SPJ 5020 – Term paper
Wayne State University
Parallels between the introduction and development of the Internet and the Radio
by Gerard Imbert
contact: mail (at) gerardimbert (dot) com
For any of us, radio and the Internet are two totally
different mediums in respect of their use. The Internet has been hyped as
the gate allowing consumers to enter the new millennium, empowering users
to perform many new activities that were not possible before. The radio, on
the other hand, has kept its usual place in everyday life: a companion for
music and news available at the turn of a switch. These statements sound like
marketing boasts, but concrete practical differences do exist between the
two, beginning with cost.
Radio is basically free since receivers
are cheap and no further investment is necessary. Internet, on the other hand,
requires high-tech equipment that have to be replaced
every two or three years to keep up with the latest “features” that the medium
allow. For example, any old computer is theoretically capable of handling
text, but to use video and other bells and whistles, more computing power
is required. On the other hand, the Internet starts to be available in many
public libraries that allow free access, and the medium may become cheaper
in the future with new and cheaper appliances allowing to “connect” to the
Whatever the case, there are some
elements that are common between the two mediums. Since their first ideation,
some parallels have emerged. Others can be found later when the medium became
available and some practical issues arose. Finally, recent developments in
the Internet world recall some events that occurred during the “radio days”.
We will find that the two mediums are not so different after all, and that
a possible outcome of the evolution of technology may involve the two to be
The early days
Radio and the Internet can be considered as cousins.
They both have been designed as a way to facilitate communications between
two (or more) remote locations. Maybe one of the reasons why people think
the Internet is so different than radio is the fact that radio cannot deal
with images, video, and printed text. However, all these features are only
one possible use of the Net. In reality, the Net is just a network of communicating
machines, sharing a common standardized “language” to carry information (the
The way this protocol is organized
reminds old Star Trek episodes: the information they carry is “teleported”
somewhere else by cutting it down in little pieces and putting it up together
at its destination. The particularity of the protocol is that the information
will take any available path to arrive to its destination, so that every little
part can use different ways. The idea behind it is that whatever happens to
a given part of the network, the message will still be able to go through.
This is where the first parallel with radio appears: both media have been
considered by the US army as a way to improve wartime communications.
However, Radio and the Internet have known commercial
success independently from their military use. Guglielmo
Marconi’s objective in developing the radio was to allow two-way communication
for all that bought his machine, eventually replacing the telephone. In practice,
this was not an easy task, and it is only in recent year that wireless telephony
has become available.
Nevertheless, the idea that two
people could communicate was still possible at a very cheap price, but only
if the communication went in one way. The only expensive equipment would then
be the transmitter, and anybody who wanted to listen could use a cheap receiver.
Thus the radio was developed as the first broadcast medium.
The Internet, on the other hand, allowed quick
two-way communication immediately, the only limitation being the “capacity”
(bandwidth) of the network, in other words the amount of information that
can transit through it. Paradoxically, what took more time for the Internet
was becoming a broadcast medium. It was only with the advent of the World
Wide Web in 1994 that some types of broadcasting became possible, and it still
took some years for audio and video broadcasting to be available. So now,
as with Radio, the Internet permits both two-way communication and broadcasting.
The possible impacts of both media have been seriously
considered. In 1988, members of Congress considered increasing their pay by
51 percent. A radio talk show host, Jerry Williams, organized a new Boston tea party, by asking his audience
to send tea bags to congress. Other talk shows hosts followed the initiative
and Congress mailboxes were soon overwhelmed with tea bags. (Vivian, 1998).
If this was not enough to prove
the motivational effect of the radio, then we can just see how much money
has been poured into radio advertisement since the first commercial station,
KDKA, was available, and how much advertisement we have to listen to each
time we tune in. Companies pay radio because they believe in its power to
reach their customers.
Internet, on the other hand, is filled with Net
Communities. One of the most attractive features of the Online World is anonymity.
Although a series of laws would forbid anonymity to anybody doing an illegal
act (Service Providers must release personal information or will be held responsible
for the illegal actions), anything else can be done in total invisibility.
Because of this, people dare to use the Net to live a life they would only
dream of otherwise. Real communities of users have appeared, gathering around
a discussion forum or mailing list of common interest.
These users may never have met
in real life, however their exchange of ideas is
real. With the number of “Netizens” growing every
day, it is more and more likely that anyone will find at least another person
with common interests or curiosity. This allows groups to not only express
themselves, but also organize efficiently. This possibility can serve good
or bad intentions, however most of the user groups
are innocent consumers passing their time while being target for advertisers
(Turkle, 1995). The Internet, therefore, can also be a powerful
motivator by allowing people with the same ideas to emulate each other and
It is then not surprising that the government tried
to regulate both media to some extent. In the case of radio, the FCC acts
as a “broadcast cop” to distribute the available frequencies. There are technical,
safety and commercial reasons for the need of such control.
Technical reasons are the fact
that there are not so many frequencies available, since two radio transmitters
operating frequencies that are too close too each other will probably see
their signal mixed and the result will be a cacophony for the listener. Safety
reasons include the fact that many military and civilian radios are used for,
to take an example, aircraft take-off and landing, operations that could be
seriously jeopardized if somebody is broadcasting openly at the same frequency.
Finally, the commercial reasons are that it is impossible for a Radio station
to keep its credibility as advertisement support if another station is cutting
off their signals by transmitting at the same frequency but with a higher
power. Therefore when the government became interested in regulated radio,
the stations quickly agreed (Vivian, 1998).
For the Internet, the government considered that
regulation could be needed. Some laws have been passed in those regards but
overall the government has stayed away from trying to control content after
the Supreme Court declared that the Internet had First Amendment protection
and could not be censored. However, the government involvement has taken the
form of grants for development of Internet use in public schools, public libraries,
and communities (Vivian, 1998). In both cases, the government has played
a role in easing the deployment of the media.
In practice, however, some cases occur which raises
both eyebrows and the question if the government is doing enough. One of the
major concerns about the Internet is how easy it is to access pornographic
material, thus allowing children to do so. On radio there was a similar example
with Howard Stern’s show. However, in both cases the government decided that
although precautions should be taken to prevent children to access such material,
the material itself could not be removed as doing so would be an act of censorship
of the media (Vivian, 1998).
More “normal” programming, however, has been organized
to fit categories. The radio was the first to offer “mass programming”, along
with some specialized programming for given interest groups. In the Internet,
a similar kind of content programming has appeared through the use of “Portals”.
These are special (usually corporate) web sites that summary different kinds
of information on a single page (much like the first page of a newspaper).
The portals are generated by machines and can be customized for any single
user, who will see only his (or her) own customized version.
At first sight it looks different
with the way in which radio content is organized. However, the content itself
is programmed according to a certain interest group, and the customization
only occurs when the user selects which content for which interest group he
(or she) wants to receive. Therefore, to the content creator, the task remains
the same: organize content in different categories to be broadcasted separately.
The fact that portals resemble newspapers so much,
and the fact that news are easily available as a result, among with other
possible uses of the Net, have worried newspapers that their readers will
abandon the ‘traditional’ ways of receiving information, therefore stop reading
This worry is nothing new, as it
appeared before with radio when it started broadcasting live news. However,
newspapers had adapted once by giving in-depth coverage of news instead of
just reporting what happened. With the Internet, another slight change may
be necessary if newspaper notice a drop in readership,
however there are some pleasures in reading a ‘paper’ publication that cannot
be replaced by watching a computer screen.
But maybe the biggest practical problem with both
media is the fact that content publishers cannot easily charge for access
to their exclusive content. On the web, some ‘paying sites’ have appeared,
but they are soon overrun by free sites which will maybe not have the same
quality of content, but that will be an acceptable alternative to those that
do not wish to open their wallets.
With the success of such free sites,
some paying services are forced to close as they lose most of their audience.
The radio is similar. Like with some channels in cable TV (or in air TV in
France), broadcasters could easily encrypt their signals and ask for a fee
to loan a decoder. However, such move is difficult as the competition offers
similar content for free.
However, the fact that the service is free to the
final customer does not mean that the service provider does not receive any
money. For commercial Internet sites, and for commercial radio, most of the
revenues come from advertising. Both kinds of companies play with the fact
that they reach a large audience and the power to deliver commercial propaganda
to such audience. Millions of dollars can be made this way, especially if
the company can prove how much people (at least in theory) received the advertisement.
In both mediums advertisement appears
fairly often, but is tolerated since the service is completely free. However,
some non-commercial alternatives exist, financed by the government or institutions
in the case of radio, and created by hobbyists in the case of the Internet.
There are even some free net-based radios that play music continuously without
advertisement (Nectarine, online).
But the fact that the service is completely free
can be an issue for some companies, particularly to ‘content merchants’, such
as record companies. When the home tape recorder was introduced, it allowed
users to record music from the radio. The immediate worry was that people
would not go out to buy the full tape or disc record if they were happy with
what they had. On the Internet, the problem is similar except that the medium
allows the copy of whatever can be represented as digital information. In
other words, anything that is put inside a computer can be easily duplicated,
“computers are good at it” (Wright, 2002).
There many debates right now on
copyright issues, and about what should, or should not, be
done in the law about it. The picture is very confusing. In 2001 record and
movie companies complained about the millions they were losing because of
content pirates. At the same time (in two different articles in the same issue
of the same newspaper) they boasted how 2001 was the year in which they made
the most profits in all their history. The same companies make heartbreaking
claims on how bread is stolen from the artists’ mouths, but then seem nervous
at the idea of artists selling directly their work through the Net.
However, it seems ultimately that
non-commercial pirate activity (i.e. pirates who do not sell their copies)
is a form of publicity, but a form that can never be endorsed by any serious
company. At the time of radio, this “problem” was solved by imposing a tax
on audio tapes. Today, some people are talking about taxing the blank CD media.
A solution that has already been implemented in France, even after artists themselves
declared that they would never see any single Euro made from it.
But if there are problems with making money by
distributing previously made content, radio and the Internet allow another
kind of content: the live and exclusive. In radio this has taken the form
of live news reports (the Titanic, sport matches, etc.), and “talk formats”.
In the latter, people call in to talk with a host about a selected subject,
given at the beginning of the show. This not only involves listeners because they can call themselves
and give their point of view, but also because many persons in the
audience will probably share the same views (Vivian, 1998).
Higher audience, of course, means
higher possibilities for selling advertisement. On the Internet, similar “exclusive”
contents have appeared. Web sites or portals sometimes organize “celebrity
forums”. In these sites, users usually communicate through live discussion
forums, in which (commonly) each user can type what he or she wants to say
and it will be sent to all the others in real time.
The idea of celebrity forums is to bring a celebrity
to participate in the online discussion. Usually a moderator, sitting near
the celebrity, selects a question, asks the celebrity, and types in the answer.
Although we may question if the celebrity is really present during the conversation,
usually these events give out a significant amount of “exclusive” information,
so people are still interested in them. (Lessard
& Baldwin, 2000)
But the ultimate similarity between radio and Net
is not really the content, but its form as a communication medium. The truth
is that they are already overlapping each other, and will likely merge in
the near future. Radio stations are already broadcasting their programs through
the Internet, without any variation with what is sent on the air (except maybe
a slight delay). Cellular phones, operating with a technology similar to radio,
have a limited form of access to the Internet. In the US this feature has
been used widely, but in Europe it has failed as it is too slow. However,
new generations of cellular networks may allow better wireless online experiences.
But the merging can go much further.
The protocol of the Internet is merely a way of organizing information, so
it is perfectly possible to build antennas that broadcast these tiny parts
of information to be picked by any listening receiver. In France, an magazine described how to build a radio receiver to receive
digital information present on the airwaves, and the next month a reader sent
in a picture of a woman in a bikini that he had intercepted using such device.
This computer communication by radio is called “radio packet”, and it appears
that some companies are starting to consider their use for the Internet. But
even without two-way communication, computers could be set up to receive some
kind of “electronic radio” over the air, acting as enhanced radio receivers.
The future depends on public awareness
However, all these revolutions will only come after
the public accepts the possibilities of the media. For the
radio, for such awareness to take place required a catastrophe, the sinking
of the Titanic. After this event both the general public and companies
realized the importance of having wireless communication. In a similar way,
the Internet is having a new success today, after a tragedy. During the days
following the tragedy of “9/11”, the Net allowed people to communicate immediately,
to the extent of saving more lives in some cases. Like the radio, the Internet
has proven itself. Now only the future will tell what this new awareness,
and interest, will create as possible uses, while the both Radio and the Internet
continue to evolve.
Lessard, B. & Baldwin, S. (2000) Netslaves: True tales of working the web (reprint).
New York: McGraw-Hill
Nectarine (Online) free amateur music Internet radio:
Turkle, S. (1995) Life
on the screen: identity at the age of the Internet. New York: Touchstone.
Vivian, J. (1998) Media of Mass
Communication. Needham Heights: Allyn
Wright R. (2002) History and Law of American Journalism. Wayne State University, SPJ 5020.