Herbert Hoover listens to a radio in 1922. Photo via the Library of Congress. Back To All Blog Posts

I Like the Sound of That

Five turning points in the history of audio technology.

We live in a visual world. We watch constantly: online, at the movies, and on television. But the rise of moving pictures was predated by advances in audio technology that made sound the pre-eminent mass medium in the decades before television arrived in the 1950s.  

Audio is a powerful and evocative communications technology. Telephone, radio, podcasts, and audio books create unique experiences. Media theorist Marshall McLuhan classified most visual media as ‘hot,’ meaning that it contained lots of information. But audio on the other hand is a ‘cool’ medium—it provides much less information, and thus demands more participation from the consumer. As opposed to film and television, it makes our mind create the accompanying pictures.  

Here are five key moments in the evolution of audio transmission technology. 

The Telephone. The groundwork for the telephone can be traced back to the 1830s, but it was in 1876 that Alexander Graham Bell filed a patent for a device that could transmit speech electrically. On March 10 of that year, Bell successfully made the first telephone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson, saying the famous words, “Mr. Watson, come here, I want to see you.” Although he invented the telephone, Bell considered it an unwanted interruption—in fact the inventor of the telephone refused to have one in his study. Despite its being nearly 150 years old, the telephone remains a profoundly important communications method, allowing you to hear the subtleties of a person’s voice—its changes in pitch or volume or its shakiness or steadiness.  My wife talks to her brothers every week, and she can tell their mood within seconds of starting the conversation. How many momentous moments in your life took place on the telephone? Calling for a first date, talking to a doctor, hearing from an employer. So much can be conveyed by a phone call. 

AM Radio. As marvelous as the phone was it was still only person to person, and phones had to be connected by a wire, which took a massive logistical effort to set up across long distances. That changed when the first broadcast radio station went on the air in 1920. It was a medium that collapsed space and time. In fact it was so new, there was no word for what radio did, so a word from agriculture was appropriated: broadcasting. The term originally meant “to spread seeds,” but over time, broadcasting was redefined to mean radio waves scattering over the air containing radio messages and speeches, and then news, music, radio theater, and live sporting events. It’s difficult today to imagine the impact radio had on the world. Radio was the first medium to connect masses of people across huge geographic areas at once. To many people at the time, hearing those voices was magical. A newspaper article in the early days quoted a woman what thought radio was just like a séance—it brought voices from beyond the land of the living. Today most media is saturated in advertising, but in the early days of radio some opposed this. Then Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover said, “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned out in advertising chatter.”  

A radio station in Washington, DC, in 1977. Photo: Library of Congress.

FM Radio. The first FM station signed on in 1941, but to hear FM, you had to buy an FM radio. The broadcast signal was higher audio quality than AM, but FM didn’t begin to catch on until the 50s and 60s. Unlike popular AM frequencies, FM radio frequencies were easy to acquire. Many educational institutions (University of Washington, Washington State University, Seattle’s  Nathan Hale High School) snapped them up. In the 1960’s FM music stations catered to the youth culture with music AM stations wouldn’t touch. This also coincided with a reawakening of the power of radio to not just entertain, but also educate and inspire. President Johnson and Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) to fund public radio and television, with the goal of creating a more informed public. That led to the rise of public radio stations. Although most funding comes from listeners, the federal government though CPB still provides an important stipend to public radio and TV stations. 

Streaming. In 1994 Rob Glaser left his job at Microsoft to start Seattle-based company Progressive Networks. The goal was to provide a distribution channel for politically progressive content. They produced audio programming you couldn’t get on radio and distributed it over the internet. But what caught on was not the political content, it was the distribution of audio via the internet through a technology known as streaming. It was scratchy and glitchy over 300 baud modems, but suddenly that computer could talk! As computers and internet connections got faster, audio quality improved rapidly. One of the earliest events streamed over the internet was a baseball game between the New York Yankees and Seattle Mariners on September 5, 1995. Streaming has now transcended broadcasting, and today most radio stations also stream their signal. A remarkable app called Radio Garden allows you tune into virtually any radio station in the world.  

Podcasts. All the audio transmission technology I’ve described so far transmits live in real time. But one facet of streaming technology that’s become a huge source of audio content is the ability to download audio and listen to it at your convenience. According to Edison Research, 83% of Americans 12+ are familiar with podcasts, but only 31%—primarily people 12-34—have listened to a podcast in the past week. Podcast listening is a distinctly different experience from radio listening. Rebecca Mead wrote in the New Yorker that the great podcasts presented an audio narrative [that] can be immersive in a way that a radio playing in the background rarely is. Podcasts are designed to take up time, rather than to be checked, scanned, and rushed through.  

The future of audio technology is apt to be less about how you listen and more by how what you listen to is created. The NPR podcast Planet Money recently did an episode written and edited entirely by artificial intelligence on the topic of—wait for it—how technology replaced almost all the female telephone operators. The producers used AI to write questions for interviewees, choose the clips of sound from the interviews, write the script, and even create an AI voice based on a former show host. The show’s producers found the computer-generated podcast pretty good, but lacking in the spontaneity and humor of an episode produced by people. While these developments are horrifying to some content creators (they are a major factor in recent labor unrest among writers and actors), others are chomping at the bit to create AI versions of themselves. When Kara Swisher interviewed Martha Stewart, the queen of domesticity let slip she was working a project for an AI Martha that could answer all your home, kitchen, and garden questions. That way, Martha could just relax. Stay tuned!  

Ross Reynolds (he/him) is a journalist who recently served as KUOW’s executive producer for community engagement, before which he was a program host for 16 years. His awards include the 2011 Public Radio News Directors First Place in the call-in category for Living in a White City. In 2015, he was named to the University of Washington Communication Alumni Hall of Fame.

He is currently giving his Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau talk, How Audio Technology Changed the World, around the state.

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