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SPJ 5020 – Term paper
Wayne State University

Instant Communications

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 Net.

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 merged.

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 TCP/IP protocol).

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 grow together.

            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.

Practical Issues

            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 newspapers.

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.

Recent developments

            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 Professional Publishing.

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 and Bacon.

Wright  R. (2002) History and Law of American Journalism. Wayne State University, SPJ 5020.