The medium of radio has helped to capture and captivate audiences around the world for over a century.
Radio wasn’t always ten hits in a row and wasn’t always commercial or regulated either. By way of a presentation that had to be given at one time to a group of radio-curious students, here’s a slow but steady outline of the evolution of radio broadcasting in just around six minutes-ish.
If it’s not behind a paywall, you can also get a good feel for Irish radio history from this piece in 2018.
The evolution of radio
From its initial sparks to today’s digital innovations, radio has continually evolved, bridging distances and bringing communities together. Some corners will tell you it’s a dying medium, but of everything that’s come and gone, radio is still here and in some corners stronger than ever. So how did it start, and where is it off to?
The Early Days: Wireless Telegraphy
The story of radio broadcasting starts not with voices but with dots and dashes. In 1901, Guglielmo Marconi made groundbreaking advances in wireless telegraphy—transmitting Morse code signals without the need for wires. This invention signalled the possibilities of a new form of communication, and the world began to take notice. Marconi was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for his radio work in 1909. If you’ve ever wondered where Marconi House, home to Newstalk and TodayFM in Ireland got its name, that would be a solid guess.
A voice across the Atlantic: Ireland’s role in early radio development
One of the most pivotal moments in the history of radio took place in the serene surroundings of Ireland. Going back to that date in 1901, Marconi sent the first-ever transatlantic wireless signal from Cornwall in the UK to Newfoundland in Canada. The buildup to that event had started in Ireland with the earliest-known radio broadcast in the country said to have happened as far back as 1898, with Marconi establishing a wireless telegraphy link between Rathlin Island and Ballycastle. Marconi established a base in Clifden, Galway, in 1907 that operated until the 1920s, a station responsible for the first commercial wireless messages across the Atlantic.
The first broadcast in Ireland is considered to be a Morse code transmission, sent from the GPO in Dublin by the rebels during the Easter Rising.
However, the echo of Ireland’s contributions reverberated again in 1926 when the first official radio broadcast in the Emerald Isle graced the airwaves, courtesy of 2RN, which would later evolve into Radio Éireann and subsequently RTÉ, Ireland’s national broadcaster.
The ‘Roaring Twenties’ and the radio boom
The 1920s heralded the golden age of radio, in particular in America. Stations mushroomed across the U.S., Europe, and other parts of the world. Long before Netflix and Prime, long before TV sets were a staple of households, families gathered around their radio sets, drawn in by the music, news, dramas, and adventures that flowed from the speakers.
No longer limited to Morse code, the world could now hear voices, transcending boundaries and oceans.
World War & radio: Broadcasting on the frontlines
On the European front, the power of radio became evident during World War II (1939-1945).
It was a critical tool for propaganda, information dissemination, and boosting morale. Governments realised the medium’s potential for reaching the masses, and the radio played a crucial role on both the home front and the battlefront.
From AM to FM and beyond
Technological advancements over the years brought clearer sound quality and broader reach. In the mid-20th century, FM (it stands for ‘frequency modulation’, by the way) was introduced, offering a static-free listening experience compared to AM (which stands for ‘amplitude modulation’). By the 1970s, FM became the preferred choice for music broadcasts. In Ireland you’ll see FM adopted as part of a lot of commercial radio stations’ branding – Clare FM, Tipp FM, 96FM, Today FM, Red FM, LMFM etc.
Community radio in Ireland
In Ireland, community radio has been alive and well since the 1970s and while 2RN (later becoming RTÉ Radio 1) has been around since the 1920s, followed by Raidió na Gaeltachta and 2FM, commercial radio in Irelan was outlawed until 1989 meaning pirate radio thrived.
Once legislation and licensing were introduced in 1989, a shape began to fall on the Irish radio landscape which today sees over thirty commercial radio stations operating, backed by a growing network of community broadcasters serving needs not often met by commercial license holders.
Community license and commercial license holders typically operate within different parameters, with community broadcasting typically more focused on the immediate surroundings of the community (or up to a certain radius). At the time of writing, Craol, the body that oversees community radio in Ireland, lists 21 active community stations with a further 13 in development, all operating on FM.
A new millennium: digital broadcasting & streaming
The onset of the 21st century saw another evolution: digital radio broadcasting. DAB (Digital Audio Broadcasting) offers listeners more channels, even clearer sound, and additional information about the song or program being broadcasted. DAB trials ran for years in Ireland but while wider European markets, the UK, Australia and Canada have made great inroads with DAB, the technology was effectively given a bullet in Ireland in 2021.
Concurrently, the rise of internet availability, smartphone enhancements and smart speakers introduced more online streaming, meaning suddenly, radio stations from around the globe were accessible from desktops and smartphones.
Online advancements coupled with smarter scheduling software and increased quality in audio feeds have also seen traditional FM radio stations make the jump to additional online-only offerings of dedicated 80s and 90s channels, sports channels, documentary channels and more.
The Future of Radio: What Lies Ahead?
As we stand on the cusp of a new era, one might wonder: where is radio headed next?
With the rise of smart speakers and AI assistants, radio is becoming more interactive. Podcasts, a modern derivative of radio, have surged in popularity, indicating listeners’ appetite for on-demand, niche content. Regardless of how many podcasts there are, there never seems to be enough.
Innovations in technology may also pave the way for immersive radio experiences. Picture 3D sound environments, where it feels like you’re right in the midst of a radio drama or at a live concert broadcast. Moreover, as the world grapples with issues like climate change and socio-political divides, radio, with its vast reach, can play a pivotal role in awareness and education.
So while the methods of broadcasting and the devices we use have evolved greatly, the essence of radio remains unchanged.
It’s a medium that tells stories, connects people, and reflects the zeitgeist of every era.
Here’s to the next chapter of radio, as it continues to adapt, innovate, and captivate.