was organized in 1949, its Enabling Act established strong state government powers. Broadcasting was organized on a state, rather than a national, basis. Nine regional radio networks were established. A technical coordinating organization, the Arbeitsgemeinschaft der offentlich-rechtlichen Rundfunkanstalten der Bundesrepublik Deutschland (ARD), came into being in 1950 to lessen technical conflicts.
The Allied forces in Europe developed their own radio networks, including the U.S. American Forces Network (AFN). Inside Berlin, Radio in the American Sector (RIAS) became a key source of news in the German Democratic Republic.
Germany began developing a network of VHF FM broadcast stations in 1955 because of the excessive crowding of the mediumwave and shortwave broadcast bands.
Radio Ceylon ruled the airwaves in the 1950s and 1960s in the Indian sub-continent. The station developed into the most popular radio network in South Asia. Millions of listeners in India for example tuned into Radio Ceylon.
Announcers like Livy Wijemanne, Vernon Corea, Pearl Ondaatje, Tim Horshington, Greg Roskowski, Jimmy Bharucha, Mil Sansoni, Eardley Peiris, Shirley Perera, Bob Harvie, Christopher Greet, Prosper Fernando, Ameen Sayani (of Binaca Geetmala fame),Karunaratne Abeysekera, S.P.Mylvaganam (the first Tamil Announcer on the Commercial Service) were hugely popular across South Asia.
The Hindi Service also helped build Radio Ceylon’s reputation as the market leader in the Indian sub-continent. Gopal Sharma, Sunil Dutt Ameen Sayani, Hamid Sayani, were among the Indian announcers of the station.
The Commercial Service of Radio Ceylon was hugely successful under the leadership of Clifford Dodd, the Australian administrator and broadcasting expert who was sent to Ceylon under the Colombo Plan. Dodd hand picked some of the most talented radio presenters in South Asia. They went on to enjoy star status in the Indian sub-continent. This was Radio Ceylon’s golden era.
The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s
The introduction of FM changed the listening habits of younger Americans. Many stations such as WNEW-FM in New York City began to play whole sides of record albums, as opposed to the “Top 40” model of two decades earlier.
In the 1980s, the Federal Communications Commission, under Reagan Administration and Congressional pressure, changed the rules limiting the number of radio and television stations a business entity could own in one metropolitan area. This deregulation led to several groups, such as Infinity Broadcasting and Clear Channel to buy many stations in major cities. The cost of these stations’ purchases led to a conservative approach to broadcasting, including limited playlists and avoiding controversial subjects to not offend listeners, and increased commercials to increase revenue.
AM Radio declined throughout the 1970s and 1980s due to various reasons including: Lower cost of FM receivers, narrow AM audio bandwidth, and poor sound in the AM section of automobile receivers (to combat the crowding of stations in the AM band and a “loudness war” conducted by AM broadcasters), and increased radio noise in homes caused by fluorescent lighting and introduction of electronic devices in homes. AM radio’s decline flattened out in the mid 1990s due to the introduction of niche formats and over commercialization of many FM stations.
A new Pirate station, Swiss-owned Radio Nordsee International, broadcast to Britain and the Netherlands from 1970 until outlawed by Dutch legislation in 1974 (which meant it could no longer be supplied from the European mainland). The English service was heavily jammed by both Labour and Conservative Governments in 1970 amid suggestions that the ship was actually being used for espionage. Radio Caroline returned in 1972 and continued until its ship sank in 1980 (the crew were rescued). A Belgian station, Radio Atlantis, operated an English service for a few months before the Dutch act came into force in 1974.
Land-based commercial radio finally came on air in 1973 with London’s LBC and Capital Radio.
Channel 4 television started in November, 1982. Britain’s UHF system was originally designed to carry only four networks.
Pirate radio enjoyed another brief resurgence with a literal re-launch of Radio Caroline in 1983, and the arrival of American-owned Laser 558 in 1985. Both stations were harassed by the British authorities; Laser closed in 1987 and Caroline in 1989, since then it has pursued legal methods of broadcasting, such as temporary FM licences and satellite.
Two rival satellite television systems came on the air at the end of the 1980s: Sky Television and British Satellite Broadcasting. Huge losses forced a rapid merger, although in many respects it was a takeover of BSB (Britain’s official, Government-sanctioned satellite company) by Sky.
Radio Luxembourg launched a 24-hour English channel on satellite, but closed its AM service in 1989 and its satellite service in 1991.
The Broadcasting Act 1990 in UK law marked the establishment of two licencing authorities – the Radio Authority and the Independent Television Commission – to facilitate the licencing of non-BBC broadcast services, especially short-term broadcasts.
Channel 5 went on the air on March 30, 1997, using “spare” frequencies between the existing channels.
The Government of Sri Lanka opened up the market in the late 1970s and 1980s allowing private companies to set up radio and television stations.
Sri Lanka’s public services broadcasters are the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation (SLBC), Independent Television Net Work (ITN) and the affiliated radio station called Lak-handa. They had stiff competition on their hands with the private sector.
Broadcasting in Sri Lanka went through a transformation resulting in private broadcasting institutions being set up on the island among them Telshan Network (Pvt) Ltd, (TNL ,Maharaja Television -TV, Sirasa TV and Shakthi TV, and EAP Network (Pvt) Ltd – known as Swarnawahini – these private channels all have radio stations as well.
The 1990s saw a new generation of radio stations being established in Sri Lanka among them the ‘Hiru’ radio station. In the 1980s public service broadcasters like the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation set up their own FM arm.
Sri Lanka celebrated 80 years of broadcasting in December 2005. In January 2007 the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation celebrated 40 years as a public corporation.
In 1987, stations in the European Broadcasting Union began offering Radio Data System (RDS), which provides written text information about programs that were being broadcast, as well as traffic alerts, accurate time, and other teletext services.
The 2000s saw the introduction of digital radio and direct broadcasting by satellite (DBS) in the USA.
Digital radio services, except in the United States, were allocated a new frequency band in the range of 1,400 MHz. In the United States, this band was deemed to be vital to national defense, so an alternate band in the range of 2,300 MHz was introduced for satellite broadcasting. Two American companies, XM and Sirius, introduced DBS systems, which are funded by direct subscription, as in cable television. The XM and Sirius systems provide approximately 100 channels each, in exchange for monthly payments.
In addition, a consortium of companies received FCC approval for In-Band On-Channel digital broadcasts in the United States, which use the existing mediumwave and FM bands to provide CD-quality sound. However, early IBOC tests showed interference problems with adjacent channels, which has slowed adoption of the system.
In Canada, the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission plans to move all Canadian broadcasting to the digital band and close all mediumwave and FM stations.
European and Australian stations have begun digital broadcasting (DAB). Digital radios began to be sold in the United Kingdom in 1998.
Regular Shortwave broadcasts using Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), a digital broadcasting scheme for short and medium wave broadcasts have begun. This system makes the normally scratchy international broadcasts clear and nearly FM quality, and much lower transmitter power. This is much better to listen to and has more languages.
In Sri Lanka in 2005 when Sri Lanka celebrated 80 years in Broadcasting, the former Director-General of the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation, Eric Fernando called for the station to take full advantage of the digital age – this included looking at the archives of Radio Ceylon.
Ivan Corea asked the President of Sri Lanka, Mahinda Rajapakse to invest in the future of the SLBC.