100 years of radio

We take a look back at the last 100 years of radio...
11 February 2014

Interview with 

Colin Smithers, Geoff Varrell, Steve Haseldine, Nigel Linge, Andy Sutton


We open our ears to Colin Smithers, Chairman of Plextek Group. Geoff Varrell, Director at RTT Oline. Steve Haseldine, Chairman of Deaf Alerter. Nigel Linge, Professor of telecommunications at the University of Salford  and Andy Sutton, Principle Network Architect at EE, at the Wireless Heritage SIG in Cambridge.

Ginny -   Radio was invented in the 1880s, but it only began to Picture of a Truetone brand old-fashioned radiobe put into practical use at the start of the 20th century. It wasn't initially used for broadcasting but instead to send messages between businesses and governments using Morse codE. colin Smithers...

Colin - But very quickly then it was socially important so reporting on yacht races started to happen as early as 1900, but not really suitable for broadcasting.

Ginny -   In fact the first broadcast radio stations weren't established until the 1920s.  Families would spend their evenings together gathered around a wireless and this was the Golden Age for radio.  But in 1939, the second world war hit. Radio became not just a form of entertainment, but a vital weapon for politicians. Geoff Varrell...

Geoff -   Well I think it's a mixed blessing because both for Britain and Germany and Italy, wireless broadcasting, of course fuelled nationalist identity.  It was the clash of those nationalist identities that actually caused the second world war.  Actually, it was Winston Churchill's war-time broadcasts that were tremendously important in terms of keeping the sort of British morale and I think radio broadcasting was essential to winning a war.

Ginny -   In the decades after the war, radio technology made some important advances.  Steve Haseldine...

Steve -   Well, the biggest change really was the move from the old valves to transistors and its created circuits.  So, radios went from being devices that were stuck in a room to being portable and anywhere in the house.

Ginny -   Radios became smaller and cheaper.  Meaning, many households could afford more than one.  Rather than the whole family gathering around a single wireless, younger and older members could listen separately. This opened up a whole new market of radio listeners.

Steve -   What really changed the whole scene, was in the 1960s, where you got a number of pirate radio stations. But more importantly, the music they played was for a much younger audience. It took a few years, but of course, the BBC then reacted and Radio 1 was established and it never look back...

Ginny -   Although invented in 1933, FM radio really took off in the second half of the 20th century.  The frequency band was broadened, allowing national coverage.  So, many BBC stations moved from AM to FM.  Nigel Linge...

Nigel -   As you drive around the country, of course, you are effectively picking up a slightly different frequency.  To aid that, they developed a radio data system, RDS.  In fact, the BBC pioneered the development of RDS.  Most people would think of it today as the thing that brings the traffic reports up, but it was actually brought in to help tune the FM stations as you move around.  The higher frequency also means you have shorter aerials as well.  So, portable devices became a lot more popular.

Ginny -   But FM's dominance didn't last.  In the 1990s, digital radio was developed and began to take over.  Now of course, many of us don't tune in at all and instead, listen to our radio programmes over the internet.  Andy Sutton...

Andy -   We did find during the period with GSM devices, global system for mobile communications or 2G, that we started to integrate FM radios into the actual mobile phone itself.  Nowadays of course, we tend not to do that and would rather take streamed content over the digital cellular network itself into the device.

Ginny - Thanks to all of the rest of the speakers at the Cambridge wireless conference. It will be interesting to see where radio goes in the next hundred years. Hopefully we'll still be here, well probably not me but some other naked scientist.

Chris - Do you know everyone said, as the buggles sang, 'video killed the radio stars' and it didn't quite work out like that and when the internet came along everyone said the internet would kill the radio and it's this enduring medium. I think it's due to the audio dimension and you can do other things while you listen which you can't do with other media. If you're watching a television programme you've got to watch it, whereas if you're listening to the radio you can cook the dinner while listening.

Ginny - Exactly. It's also so instant as well TV programmes take a lot longer to make so you don't get such instant news as we do.


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