Radio Activity: The 100th Anniversary of Public Broadcasting

Since its inception, public radio has had a crucial role in broadcasting history - from FDR's "Fireside Chats" to the Internet Age

With the flip of a switch in 1910, Lee deForest ushered in an era of radio communications that would provide instant, long-distance wireless communication. (Bettmann / Corbis)

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During World War II, nine in ten families owned a radio, and they listened to an average of three to four hours of programming a day, using it as their main source of news. By 1940, over a quarter of American automobiles came with radios, ready for the early equivalent of today’s “driveway moments.”

Just as radio reached its zenith, a new industry took hold. According to Michael C. Keith, American radio scholar and associate professor of communication at Boston College, the 1950s began with the “fear that radio was finished as a consequence of television.” Radio had created dramas, sitcoms, soap operas—the same broadcasting genres that television now took for itself. As listeners became viewers, most in peril were educational and noncommercial radio. They relied on grants now directed to television alone. In 1964, the Ford Foundation, formerly the main funder of educational radio, completely cut its support.

But radio did not fold. In fact, it prospered. Keith cites several factors: The creation of the transistor allowed radios to become smaller and more mobile. Also, as radio stations studied demographic data, they were able to cater more specialized programming to their audiences. Perhaps most important, though, was the emergence of a new type of music. Keith credits rock ‘n’ roll with creating the youth culture in America, and as the music took to the airwaves, so did under-21 listeners.

Over the course of the next decade, interest grew in the idea of publicly funded broadcasting. President Lyndon Johnson had supported the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, which researched this question. When the committee recommended federal funding for television alone, several radio professionals agitated for the inclusion of “and radio” in the forthcoming bill. Indeed, Johnson’s 1967 Public Broadcasting Act established the federally funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which, in turn, created National Public Radio in 1969.

Over the next 40 years, NPR accumulated member stations nationwide. Commercial broadcasting also continued to flourish. Talk radio began to dominate the AM broadcast band, with music shifting to the clear FM band. In 1987, the Federal Communications Commission repealed the Fairness Doctrine, a 1949 policy that required broadcasters to show both sides of controversial issues; the repeal continues to buoy AM talk radio today. Eventually, the AM and FM bands were joined by XM and other satellite radio services, extending the medium’s reach in the 21st century.

What, then, is the future of radio? “Internet,” says Keith. “Brick–and-mortar has given way to cyberspace,” he says. Younger audiences no longer listen to traditional radio. Rather, “they are their own programmers.” Keith sees this coming decade as a time of transition, when radio stations will refine their Internet presence to be ready for the “terminus point,” not too far into the future, when their old-form broadcasts will fold.

We owe much of the continued success of public radio broadcasting—of all radio broadcasting, for that matter—to the efforts of deForest and his contemporaries. But there is a little bit more to the story of deForest’s 1910 endeavor. The truth is, when Lee deForest flipped the switch at the Metropolitan Opera House, during the first American public radio broadcast, audiences heard almost nothing. Static and radio interference muddled the music of Cavalleria Rusticana and Pagliacci, the performances that evening. As Keith puts it, the “great self-promoter” deForest was “ultimately granted the title of Father of Radio, but with some reserve.” That night in 1910 gained significance mainly as a symbol. It marked the intended start of a century of broadcasting, a golden age of radio eventually eclipsed, mid-century, by the rise of a new box, the television.

Today, 100 years after deForest’s experiment, the Metropolitan Opera makes its performances available on the Internet, our modern-day wireless wonder. But listeners and fans alike can still hear the Met’s radio broadcasts on Saturday afternoon on NPR—and these days, the music is crystal clear.


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