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Broadcasting is the distribution of audio and/or video signals (programs) to a number of recipients ("listeners" or "viewers") that belong to a large group. This group may be the public in general, or a relatively large audience within the public. Thus, an Internet channel may distribute text or music worldwide, while a public address system in a workplace may broadcast very limited ad hoc "soundbites" to a small population within its range. Broadcasting may involve auditory information only, as in radio, or visual, or a combination, as in television. As technology has advanced, so too have the forms of broadcasting. Historically, the term broadcasting usually has referred to the radio and television industries. Broadcasting was previously synonymous with "over the air" broadcasts, where the radio frequency spectrum is limited and thus regulated; but with the advent of direct (satellite) radio broadcasting and especially cable television, channels (and programming variety) are far more numerous (digital cable television can support hundreds of different channels) and are subscriber-based. The concept and ability of broadcasting to convey the same information, whether announcements of current events, educational material or simply entertainment, to a worldwide audience simultaneously, is a great advance in allowing humankind to overcome long-standing barriers.

Introduction to broadcasting

The term broadcast was coined by early radio engineers from the mid-western United States to distinguish electronic transmissions that are intended for general public reception, as distinguished from private signals that are directed to specific receivers. Broadcasting forms a very large segment of the mass media. Television and radio programs are distributed through radio broadcasting or cable, often both simultaneously. By coding signals and having decoding equipment in homes, cable also enables subscription-based channels and pay-per-view services.

A broadcasting organization may broadcast several programs at the same time, through several channels (frequencies); for example, the BBC broadcasts BBC One and BBC Two. On the other hand, two or more organizations may share a channel and each use it during a fixed part of the day. Digital radio and digital television may also transmit multiplexed programming, with several channels compressed into one ensemble.

When broadcasting is done via the Internet, the term "webcasting" is often used.

History of broadcasting

Defining exactly when broadcasting first began is difficult. Very early radio transmissions only carried the dots and dashes of wireless telegraphy. Broadcasting in its familiar sense, sending signals to inform and entertain large numbers of people, began in the early twentieth century. Countries in which notable advances were made in the early decades of the twentieth century include the United States, Britain, Germany, and Sri Lanka.

Broadcasting around the world

United States

One of the first signals of significant power that carried voice and music was accomplished, in 1906, by Reginald Fessenden when he made a Christmas Eve broadcast to ships at sea from Massachusetts. He played "O Holy Night" on his violin and read passages from the Bible. However, his financial backers lost interest in the project, leaving others to take the next steps. Early on, the concept of broadcasting was new and unusual—with telegraphs, communication had been one-to-one, not one-to-many. Sending out one-way messages to multiple receivers did not appear to have much practical use.

Charles Herrold of California sent out broadcasts as early as April 1909 from his Herrold School electronics institute in downtown San Jose, using the identification San Jose Calling, and then a variety of different "call signs" as the Department of Commerce first began to regulate radio. The son of a farmer who patented a seed spreader, Herrold coined the terms "broadcasting" and "narrowcasting," based on the ideas of spreading crop seed far and wide, rather than only in rows. While Herrold never claimed the invention of radio itself, he did claim the invention of broadcasting to a wide audience, through the use of antennas designed to radiate signals in all directions.

By 1912, the United States government began requiring radio operators to obtain licenses to send out signals. Herrold received licenses for 6XF and 6XE (a mobile transmitter) and had been on the air daily for nearly a decade when World War I interrupted operations. A few organizations were allowed to keep working on radio during the war. The Westinghouse Electric Corporation was the most well-known of these. Frank Conrad, a Westinghouse engineer, had been making transmissions from 8XK since 1916, that included music programming.

Following the war, Herrold and other radio pioneers across the country resumed transmissions. The early stations gained new call signs. Conrad's 8XK became KDKA in 1920. Herrold received a license for KQW in 1921, later to become KCBS a CBS-owned station in San Francisco.

The National Broadcasting Company (NBC) began regular broadcasting in 1926, with telephone links between New York City and other eastern cities. NBC became the dominant radio network, splitting into Red and Blue networks. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began in 1927, under the guidance of William S. Paley. Several independent stations formed the Mutual Broadcasting System to exchange syndicated programming.

A Federal Communications Commission decision in 1939 required NBC to divest itself of its "Blue Network." That decision was sustained by the Supreme Court in a 1943 decision, National Broadcasting Co. v. United States, which established the framework that the "scarcity" of radio-frequency meant that broadcasting was subject to greater regulation than other media. This Blue Network became the American Broadcasting Company (ABC). Around 1946, ABC, NBC, and CBS began regular television broadcasts. Another network, the DuMont Television Network, founded earlier, was disbanded in 1956.


The first experimental broadcasts, from Marconi's factory in Chelmsford, England, began in 1920. Two years later, a consortium of radio manufacturers formed the British Broadcasting Company, later becoming the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC), a non-commercial organization.

Lord John Reith took a formative role in developing the BBC, especially in radio. Working as its first general manager, he promoted the philosophy of "public service broadcasting," firmly grounded in the moral benefits of education and of uplifting entertainment, eschewing commercial influence, and maintaining a maximum of independence from political control.

Commercial stations such as Radio Normandie and Radio Luxembourg broadcast into the UK from European countries, providing a very popular alternative to the rather austere BBC. These stations were closed during World War II, and only Radio Luxembourg returned afterward.

BBC television broadcasts in Britain began on November 2, 1936, and have continued with the exception of wartime conditions from 1939 to 1945.


Before the Nazi assumption of power in 1933, German radio broadcasting was supervised by the Post Office. A listening fee for each receiver paid most subsidies.

Immediately following Hitler's assumption of power, Joseph Goebbels became head of the Ministry for Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. Non-Nazis were removed from broadcasting and editorial positions. Jews were fired from all positions. German broadcasting began to decline in popularity as the theme of Kampfzeit was continually played. Germany was easily served by a number of European medium wave stations, including the BBC and domestic stations in France, Denmark, Sweden, and Poland. It became illegal for Germans, with the exception of foreign correspondents and key officials, to listen to foreign broadcasts.

During the war, German stations broadcast not only war propaganda and entertainment for German forces dispersed throughout Europe and the Atlantic, but also provided air raid alerts.

Germany experimented with television broadcasting before the Second World War. German propaganda claimed their system was superior to the British scanning system, but this was disputed by persons who saw the broadcasts.

Sri Lanka

Sri Lanka has the oldest radio station in Asia. The station, originally known as Radio Ceylon, developed into one of the finest broadcasting institutions in the world. It is now known as the Sri Lanka Broadcasting Corporation.

Sri Lanka created broadcasting history in Asia in 1923, when broadcasting was started in Ceylon by the Telegraph Department on an experimental footing, just three years after the inauguration of broadcasting in Europe. Gramophone music was broadcast from a tiny room in the Central Telegraph Office with the aid of a small transmitter built by the Telegraph Department engineers from the radio equipment of a captured German submarine.

Edward Harper, dubbed "the father of broadcasting in Ceylon," launched the first experimental broadcast as well as founding the Ceylon Wireless Club together with British and Ceylonese radio enthusiasts. This broadcasting experiment was a huge success and barely three years later, on December 16, 1925, a regular broadcasting service was instituted.

The 1950s and 1960s

In the 1950s, television began to replace radio as the chief source of revenue for broadcasting networks. Although many radio programs continued through this decade, including Gunsmoke and The Guiding Light, by 1960, radio networks had ceased producing entertainment programs.

As radio stopped producing formal 15-minute to hourly programs, a new format developed—Top 40. "Top 40" was based on a continuous rotation of short pop songs presented by a "disc jockey." Top 40 playlists were theoretically based on record sales; however, record companies began to bribe disc jockeys to play selected artists.

Shortwave broadcasting played an important part in fighting the Cold War with Voice of America and the BBC World Service, augmented with Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty transmitting through the "Iron Curtain." Radio Moscow and others broadcasted back, jamming (transmitting to cause intentional interference) the voices of the West.

In the 1950s, American television networks introduced broadcasts in color. The Federal Communications Commission approved the world's first monochrome-compatible color television standard in December 1953. The first network colorcast followed on January 1, 1954, with NBC transmitting the annual Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena, California, to over 20 stations across the country.

In 1952, an educational television network, National Educational Television (NET), predecessor to PBS, was founded.

The 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s

The growth of FM (frequency modulated) radio in the 1970s changed the habits of younger listeners. Many stations such as WNEW-FM in New York City began to play whole sides of record albums, as opposed to the "Top 40" model of two decades earlier.

AM (amplitude modulated) radio declined throughout the 1970s and 1980s, due to various reasons including the lower cost of FM receivers, narrow AM audio bandwidth, poor sound in the AM section of automobile receivers, and increased radio noise in homes caused by fluorescent lighting and the introduction of electronic devices. AM radio's decline flattened out in the mid-1990s due to the introduction of niche formats and over-commercialization of many FM stations.

The 2000s

The 2000s saw the introduction of digital radio and direct broadcasting by satellite (DBS). Digital radios began to be sold in the United Kingdom in 1998.

Digital radio services, except in the United States, were allocated a new frequency band in the range of 1,400 MHz. In the United States, this band was deemed to be vital to national defense, so an alternate band in the range of 2,300 MHz was introduced for satellite broadcasting. American companies introduced DBS systems, which are funded by direct subscription, like cable television. European and Australian stations also began digital broadcasting (Digital Audio Broadcast).

Distribution methods

A broadcast may be distributed through several physical means. If coming directly from the studio at a single broadcast station, it is simply sent through the air chain to the transmitter. Programming may also come through a communications satellite, played either live or recorded for later transmission. Networks of stations may simulcast the same programming at the same time.

Distribution to stations or networks may also be through physical media, such as analog or digital videotape, CD, DVD, or other format. Usually these are included in another broadcast, such as when electronic news gathering returns a story to the station for inclusion on a news program.

The final leg of broadcast distribution is how the signal reaches the listener or viewer. It may come over the air as with a radio station or TV station to an antenna and receiver, or may come through cable TV or cable radio. The Internet may also bring either radio or TV to the recipient, especially with multicasting, allowing the signal and bandwidth to be shared.

The term "broadcast network" is often used to distinguish networks that broadcast an over-the-air television signal that can be received using a television antenna from so-called networks that are broadcast only via cable or satellite television. The term "broadcast television" can refer to the programming of such networks. In the U.S., examples of broadcast networks that transmit programming to member stations are ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox.

Recorded versus live broadcasting

Broadcasting may be recorded or live. The former allows correcting errors, and removing superfluous or undesired material, rearranging it, applying slow-motion and repetitions, and other techniques to enhance the program. However, some live events like sports telecasts may include some of the features of recorded shows, such as slow-motion clips of important features of the game, in between the live action.

American radio network broadcasters habitually forbade prerecorded broadcasts in the 1930s and 1940s, requiring radio programs played for the eastern and central time zones to be repeated three hours later for the Pacific time zone. This restriction was dropped for special occasions, as in the case of the German dirigible airship Hindenburg at Lakehurst, New Jersey in 1937. During World War II, prerecorded broadcasts from war correspondents were allowed on U.S. radio. In addition, American radio programs were recorded for playback by Armed Forces Radio stations around the world.

A disadvantage of recording is that the public may know the outcome of an event from another source before the recording is broadcast. An advantage of recording is that it prevents announcers from deviating from an officially approved script, as occurred with propaganda broadcasts from Germany in the 1940s and with Radio Moscow in the 1980s.

Many events are advertised as being live, although they are often "recorded live." This is particularly true of performances of musical artists on radio when they visit for an in-studio concert performance. This intentional blurring of the distinction between live and recorded media is viewed with chagrin among many music lovers. Similar situations may appear in television, when a show is recorded in front of a live studio audience, and perhaps broadcast a few hours later (such as late-night variety shows).

Business models of broadcasting

There are several dominant business models of broadcasting. Each differs in the method by which stations are funded:

  • Individually donated time and energy
  • Direct government payments or operation
  • Indirect government payments, such as radio and television licenses
  • Grants from foundations or business entities
  • Selling advertising or sponsorship
  • Public subscription or membership
  • Fees charged to all owners of TV sets or radios, regardless of whether they intend to receive that program or not

Broadcasters may rely on a combination of these business models. For example, National Public Radio (NPR), a non-commercial network within the United States, receives grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, (which in turn receives funding from the U.S. government), by public membership, and by selling "extended credits" to corporations. Member NPR stations regularly fundraise over-the-air to augment subsidies.

Broadcasting as art

Aside from usually being profit-making, broadcasting is a tremendous medium for art. Those who work with the spoken word, film, or in music, are able to utilize broadcasting to convey their work to more people simultaneously than could ever fit in an assembly or concert hall. Broadcasting also allows for art to spread over vast expanses of terrain quicker than moving in person.

The new media of television and radio led to the creation of entirely new methods to best suit them. Radio personalities develop personas unique unto themselves that allow for the best connection with their audience.[1] Television has led to a spur of technological and art advances as producers, actors, and directors had the freedom of working in a shorter format than full length feature films.

Television allows for the direct control of images and sounds to be seen by the audience, creating an entirely engrossing experience.[1] This type of experience, although without actual physical presence, engenders a greater sense of intimacy between speaker or performer and audience than a public stage.

Though broadcasting represents great opportunity, perfecting the new media has been difficult. Modern audiences looking back on historical performances can see the advances made in stories, pacing, direction, and performance.

The broadcast audience

Broadcasting has somewhat removed the communal aspect of performances as people watch or listen to broadcasts in their homes rather than in public places such as movie theaters or concert halls. This may contribute to the weakening of social ties, as it takes away another opportunity for socializing. The importance of this removal of social ties was made clear in the work of Emile Durkheim, who wrote of the phenomenon known as anomie, which describes a state of normlessness brought about by lack of human contact and belonging.

The anonymous nature of the broadcast market now, however, allows for the refinement and expression of exact tastes, as audience members do not have to defend or publicize their viewing or listening to any type of program as it is in the privacy of their home.

While the viewer may remain anonymous, the content of the material that enters homes has significant impact on human lives. Although there are constraints on the information allowed to be broadcast, many of the scenes in television programs showing news, current affairs, or interviews with celebrities, may shock viewers and change their outlook on life, either of those within their own country or in distant parts of the world. Disasters, such as the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, which took over 200,000 lives, and Hurricane Katrina, which devastated New Orleans in 2005, were reported instantly around the world. This led to greater awareness of the victims' suffering and outpourings of disaster relief efforts. The phenomenon of "embedded reporters" during the 2003 invasion of Iraq allowed live scenes of military action to be broadcast continuously on television. The broadcast images shown on television channels such as CNN, which included the bodies of slain Iraqis, literally brought home the reality of war to many households. Such experiences put a face on the otherwise anonymous victims of natural and man-made disasters.

Broadcasting ethics

There are a number of standards to which broadcasters around the world must adhere. In America, the body that decides these standards is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which in part lays out standards of decency. The FCC defines the amount of public service programming each broadcaster must provide, rules of ownership, and what is appropriate for public viewing at certain hours. The FCC levies fines against broadcasters that air material considered to be obscene. The FCC has been criticized as too strict in light of rulings over the broadcast of the film Saving Private Ryan[2] and the Janet Jackson wardrobe "mishap" during the 2004 Super Bowl.[3]

There also exist a number of private watchdog groups that monitor and critique decency and accuracy in radio, film, and television. These groups include Fairness & Accuracy In Media (FAIR) and Accuracy in Media (AIM).


  1. 1.0 1.1 Encyclopedia Britannica, The Art of Radio. Retrieved December 2, 2006.
  2. Washington Post, Saving Private Ryan: A New Casualty of the Indecency War. Retrieved December 4, 2006
  3. CNN, Apologetic Jackson says "costume reveal" went awry. Retrieved December 4, 2006.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

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External links

All links retrieved November 21, 2023.

  • Broadcasting Timeline
  • – News and info on international radio broadcasting
  • Radio Locator – A service that helps find out information, such as format, power, coverage, etc., about any American radio station
  • TV NewsCheck – Current news about the U.S. TV broadcasting industry


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