Written by Stannah 13-02-2017

World Radio Day: An interesting journey through the airwaves

Did you know that more than half the world’s population is not connected to the Internet? Despite changing times, for many, radio is still the most accessible medium.

On February 13, 1946, the United Nations Radio produced its first broadcast. It was a solemn moment as the world transitioned away from a period of violence and tragedy, towards an era of international peace and security.



To honor the importance of that period in history, UNESCO’s executive board decided to establish a World Radio Day, in 2016. The main goal was to raise the public’s awareness of the importance of radio in our society and to enhance cooperation among broadcasters from different countries. To know the history of radio is to understand how mass media helped shape the major events of the 20th century.

Check out these interesting and surprising facts:

Did you know? UNESCO Facts
The Invention of Radio
History of Radio in the USA
Fun Facts about Radio
Books about Radio

Did you know? UNESCO facts

Radio is you

Detail from UNESCO World Radio Day Infographics.

Would you be surprised to find out that 94% of adults listen to the radio weekly? Whether through their smartphones, PCs, or cars: worldwide, more people listen to the radio than watch TV or stream video on their smartphones. But, there’s more!



Radio facts

Detail from UNESCO World Radio Day Infographics.

In developing countries, UNESCO estimates there are 800 million radios. Also, 73% of farmers own a radio because in some developing countries it is the only way to access information. In South Africa, 9000 children have access to education through solar radios and 3.9 billion people do not have access to the Internet.


Radio worldwide

Detail from UNESCO World Radio Day Infographics

UNESCO also points out some interesting facts from different countries:

  • Norway will go completely digital by December 2017, by switching off its FM Radio.
  • Syrian radio station, Rozana, uses WhatsApp to collect information from its listeners.
  • Bhubaneswar, in India, is organizing their World Radio Day event and will display 2000 antique radios.
  • Argentinians spend an average of 20.8 hours per week listening to the radio.
  • Morocco’s first FM community radio was launched in 2016.
  • Congo will have their first community radio, produced by UNESCO, on February 13, 2017.
  • Kimbobo: Bandundu FM’s listener club helps produce radio stories in exchange for $200 a month by processing rice and putting profits back into the radio station.

How did this journey through the airwaves begin?

The Invention of Radio

No other modern invention has delivered so much while initially promising so little. While some thought of radio as magic, many underestimated it at first, not seeing the huge potential of electromagnetic waves.

History of the radio

The invention of radio was not achieved by a single person; instead, it took several contributors to discover the wireless telegraphy and to accomplish the first broadcast.


It all started with the theoretical and mathematical studies of James Clerk Maxwell, published in 1864. Maxwell (1831-1879) was a Scottish scientist who worked in mathematical physics, who set the foundations for the invention of the radio. Basically, he discovered electromagnetic waves.


Rudolf Hertz (1857-1894), a German physicist, would experiment and demonstrate the validity of Maxwell’s theories in 1899. Hertz was able to prove the existence of airborne electromagnetic waves, later named “Hertzian waves”. At the time, this extraordinary experiment did not receive the recognition it deserved. However, following Hertz’s death in 1894, his legacy has had a profound influence on scientists around the world.


Guglielmo Marconi (1874-1937), an Italian inventor, was instrumental in furthering the development of radio.

It was after reading a study by Hertz on electromagnetic waves that Marconi began to understand and develop his own theories. During the summer of 1894, Marconi worked day and night to build the instruments necessary to materialize Hertz’s experiments. At first, his attempts yielded only frustration; but, in the spring of 1895, Marconi discovered that grounded antennas could send signals over a mile away, rather than only a few hundred yards (as had previously been thought). His greatest desire was to prove that Hertzian waves could overcome obstacles and reach places far out of sight.

In August 1896, after a series of positive results, he created the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company Ltd for the development and propagation of radio communication. This resulted from the fact that he was awarded a patent for radio based wired telegraphy.

In December 1902, Marconi transmitted the first radio signal from Nova Scotia, North America, back to Great Britain.

 In 1905, the importance of radio for military purposes was acknowledged for the first time when the Japanese navy destroyed the Russian fleet, in part because of radio equipment they bought from Marconi.

In 1912, Marconi opened the first radio factory, in Chelmsford, England, employing more than 50 people.  According to Susan J. Douglas, a radio historian at the University of Michigan, Marconi “took the radio to the marketplace, but he never had the idea of broadcasting.”

The History of Radio in America


Despite all of its potential, broadcasting was started by amateurs.

Radio sending

After the First World War, former soldiers, who had acquired technical knowledge on military radiotelegraphy, built very basic transmission and reception stations. They were known as radio amateurs but were essential to the development of radio broadcasting. However, authorities did not approve these experiments because they intended radio to be used only for military purposes. By 1919 there were more than 10,000 radio amateurs.

The First Broadcaster

In 1919, Frank Conrad, of Pittsburgh, PA, was the first to transmit regular AM broadcasts in the United States. He would transmit sports scores and some talk, but mostly played music. He was even considered to be the first to broadcast radio ads. Therefore, Frank Conrad’s radio station was the first commercial broadcasting station.

In September 1921, a concert from the New York Philharmonic Orchestra was broadcasted for the first time and it was a huge success.

In 1921, there were 50,000 radios in the USA; by 1922, half a million and in 1924, 1.5 million!

Radio and the Great Depression

After the Great Depression began, in 1929, the United States suffered through an extended period of high unemployment, poverty, low profits, and deflation. This also affected the growth of the radio and music industries. However, it was even more difficult for the record industry, since radio broadcast was much cheaper. Many predicted the end of records. But soon, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers (ASCAP) started to collect licensing fees from radio stations if they wanted to play their records. However, this did not stifle the growth of radio; instead, it quickly began to thrive. The Golden Age of Radio spanned from the late 1920’s to the late 1940’s. It was an era characterized by many unique programs and broadcasts, including   newly developed drama programs, nicknamed, “Soap Operas.”

FM Radio

In 1933, Edwin Armstrong (1890-1954) was credited with developing wide-band frequency modulation (FM), which reduces static and interference from electrical equipment and the atmosphere. FM radio is positioned between 88 MHz and 108 MHz. Users as diverse as police dispatchers, air traffic controllers, and cell phone callers all have their own bands. Despite its prevalence today, FM radio really only became popular in the 1960s.

Radio and the Second World War

Before television appeared, radio was the cheapest and most effective way to prevent or promote social change. This lead to the rise of radio propaganda. Through the use of this technology, information could travel over great distances, delivered to a large audience that would hear the propagandist voice and be persuaded.

In August 1940, America conducted its first international broadcast. This was due in part to Hitler’s advance across Europe and President Roosevelt’s concern about the effects of Nazi propaganda. So, he issued an Executive Order that would lead to the creation of a government radio known as “Voice of America”. People could hear war news and the President even had his own show, known as “fireside chats”. Other popular shows were entitled “On National Security” and “On the Declaration of War with Japan”.

After the Pearl Harbor attack, in December 1941, American radio became part of a propaganda campaign. The first broadcast to Germany was in February 1942, introduced by the “The Battle Hymn of the Republic”. Governments started to understand radio’s potential not only for communications but also as a weapon. 

From Pocket Radio to Digital Transmission

In 1954, the first pocket transistor radio appeared in the market.  Known as the Regency TR1, it was powered by a standard 22.5V battery and was small enough to fit in one’s pocket. According to Fortune Magazine, “If you owned one, you were the coolest thing on two legs.”

Regency TR1

In the 1980s, people took their music to the streets, with a new popular urban trend: boomboxes.

In the early 1990s, radio amateurs began to use computers with audio cards to process radio signals. By the late 1990s, digital transmissions began to be applied to broadcasting.

Radio boombox

Internet Radio

Internet radio involves streaming media and can be called webcasting. There is also podcasting when the audio content is available to download.


According to study from eMarketer (Edison Research), in May 2016, 44% of all time spent listening to music was on the AM/FM radio format, followed by 18% that listen to purchased music and, finally, streaming (Spotify, Pandora, etc.) accounted for 17% of music listening time. It means that “radio continues to have a hold on the largest share of the music-listening market, [and] subscriptions to streaming music sites are growing globally” (Edison Research, “Share of Music: A Share of Ear Report,” Oct 18, 2016).

As stated by UNESCO, radio is still the cheapest method for transmission of news and advertising and reaches the broadest audience. Also, the fact that radio facilities are placed in cars, trains and mobile phones, makes it easier than ever to listen. In countries where free expression is still a distant dream, radio continues to play an important role in information sharing. Where expensive technologies, like TV and the Internet, are difficult to access, radio continues to play a pivotal role for the developing world.

Some thought radio would be replaced by TV and then by cyberspace, but these developments have only strengthened its impact! Engineers continue to find more and more uses for radio, and the range of frequencies never seem to end.

The importance of radio in our society continues to grow as   broadcasting, webcasting and podcasting remain extremely popular all over the world.  Radio is truly here to stay!

How has radio changed during your lifetime? What role has it played in your life? Tell us your story!

Fun facts about Radio

Fun Facts Radio

  • Radio stations, especially the short-wave and AM bands, get better reception at night, because they can travel much farther. Unlike TV transmissions, that only travel in straight lines, AM stations can circle the globe.
  • The first two-way contact between Earth and Mars was through electromagnetic waves, in November 1969.
  • According to The Telegraph, the story that mass panic broke out because of Orson Welles “War of the Worlds” radio show, in 1938, was a myth.
  • Edwin Armstrong, who invented FM Radio, was skillful at climbing radio towers up to 115-foot high.
  • Ironically, the very first video to be played on MTV was “Video Killed the Radio Star”, by the Buggles, in 1981.
  • In 1960, George, a teenager from Chicago, lost a front tooth and had to have a wire brace. He started to hear music from his teeth.
  • In 1999, Wilson Casey, from WKDY-AM radio station, performed the longest broadcast. He spent 30 consecutive hours asking 3,303 trivia questions on air;
  • Perhaps the greatest underestimation of radio’s potential   came from David Sarnoff in the 1920s: “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
  • There are 4 places in the United States with Radio in their names: Radio Junction (Texas), Radio Springs (Georgia), Radioville (Indiana), Radioville (Puerto Rico);

Books about Radio

  • Listening In: Radio And The American Imagination, by Susan J. Douglas
  • Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, by Jesse Walker
  • 40 Watts from Nowhere: A Journey into Pirate Radio, by Sue Carpenter
  • Seizing the Airwaves: A Free Radio Handbook, by Stephen Dunifer
  • Beyond Powerful Radio: A Communicator’s Guide to the Internet Age: News, Talk, Information & Personality, by Valerie Geller (audiobook)