Tuesday, 29 December 2020

A Century of Radio Broadcasting

Canada Post's 2020 Radio Stamps.

The tumult of 2020 has naturally overshadowed many anniversaries that took place during the year. As a historian of technology, I believe that a major overlooked anniversary for 2020 was the centennial of radio broadcasting in Canada, the United States and elsewhere. One of the few acknowledgements of this anniversary was a pair of postage stamps from Canada Post that went on sale in May during the depths of the coronavirus lockdown.

The arrival of radio broadcasting in the 1920s marked a revolutionary change to mass media, quickly bringing with it radio newscasts, broadcasts of live events such as sporting and news events, and all manner of entertainment shows. 

In the case of Canada, a live performance by soprano Dorothy Lutton was broadcast on May 20, 1920, from an experimental radio station in Montreal that later became known as CFCF. Since there were very few radio receivers at the time, a crowd gathered 200 km away at the Chateau Laurier in Ottawa to hear Lutton sing over the radio. Similar events were taking place in other countries. As radio receivers went into mass production and became affordable for more people as the 1920s went on, radios became an integral part of daily life around the world. 

What we call radio had been created in the late 19th century, but it had been used mainly to transmit morse code signals between individual transmitters and receivers. Further advances in technologies related to radio, notably vacuum tubes, were needed to make possible broadcasting of the human voice and other sounds. These advances also made possible sound amplification for public address systems and talking motion pictures. 

While newspapers were already well established as a mass medium and were capable of quickly communicating the latest news, radios gave people the ability to listen to events as they happened, offering a new degree of immediacy for listeners. By the 1930s, the voices of popular entertainers and controversial leaders became familiar to everyone, which allowed people to experience events far from home in ways that couldn’t be done with newspapers. 

In the past century radio has undergone many technical transformations, including the arrival of frequency modulation (FM) to supplement amplitude modulation (AM), and more recently, the spread of digital radio. And radio has changed in reaction to the arrival of television and online communications in all their various forms. While radio is no longer the dominant medium it once was, it remains an important way of staying in touch. I usually get my first news of the day from a radio, and I enjoy music on radios in my house and in my car. Many other people enjoy talk radio.

Because Canada has a relatively small population spread over a great deal of territory, broadcast communication has always been a matter of great importance to the Canadian government. Starting after World War II, Canadian scientists became world leaders in determining how radio waves interact with charged particles high in the atmosphere in a layer known as the ionosphere. This research led to the birth of Canada’s space program 60 years ago when Canada built its first satellites, Alouette and ISIS, to learn about the ionosphere.

When communications satellites were created to carry telephone, radio and television signals around the world, the Canadian government and Canadian space contractors established Canadian leadership in this field. Canada was the first country to create its own domestic communications satellites with the first Anik satellite in 1972.

Canada has also regulated radio and television in a very different manner from the United States. While the U.S. broadcast system is based on private providers, Canada has always had a strong national broadcaster, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, as an alternative to private broadcasters. Many people believe that the CBC and stronger government regulation of private broadcasters in Canada have formed one of the foundations of Canada’s distinct cultural identity relative to the United States.

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