The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has declared Feb. 13 World Radio Day to emphasize the ongoing value radio contributes to an ever-changing technological world. Despite the proliferation of the Internet, radio remains the single most important medium for communication and information access to the widest possible audience. Radio still goes many places the Internet infrastructure can’t, especially in many of the world’s developing nations. So, why do we need to give special emphasis to radio and what does the technology mean to us?
Have we taken radio for granted in our high-tech world? I think the answer is an emphatic “yes!” We may not realize this, but many of us are constantly on the air nowadays. It’s no longer just about the DJ on the broadcast radio airwaves, the ham radio operator keying Morse Code on a primitive transmitter or the pilot talking with her air traffic controllers to ensure a safe flight.
The world is now comprised of an uncountable number of tiny radios found in many electronic devices we have come to enjoy and use every day. We know, for instance, that an iPhone 4S contains at least six distinct radios: a radio capable of receiving and transmitting signals on the 2.4 GHz Wi-Fi band, a radio that can talk to Bluetooth devices such as headsets and keyboards, two different radios for talking on the CDMA and GSM cellular frequencies, another radio to facilitate Internet access through the cellular data networks and, finally, a GPS receiver. When you use your iPhone, it is safe to say you are probably using at least two, if not more, different radios all at the same time!
How is it we have come to forget about radio and take it for granted in our highly-developed technological society? I think the answer is that radios are not as obvious as they were once upon a time. In the not-too-distant past, if you listened to the radio, you were looking at a separate box with buttons, dials and switches and a set of headphones or a pair of speakers. If you were a radio star, you held a microphone and faced a bewildering panel of carts and controls. If you talked on a two-way radio, you probably had a special license or it was part of your job and you either held a small walkie-talkie type box or you sat in front of a bunch of equipment with lots of buttons, dials, knobs, meters and switches. In any case, the radio part of the task you were performing was front and center. That’s not so now.
When do you think about radio today? Perhaps, most of us really give it serious thought when we’re riding in our cars or listening to our stereos at home. Otherwise, although the radios in our lives are present, they’re usually buried. When I was talking with a friend about the radios in the iPhone, she thought I was referring to all the radio apps out there for listening to broadcast stations streamed on the Internet. Despite the shrinking of radios into tiny chips on circuit boards hidden inside our favorite electronic devices, we’re using them more often today than we ever have at any time in the past. When we talk on a cordless or cell phone, we’re talking on a radio. When we use a laptop computer to go online from our favorite coffee shop, we’re on the air. Believe it or not, we are all radio stars!
What does all this mean for the world? I think we’re slowly forgetting about radio’s past and, in the process, we may be leaving many people in disadvantaged populations and developing nations behind. The advent of Internet streaming and satellite radio has been cited as justification for massive cutbacks in the availability of programming on the shortwave radio broadcast bands, despite the fact that these radios are the only way hundreds of millions of people may be able to gain timely access to entertainment and important information about their world.
The long-time switch from the inherently non-visual radio medium to television and, now, streaming video on the Internet has meant that it can be more challenging for blind people to enjoy many forms of entertainment that were once more accessible. This is probably a significant reason for the resurgence of old-time-radio listening in the blind community.
How about emergency communication? What happens when the cell towers are blown down in a hurricane? What would happen if a significant number of the satellites we rely on for communication and navigation suddenly became unavailable? What would the world’s survivors do in the event of a massive electromagnetic pulse or nuclear war? The uber-geeky amateur (ham) radio operators have the enthusiasm, innovative spirit, qualifications and access to older equipment it would take to communicate during an emergency and coordinate the reorganization of the world when our high-tech gadgets and infrastructure become useless.
Unfortunately, the world’s governments continue to deemphasize radio. Shortwave broadcasts to many parts of the world are cut every year. Fewer and fewer people are interested in ham radio and there’s no longer a Morse Code requirement for any class of amateur radio license in America and many other countries. Morse Code can cut through radio noise like no other mode of radio transmission, but who is going to know how to use it when it is needed most?
How can we continue to move forward into the bright future of a technology-driven world while ensuring our safety and promoting stability and security? I think one small thing we can do is to keep radio in our minds and think about it a little each day. When you’re checking your email, talking or tweeting on your iPhone, remember that you are using several tiny radios to make it all happen. When you’re listening to satellite radio or streaming your favorite station through ooTunes, think about all the people in the developing world who don’t have access to this content and remember that an older technology called shortwave radio can reach them if we ensure its continued existence. Finally, think about those of us who have passed numerous qualification exams and learned Morse Code to earn our ham radio licenses, which we may someday need to use as a means of providing life-saving communications services in the event of a disaster.
I’d love to hear from readers. What does radio mean to you? Please feel free to post your story in the comments or mention me, darrell on Twitter.