Harvard Hero Moment #18: The radio star lives on, video acquitted of murder charge

Joe McNamara

27 Jan 2020

Listening to the radio has always been a special part of my life. Maybe it’s because we seemed to spend a lot of time in the car as a family, or because my Dad couldn’t start a DIY task without the whirring of an old transistor radio. My Granddad even used to come to our house to listen to Wolves games ‘on the wireless’ as Nan didn’t want to hear his shadow commentary, which – despite being based on second hand information – was as aggravated as it was biased. Even now, despite the plethora of options available, my downtime is dominated by radio, whether it’s getting my fix of chart music in the car or hearing the football scores roll in while I’m cooking. That’s why my hero moment is 100 years of radio.

A century of influence

This year marks a century since the first ever radio news broadcast, which took place on August 31st 1920 to be precise. Radio made its official debut as an entertainment medium in the same year, airing the first broadcast of a sporting event that November. It’s a pioneering technology if ever there was one. Radio was the first tool of mass broadcast. Throughout the 1920s and 30s, it was overwhelmingly responsible for the rapid spread of ideas, information and live entertainment which rocked the world – for good and for bad. Josef Goebbels infamously described radio as the sharpest tool of propaganda, which the Nazis used to great effect during their rise to power and throughout their rein. This is indeed an example of radio’s darker side. However, the simplicity, affordability and ubiquity of radio as a medium that made it a popular choice with the twentieth century’s most totalitarian regimes is also what makes it popular for consuming much lighter-hearted content.

Fending off the competition

Radio has had to weather some big existential threats during its 100-year history. In 1981, the launch of MTV dealt a potentially lethal blow to its survival. The opening chords of its first ever show, Buggles’ 1979 hit ‘Video Killed the Radio Star’, were a signal of intent. Radio and television would ultimately co-exist, but would both need to fend off competition for ears and eyeballs from elsewhere. As if video games entering the fray during the 80s and 90s wasn’t enough, the World Wide Web (WWW) threatened to wipe TV and radio as we know it out completely. While the format and our consumption habits have undoubtedly changed, I would argue that the Internet has reinvigorated radio rather than finished it off. Ofcom figures show us that over 90% of adults tune in to radios on a weekly basis. However, the audio boom of 2020 is a bit more complex than the nostalgia that makes me love radio. Streaming music has helped audio as a medium move into the twenty-first century. More than 91 billion songs were played on streaming sites like Spotify and Apple Music in 2018. The emergence of podcasting as a medium has also caused more people to put their headphones on. In the UK, over 7 million people in the UK now listen to podcasts weekly, with the majority of major news sites and broadcasters offering a catalogue of options for audio listeners. Who knows? Maybe next time I decide to air my views on this platform, you can listen to my dulcet, West Midlands tones putting the world to rights. On second thoughts, maybe not…