Missing Comma: Yes, You Can Say That on the Radio

Radio is one of those things that most people just don’t get enthusiastic about.

Sure, it’s nice to have on in the background when you’re driving, but the days of gathering around the radio for the latest news, radio dramas and presidential addresses pretty much ended with the introduction of TV. Radio gave a voice to black communities across the United States, public forums for politicians and commentators of all political persuasions, and allowed people to hear music they never would’ve dreamed of pre-Internet.

And yet people tend to forget that noncommercial radio is pretty much the only place where free speech in its most raw form still exists on a public forum. Although I’m only halfway through reading “Rebels on the Air” by Jesse Walker, I’ve gotten the point that the history of radio is colored with innovation springing from state regulations and creative middle fingers to the bureaucrats who attempted to control the airways. One of the best examples of this is the development of frequency modulation:

 “As the 1920s progressed, the inventor [Edwin Howard Armstrong] became obsessed with the idea of eliminating static through a technology he called Frequency Modulation, or FM. Most engineers believed that this was impossible – in the mathematician John Renshaw Carson’s then famous words, that, “static, like the poor, will always be with us.” In 1933, Armstrong unveiled his invention and proved Carson wrong… Armstrong tried to convince his old friend David Sarnoff, the head of the RCA, to invest in his work, but Sarnoff believed the future of broadcasting lay in television, not FM… So he used his clout at the Federal Communications Commission to hinder Armstrong’s invention.”

Long story short, after a bunch of uphill battles against regulatory measures, FM became a mainstay of radio. Walker’s book was published in 2001 however, right before the explosion of podcasts and Internet radio.

My own love affair with radio began when I was a senior in high school in 2011 (yes, Clinton was in office when I was born) when I got a chance to work on OutCasting, a radio show that started out as a bit on WDFH, a now-defunct public radio station based in Westchester County, NY. OutCasting has since been distributed to 41 Pacifica-based public radio stations across the country, and is readily available as a podcast. The project started as a way to give a voice to LGBT youth, is mostly created and produced by high school students, and is looking at a pretty bright future. During my second year of college, I interned at Townsquare Media of the Hudson Valley, which distributes several commercial radio stations.

I’ve seen firsthand the way radio fosters community, even though it’s easy to scoff at commercial outlets. The popularity of podcasts like Welcome to Night Vale harken back to the days where a “War of the Worlds” broadcast was mistaken for a real alien invasion, PRX’s Love and Radio turns the mundane into a surreal sound experience, Opie and Anthony have brought their crass, deliberately un-PC stunts to the airways for twenty years, C4SS has its own podcast feed, and still more podcasts are produced by people without soundproofing, advanced audio technology or professional producers.

Podcasting is something literally anyone with a microphone and a little bit of patience can do. Trevor wrote an excellent guide to studioless podcasting awhile back, and I guess this is something of a call to action to fill the Internet airways and iTunes libraries with whatever the hell you want.

Last week I talked about how print can be used to undermine authority, but radio exists in the same camp. The FCC can stop us from using words they don’t like, but they can’t do anything about the manpower and ideas radio can generate.

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