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For centuries people have sought to improve methods of communicating over long distances. In 1895 an Italian engineer, Guglieimo Marconi, demonstrated how to send communication signals without the use of wires; instantaneous worldwide communication soon became a reality.

In the early 1900s, transmitting and receiving devices were relatively simple, and hundreds of amateurs constructed transmitters and receivers on their own and experimented with radio. Ships were rapidly equipped with radios so they could communicate while at sea with each other and with shore bases. In 1906, human voice was transmitted for the first time by Reginald A. Fessenden. Small radio shows started in 1910; in 1920, two commercial radio stations went on the air: KDKA in Pittsburgh and WWJ in Detroit. By 1921, a dozen local stations were broadcasting. The first network broadcast (more than one station sharing a broadcast) was of the 1922 World Series. By 1926, stations across the country were linked together to form the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). Four years later, the first radio broadcast was made around the world.

Words to Know


AM broadcast: Amplitude modulation system of radio transmission using power of 25 to 50 kilowatts, the maximum power permitted by the FCC.

Analog: A signal that varies continuously in frequency or amplitude. Digital transmissions of data, which can be compressed for better quality, are replacing analog.

Arbitron ratings: These ratings are provided within local markets to identify how many people are listening to the different radio and television stations within a market as well as to further identify who those people are—their age, sex, and buying patterns.

Broadcast: To transmit programs from a radio or TV station.

Demographics: Statistics that show a radio listener’s or a television viewer’s age, income, and other data; this information is valuable to producers and advertisers trying to reach specific audiences.

Digital: A transmission, by a computer, composed of a discontinuous signal; replacing analog signals in telecommunications.

Electronic media: Broadcasting companies that transmit information electronically, such as TV and radio stations, cable networks, and news services.

FCC: Federal Communications Commission; an agency of the U.S. government that regulates broadcasting and other communication.

FM broadcast: Frequency modulation method of radio broadcasting; it produces a clearer signal than AM.

HDTV: High definition television; linked to satellite, cable, and computer networks to provide better resolution than current systems.

Interactive: Video games, CD-ROM programs, Web pages, and other multimedia that allow users to affect the direction of the presentation of material.

Market: The geographic area that a radio or television station serves.

Nielsen ratings: A listing of TV programs according to the number of viewers; compiled by Nielsen Media Research, ratings are used in determining advertising rates.

Satellite broadcasting: Broadcasting radio and television programs with the digital technology used in computers and compact discs. Provides higher quality broadcasts. Also called digital broadcasting.

TelePrompTer: A monitor that displays the script for reading on air by a newscaster or other TV presenter

There has been a steady growth in the number of radio stations in the United States. Now most towns have at least one radio station, and the larger cities have as many as 30 or more, with diverse programming to suit all tastes. In 2006, the United States alone had more than 13,769 radio stations, both commercial and public.

One major trend in radio is the increasing use of programming created by services outside the broadcasting industry. Satellite radio, in which subscribers pay a monthly fee for access to more than 100 radio stations, will be a big threat to smaller, marginal stations.

Modern television is based on electronic theory that grew out of the experiments of Heinrich Geissler in 1857, in which he discharged electricity in a vacuum tube, causing rare gases in it to glow. Other scientists immediately began to experiment with vacuum tubes, and in 1898 Karl Braun made the first cathode-ray tube in which he could control the flow of electrons being released. The development of the iconoscope tube in 1923 turned optical energy into electrical energy. It was not until 1927 that the first workable cathode-ray-tube camera was invented by a 16-year-old boy named Philo T. Farnsworth. Improvements by Vladimir Zworykin made the system practical.

Soon after, the first experimental television program was sent by wire from New York to Washington, DC. But it was not until 1939, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt used television to open the New York World’s Fair, that the public realized that the use of television as a standard means for communication was just around the corner. Several stations went on the air shortly after this demonstration and successfully televised professional baseball games, college football games, and the Republican and Democratic conventions of 1940. The onset of World War II limited the further development of television until after the war was over.

Since television’s strength is the immediacy with which it can present information, news programs became the foundation of regular programming. Meet the Press premiered in 1947, followed by nightly newscasts in 1948.

Television began to expand rapidly during the 1950s, following the lifting of the Federal Communications Commission’s freeze on the processing of station applications. In 1953 there were 120 commercial stations. By 2006, there were 2,218 broadcasting television stations. Cable television has experienced rapid growth over the past decade; approximately 65 million Americans subscribed to basic cable in 2006, according to Nielsen Media Research. Approximately 29.6 million Americans subscribed to digital cable in 2006, according to the National Cable and Telecommunications Association. Other consumers are turning to satellite television and other technologies for their entertainment needs.

Broadcasting on the Internet has become a popular form of electronic communication. Many radio and television stations have launched Web sites to complement their programming. According to a 2006 survey conducted by the Radio-Television News Directors Association and Ball State University, 87 percent of radio stations and 99 percent of television stations had Web sites.


Broadcasting is the electronic transmission of images and/or sound. Radio and television are the main broadcasting media. The radio and television industry is made up of a large number of relatively small and independent stations that are individually owned and operated. Approximately 327,000 people were employed in the radio and television broadcasting industry in 2004, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.

In television, large stations located in metropolitan centers can employ several hundred people, whereas a small station in a small city may employ as few as 35 people. In radio, the smallest station may employ only four or five full-time people. Many television stations and radio stations are affiliated with one of the national networks. An affiliate station is not owned by the network, but merely has a business contract under which it is supplied by its network with a considerable amount of programming. This programming may consist of national or international news and news analysis, which can be put together more efficiently and cost effectively at the network headquarters.

In television, the typical affiliate is supplied with programs during a portion of the morning hours, a portion of the afternoon hours, and a portion of the evening hours. During the remaining time, the station develops its own programming. This programming may be locally developed and presented live, or it may be videotaped for later showing. Stations also purchase programs from various organizations that produce shows for general sale or else have acquired the rights to them. Each station develops the particular program format that in its judgment will best serve its market.

Cable television networks operate under some of the same arrangements as commercial television stations. Some cable networks are advertiser-supported. These networks may carry original programming or purchase rights to rebroadcast shows that originally aired on commercial television. Other cable networks are subscriber supported. These networks tend to run motion pictures, special broadcasts of sports or entertainment events, and movies produced specifically for cable.

Cable systems may also transmit material that is not limited by the restrictions of language, subject matter, or motion picture audience ratings that affect commercial television broadcasts. Pay-per-view cable programming often covers special events that the viewer can opt to pay for on an event-by-event basis.

Radio is structured similarly to television, but there are some significant differences. With the rise of television, the amount and variety of programs offered in radio was reduced. In radio, the network’s major responsibility is to supply news and feature programs of national interest that would be difficult for the individual station to produce. By the 1980s, satellite distribution of such programming became commonplace.

Radio and television depend on electromagnetic waves to carry signals from the transmitting tower to the receiver in the home. Each broadcast requires a certain amount of air space for a certain amount of time; otherwise interference would occur. Thus each user of space is assigned an area of the spectrum, which is referred to as a channel in television and a frequency in radio.

There are many users of the spectrum besides radio and television stations, including the federal government (particularly the Armed Forces), state and municipal governments for police and similar types of communications, and private users of all types. Private users include airlines, private communication concerns, and amateurs. Without the assignment of spectrum space by a central authority, communications would be chaotic because of signal interference.

Because of the need for regulation in the broadcast industry, Congress established the 1927 Federal Radio Commission, which in 1934 became the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC became an independent agency of the federal government composed of five commissioners appointed for terms of five years by the President. It supervises and allocates spectrum space, makes channel assignments, and licenses radio and television stations for periods of seven and five years respectively to applicants who are legally, technically, and financially qualified.

The FCC determines whether the operation of each station will be “in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” If there is more than one applicant for a station frequency, the FCC decides which should receive the license. At the end of the license period, the FCC reviews the overall operation of the station and determines whether its license shall be renewed.

The commission also sets limits on the number of broadcasting stations that a single individual or organization can control. The 1996 Telecommunications Act removed all limits on group size nationally and raised the number of stations that a broadcaster can own in one market to a maximum of eight. This new leniency has paved the way for large station and network mergers in recent years.

The FCC issues regulations for broadcasting stations concerning engineering and operating standards and certain other matters, such as indecency. It defines indecency as any material that is considered patently offensive, as measured by contemporary community standards, and which deals with sexual or excretory functions or organs.

The FCC has also been involved in introducing digital television transmission. The FCC required major network affiliates in the top 10 markets to build digital transmitting facilities by May 1, 1999. All other commercial stations in all markets were required to construct digital broadcast facilities by 2006.

Broadcasting is affected by politics, but it is primarily a business in the usual sense, dependent on sales and profits for its continued existence. It is particularly exciting because it is like show business with a stopwatch; programming is timed down to the second, and precision and speed are crucial for both taped and live broadcasts. Broadcasting relies on the creativity of its employees to develop and hold the interest of its listening and viewing audiences. Yet, because of the unremitting pressures of deadlines, broadcasting must be geared to quick decisions and quick action.


Employment in the radio and television broadcasting industry is expected to increase about 11 percent, more slowly than the average for all other occupations through 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. Competition is the name of the game in the broadcasting industry. The public has many viewing and listening choices, from cable, satellite TV, and conventional television to radio, satellite radio, and Web broadcasts. Because of this competition and FCC deregulation, radio and television stations have been consolidating to keep their costs down. These consolidations have created fewer opportunities for technical workers, top managers, marketing and advertising sales workers, and broadcasters (especially in radio), as owners of multiple stations downsize and merge staffs to save money and improve productivity.

Job seekers should be prepared for stiff competition, since this field is an attractive and popular career choice. Be prepared to work in a smaller market to gain experience; most larger markets stations, such as Chicago and New York, prefer to hire experienced workers.

For More Information

Contact BEA for scholarship information and a list of schools offering degrees in broadcasting.
Broadcast Education Association (BEA)
1771 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036-2891
Tel: 888-380-7222
Email: [email protected]

For job listings and union information, contact
National Association of Broadcast Employees and
501 Third Street, NW, 8th Floor
Washington, DC 20001-2760
Tel: 202-434-1254
Email: [email protected]

For broadcast education, support, and scholarship information, contact
National Association of Broadcasters
1771 N Street, NW
Washington, DC 20036-2800
Tel: 202-429-5300
Email: [email protected]

For information on scholarships and student membership, contact
National Association of Farm Broadcasters
PO Box 500
Platte City, MO 64079-0500
Tel: 816-431-4032

For statistics and information on the cable industry, visit the NCTA Web sites or contact
National Cable and Telecommunications
Association (NCTA)
1724 Massachusetts Avenue, NW
Washington, DC 20036-1903
Tel: 202-775-3550

The RTNDA provides information on awards, scholarships, and internships and offers publications, such as Breaking into Broadcasting and Careers in Radio and Television News. For more information, contact
Radio-Television News Directors Association
1600 K Street, NW, Suite 700
Washington, DC 20006-2838
Tel: 202-659-6510
Email: [email protected]

For career information and an overview of the industry, visit Radio

Also see:

Film; Radio; Television; Actor; Art Director; Audio Recording Engineer; Broadcast Engineer; Cable Television Technician; Camera Operator; Cartoonists and Animator; Comedian; Disc Jockey; Media Planner and Buyer; Production Assistant; Radio and Television Announcer; Radio and Television Program Director; Radio Producer; Real-Time Captioner; Reporter; Screenwriter; Sports Broadcaster and Announcer; Stage Production Worker

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