Two million radio sets capable of broadcasting

Did you know that in the early days of radio, it was common for individuals to broadcast, not just receive transmissions? I had no idea. In the New York Review of Books, back in April 2011, Steve Coll reviews (subscribers only) Tim Wu’s book The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires:

In radio’s early amateur phase, from around 1912 until the late 1920s, low economic barriers and diverse voices gave rise to an almost limitless sense of possibility. Churches, clubs, oddballs, gadget hounds, and sports entrepreneurs launched radio stations that could reach listeners over a few square miles. By the end of 1924, American manufacturers had sold more than two million radio sets capable of broadcasting.

Two million radio sets capable of broadcasting! Two million people, households or organisations capable of broadcasting their own very local radio stations! (I assume there would be some kind of interference, but still.) It’s so completely different from how we think of radio today.

Coll continues:

Dense urban areas such as Manhattan tuned in to a cacophony on the airwaves. Nikola Tesla, who helped to commercialise electricity, believed that because of radio, “the entire earth will be converted into a huge brain, as it were, capable of response in every one of its parts.” Waldemar Kaempffert, the editor of Scientific American, imagined how the technology might build a new social cohesion and change American politics:

Look at a map of the United States and try to conjure up a picture of what home radio will eventually mean. All these disconnected communities and houses will be united through radio as they were never united by the telegraph and the telephone.

But this exciting world of democratic, bottom-up media didn’t last:

Wu chronicles with verve and outrage how David Sarnoff’s monopolising ambition at the Radio Corporation of America (RCA) snuffed out radio’s initial diversity fast. By the 1930s, on the radio airwaves, Wu writes, “what was once a wide-open medium … was now poised to become big business, dominated by a Radio Trust; what was once an unregulated technology would now come under the strict command and control of a federal agency,” the nascent FCC.

So it’s exciting to hear what radio once was, and to try and think of it differently. Rather than accepting that radio is a top-down, one-to-many system, think of it as a medium that has been, or could be, much more open to anyone with something to say. We could all have our own radio stations.

But on the other hand, if we were feeling dystopian, we should think how excited people must have been about this open new medium in 1912. About how maybe they could never imagine radio would one day be restricted, and only open to those the authorities allow to have access. And how in 2011, consequently, we largely think of radio as only something we consume. How in a century, our view of the medium has changed so much we can’t imagine the once-accepted opposite.

How do we think of the Internet today? How will people think of the Internet in 2110?


  • An aside:

    Bottom-up radio has been both a form of resistance (Italy, 1970s) and culture (Japan, 1980s):…

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20 Sep 2011 at Twitter

  • 5:24pm: A difficult day, but I finally slew the Twitter-, OAuth- and Python-headed Cerberus. The weapons needed better examples.
  • 2:13pm: By 1924 Americans had 2 million radio sets capable of *broadcasting*. Many tiny local stations. Me quoting someone else
  • 6:54am: @dracos Because most cinemas don't have assigned seats, and I'd prefer to sit through ads (while reading) and have a good seat.

20 Sep 2011 in Links