Who was first?

November 1, 2006

A quiet celebration is brewing that marks a unique anniversary for radio broadcasting, although I don't expect that it will stay quiet for much longer. Radio recently marked a milestone as well. The two events are 100 years apart, but they're part of the ongoing evolution in radio broadcasting that we're all a part of. What are these two events? The anniversary will occur in December, while the milestone occurred in September. Let's start with the history.

In the June issue this year I offered a definition of radio: delivering an audio program of entertainment or information to an audience. Audio is the key for radio. But when did radio begin transmitting audio signals? Be careful. While many people are quick to credit Marconi as being the first to broadcast an audio signal, he only transmitted Morse code with a spark-gap transmitter in 1901. (And for now we won't argue the claim of him being first or that he actually received the signal; we'll save that for another time.)

The truth is that history is always sketchy at the moment something occurs, but the first audio broadcast is credited to Reginald Aubrey Fessenden, who provided a Christmas Eve broadcast in 1906. He actually transmitted an audio signal (his own voice) a few months earlier, but that was a point-to-point transmission. His Dec. 24 transmission was intended to provide a voice and music program to anyone who was listening. That's a radio broadcast to me.

This event may challenge the claim of who can be credited as being the father of radio. Debate it all you like, but the reality is that radio evolved and improved through the work of many people. It is not any one person who performed all the work. Marconi and Fessenden are important, but so are Fleming, Hertz, Tesla, de Forest, Armstrong and many others.

We like to answer the “who was first?” question for everything we do. The debate over the first broadcast station gravitates toward KDKA, but it's not hard to show that other early broadcast stations beat KDKA to it. This example leads us to define “first broadcast” and other aspects, which further clouds the issue.

Simply asking “who was first?” doesn't always yield the correct answer. The truth is that KDKA and Marconi just marketed themselves better than the others. Many people have never heard of Fessenden. The upcoming anniversary will help change that, but even when claims are settled in patent suits or in a courtroom, history may continue to get it wrong for some time to come.

First or not, the 100th anniversary of Fessenden's voice broadcast will be recognized in December. Look for more news and stories about him in the coming weeks leading to the Christmas Eve anniversary. We have our own salute to the man in this issue on page 40, which is a lead-in to a special feature in next month's issue that reviews the top technologies that have shaped radio broadcasting.

While we remember the past 100 years, radio broadcasting continues to make strides forward. I mentioned another milestone that was recorded in September. On Sept. 18, the 1,000th station commenced HD Radio transmissions. WIYY, Baltimore, was bestowed the recognition by Ibiquity. Since then more than 20 additional stations have signed on with HD Radio.

Remember the 1,000th HD Radio station event today, by the way, because I'm sure that in 100 years there will be a heated debate contesting the WIYY distinction of achieving that mark.

Regardless of who gets the credit for being first, second, 1,000th or any other distinction, the evolution of radio broadcasting is the result of cumulative efforts from inside and outside broadcasting circles. The innovation and technical evolution continues and extends beyond the confines of the airwaves and includes many other forms of wired and wireless distribution. Even with the ongoing challenge of new forms of audio media, radio holds its ground and moves forward.

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