Radio broadcasting is a one-way wireless transmission over radio waves intended to reach a wide audience. Stations can be linked in radio networks to broadcast a common radio format, either in broadcast syndication or simulcast or both. Audio broadcasting also can be done via cable radio, local wire television networks, satellite radio, and internet radio via streaming media on the Internet. The signal types can be either analog audio or digital audio.
In 2009, there were 3,494 radio broadcasting stations in the United States.
The earliest radio stations were simply radiotelegraphy systems and did not carry audio. For audio broadcasts to be possible electronic detection and amplification devices had to be incorporated.
The thermionic valve was invented in 1904 by the English physicist John Ambrose Fleming. He developed a device he called an "oscillation valve" (because it passes current in only one direction). The heated filament, or cathode, was capable of thermionic emission of electrons that would flow to the plate (or anode) when it was at a higher voltage. Electrons, however, could not pass in the reverse direction because the plate was not heated and thus not capable of thermionic emission of electrons. Later known as the Fleming valve, it could be used as a rectifier of alternating current and as a radio wave detector. This greatly improved the crystal set which rectified the radio signal using an early solid-state diode based on a crystal and a so-called cat's whisker. However, what was still required was an amplifier.
The triode (mercury-vapor filled with a control grid) was patented on March 4, 1906 by the Austrian Robert von Lieben independent from that, on October 25, 1906 Lee De Forest patented his three-element Audion. It wasn't put to practical use until 1912, when its amplifying ability became recognized by researchers.
By about 1920, valve technology had matured to the point where radio broadcasting was fast becoming viable. However, an early audio transmission that could be termed a broadcast may have occurred on Christmas Eve in 1906 by Reginald Fessenden, although this is disputed. While many early experimenters attempted to create systems similar to radiotelephone devices by which only two parties were meant to communicate, there were others who intended to transmit to larger audiences. Charles Herrold started broadcasting in California in 1909 and was carrying audio by the next year. (Herrold's station eventually became KCBS).
In The Hague, the Netherlands, PCGG started broadcasting on November 6, 1919, making it, arguably the first commercial broadcasting station. In 1916, Frank Conrad, an employee for the Westinghouse Electric Corporation, began broadcasting from his Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania garage with the call letters 8XK. Later, the station was moved to the top of the Westinghouse factory building in East Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Westinghouse relaunched the station as KDKA on November 2, 1920, as the first commercially licensed radio station in America. The commercial broadcasting designation came from the type of broadcast license; advertisements did not air until years later. The first licensed broadcast in the United States came from KDKA itself: the results of the Harding/Cox Presidential Election. The Montreal station that became CFCF began broadcast programming on May 20, 1920, and the Detroit station that became WWJ began program broadcasts beginning on August 20, 1920, although neither held a license at the time.
In 1920 wireless broadcasts for entertainment began in the UK from the Marconi Research Centre 2MT at Writtle near Chelmsford, England. A famous broadcast from Marconi's New Street Works factory in Chelmsford was made by the famous soprano Dame Nellie Melba on 15 June 1920, where she sang two arias and her famous trill. She was the first artist of international renown to participate in direct radio broadcasts. The 2MT station began to broadcast regular entertainment in 1922. The BBC was amalgamated in 1922 and received a Royal Charter in 1926, making it the first national broadcaster in the world.
Radio Argentina began regularly scheduled transmissions from the Teatro Coliseo in Buenos Aires on August 27, 1920, making its own priority claim. The station got its license on November 19, 1923. The delay was due to the lack of official Argentine licensing procedures before that date. This station continued regular broadcasting of entertainment and cultural fare for several decades.
Radio in education soon followed and colleges across the U.S. began adding radio broadcasting courses to their curricula. Curry College 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.
Broadcasting by radio takes several forms. These include AM and FM stations. There are several subtypes, namely commercial broadcasting, non-commercial educational (NCE) public broadcasting and non-profit varieties as well as community radio, student-run campus radio stations and hospital radio stations can be found throughout the world.
Many stations broadcast on shortwave bands using AM technology that can be received over thousands of miles (especially at night). For example, the BBC, VOA, VOR, and Deutsche Welle have transmitted via shortwave to Africa and Asia. These broadcasts are very sensitive to atmospheric conditions and solar activity.
Arbitron, the United States-based company that reports on radio audiences, defines a "radio station" as a government-licensed AM or FM station; an HD Radio (primary or multicast) station; an internet stream of an existing government-licensed station; one of the satellite radio channels from XM Satellite Radio or Sirius Satellite Radio; or, potentially, a station that is not government licensed.
See Shortwave for the differences between shortwave, medium wave and long wave spectra. Used largely for national broadcasters, international propaganda, or religious broadcasting organizations.
AM stations were the earliest broadcasting stations to be developed. AM refers to amplitude modulation, a mode of broadcasting radio waves by varying the amplitude of the carrier signal in response to the amplitude of the signal to be transmitted.
The medium-wave band is used worldwide for AM broadcasting. Europe also uses the long wave band. In response to the growing popularity of FM radio stereo radio stations in the late 1980s and early 1990s, some North American stations began broadcasting in AM stereo, though this never gained popularity, and very few receivers were ever sold.
One of the advantages of AM is that its signal can be detected (turned into sound) with simple equipment. If a signal is strong enough, not even a power source is needed; building an unpowered crystal radio receiver was a common childhood project in the early decades of AM broadcasting.
AM broadcasts occur on North American airwaves in the medium wave frequency range of 530 to 1700 kHz (known as the "standard broadcast band"). The band was expanded in the 1990s by adding nine channels from 1620 to 1700 kHz. Channels are spaced every 10 kHz in the Americas, and generally every 9 kHz everywhere else.
The signal is subject to interference from electrical storms (lightning) and other electromagnetic interference (EMI).
AM transmissions cannot be ionospherically propagated during the day due to strong absorption in the D-layer of the ionosphere. In a crowded channel environment this means that the power of regional channels which share a frequency must be reduced at night or directionally beamed in order to avoid interference, which reduces the potential nighttime audience. Some stations have frequencies unshared with other stations in North America; these are called clear-channel stations. Many of them can be heard across much of the country at night. This is not to be confused with Clear Channel Communications, merely a brand name, which currently owns many U.S. radio stations on both the AM and FM bands. During the night, absorption largely disappears and permits signals to travel to much more distant locations via ionospheric reflections. However, fading of the signal can be severe at night.
AM radio transmitters can transmit audio frequencies up to 15 kHz (now limited to 10 kHz in the US due to FCC rules designed to reduce interference), but most receivers are only capable of reproducing frequencies up to 5 kHz or less. At the time that AM broadcasting began in the 1920s, this provided adequate fidelity for existing microphones, 78 rpm recordings, and loudspeakers. The fidelity of sound equipment subsequently improved considerably, but the receivers did not. Reducing the bandwidth of the receivers reduces the cost of manufacturing and makes them less prone to interference. AM stations are never assigned adjacent channels in the same service area. This prevents the sideband power generated by two stations from interfering with each other. Bob Carver created an AM stereo tuner employing notch filtering that demonstrated that an AM broadcast can meet or exceed the 15 kHz baseband bandwidth alloted to FM stations without objectionable interference. After several years, the tuner was discontinued. Bob Carver had left the company and the Carver Corporation later cut the number of models produced before discontinuing production completely.
FM refers to frequency modulation, and occurs on VHF airwaves in the frequency range of 88 to 108 MHz everywhere except Japan and Russia. Japan uses the 76 to 90 MHz band. Russia has two bands, 65.9 to 74 MHz (which was widely used in the former Soviet Union) and 87.5 to 108 MHz worldwide standard. FM stations are much more popular since higher sound fidelity and stereo broadcasting became common in this format.
FM radio was invented by Edwin H. Armstrong in the 1930s for the specific purpose of overcoming the interference problem of AM radio, to which FM is relatively immune. At the same time, greater fidelity was made possible by spacing stations further apart. Instead of 10 kHz apart, as on the AM band in the US, FM channels are 200 kHz (0.2 MHz) apart. In other countries greater spacing is sometimes mandatory, such as in New Zealand, which uses 700 kHz spacing (previously 800 kHz). The improved fidelity made available was far in advance of the audio equipment of the 1940s, but wide interchannel spacing was chosen to take advantage of the noise-suppressing feature of wideband FM.
Bandwidth of 200 kHz is not needed to accommodate an audio signal — 20 kHz to 30 kHz is all that is necessary for a narrowband FM signal. The 200 kHz bandwidth allowed room for ±75 kHz signal deviation from the assigned frequency, plus guard bands to reduce or eliminate adjacent channel interference. The larger bandwidth allows for broadcasting a 15 kHz bandwidth audio signal plus a 38 kHz stereo "subcarrier"—a piggyback signal that rides on the main signal. Additional unused capacity is used by some broadcasters to transmit utility functions such as background music for public areas, GPS auxiliary signals, or financial market data.
The AM radio problem of interference at night was addressed in a different way. At the time FM was set up, the available frequencies were far higher in the spectrum than those used for AM radio - by a factor of approximately 100. Using these frequencies meant that even at far higher power, the range of a given FM signal was much shorter; thus its market was more local than for AM radio. The reception range at night is the same as in the daytime. All FM broadcast transmissions are line-of-sight, and ionospheric bounce is not viable. The much larger bandwidths, compared to AM and SSB, are more susceptible to phase dispersion. Propagation speeds (celerities) are fastest in the ionosphere at the lowest sideband frequency. The celerity difference between the highest and lowest sidebands is quite apparent to the listener. Such distortion occurs up to frequencies of approximately 50 MHz. Higher frequencies do not reflect from the ionosphere, nor from storm clouds. Moon reflections have been used in some experiments, but require impractical power levels.
The original FM radio service in the U.S. was the Yankee Network, located in New England. Regular FM broadcasting began in 1939, but did not pose a significant threat to the AM broadcasting industry. It required purchase of a special receiver. The frequencies used, 42 to 50 MHz, were not those used today. The change to the current frequencies, 88 to 108 MHz, began after the end of World War II, and was to some extent imposed by AM broadcasters as an attempt to cripple what was by now realized to be a potentially serious threat.
FM radio on the new band had to begin from the ground floor. As a commercial venture it remained a little-used audio enthusiasts' medium until the 1960s. The more prosperous AM stations, or their owners, acquired FM licenses and often broadcast the same programming on the FM station as on the AM station ("simulcasting"). The FCC limited this practice in the 1960s. By the 1980s, since almost all new radios included both AM and FM tuners, FM became the dominant medium, especially in cities. Because of its greater range, AM remained more common in rural environments.
Pirate radio is illegal or non-regulated radio transmission. It is most commonly used to describe illegal broadcasting for entertainment or political purposes. Sometimes it is used for illegal two-way radio operation. Its history can be traced back to the unlicensed nature of the transmission, but historically there has been occasional use of sea vessels—fitting the most common perception of a pirate—as broadcasting bases. Rules and regulations vary largely from country to country, but often the term pirate radio generally describes the unlicensed broadcast of FM radio, AM radio, or short wave signals over a wide range. In some places radio stations are legal where the signal is transmitted, but illegal where the signals are received—especially when the signals cross a national boundary. In other cases, a broadcast may be considered "pirate" due to the type of content, its transmission format, or the transmitting power (wattage) of the station, even if the transmission is not technically illegal (such as a web cast or an amateur radio transmission). Pirate radio stations are sometimes referred to as bootleg radio or clandestine stations.
Digital radio broadcasting has emerged, first in Europe (the UK in 1995 and Germany in 1999), and later in the United States, France, the Netherlands, South Africa and many other countries worldwide. The most simple system is named DAB Digital Radio, for Digital Audio Broadcasting, and uses the public domain EUREKA 147 (Band III) system. DAB is used mainly in the UK and South Africa. Germany and Holland use the DAB and DAB+ systems, and France uses the L-Band system of DAB Digital Radio.
In the United States, digital radio isn't used in the same way as Europe and South Africa. Instead, the IBOC system is named HD Radio and owned by a consortium of private companies that is called iBiquity. An international non-profit consortium Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), has introduced the public domain DRM system.
Satellite radio broadcasters are slowly emerging, but the enormous entry costs of space-based satellite transmitters, and restrictions on available radio spectrum licenses has restricted growth of this market. In the USA and Canada, just two services, XM Satellite Radio and Sirius Satellite Radio exist. Both XM and Sirius are owned by Sirius XM Radio, which was formed by the merger of XM and Sirius on July 29, 2008, whereas in Canada, XM Radio Canada and Sirius Canada remain separate companies.
Radio program formats differ by country, regulation and markets. For instance, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission designates the 88–92 megahertz band in the U.S. for non-profit or educational programming, with advertising prohibited.
In addition, formats change in popularity as time passes and technology improves. Early radio equipment only allowed program material to be broadcast in real time, known as live broadcasting. As technology for sound recording improved, an increasing proportion of broadcast programming used pre-recorded material. A current trend is the automation of radio stations. Some stations now operate without direct human intervention by using entirely pre-recorded material sequenced by computer control.