Advent of radio transform international communications

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How Did The Advent Of Radio Transform International Communications?


During the 1920's, the invention of the radio was heralded as a revolutionary new form of communication. Today, we see radio as an every day part of our lives and it does not seem as revolutionary as people once thought; there are more innovative and interesting forms of communications and entertainment. The importance of radio broadcasting seems to have been put in the background since the invention of the television and the internet. This being the case in the modern world, it should not detract how revolutionary radio was during its early years.

To look at how the advent of the radio transformed International communications, we first have to look at where the concept of the radio came from and just how its popularity grew in such a short space of time. I will then be looking at the advancement in radio and then focusing on how International radio played a pivotal role during times of war.

Guglielmo Marconi is said to be the ‘father of radio'. He first realised the potential of radio waves after studying the experiments that Heinrich Rudolf Hertz performed in the 1880's. He carried out experiments with radio waves and received his first radio signal in Italy in 1895. Marconi took out his first patent in 1896 for his wireless invention. His first inventions allowed the transmission of radio waves to be received over only a few meters, but this soon changed and the distance that the radio waves could travel became increasingly larger.

Radio did not establish itself as voice transmissions as we know it today. The first radio messages were known as ‘Wireless Telegraphy' and were made up of signals (for example the Morse code) to communicate with people rather than voice communications.

Marconi's research and experiments all came to a head when he began to investigate the possibility of sending radio waves across the Atlantic. At the start of the 1900's, this type of radio communication became possible, “1901 was the first transatlantic wireless communication” Balk (2006 pp. 20). He set up a wireless transmitting station in St. John's Newfoundland, Canada, from which Morse code signals were sent to a receiving station in Cornwall, England; he received a reply from the receiving station around thirty minutes after his initial broadcast. The total distance covered by this transmission was 3,500km (2,200 miles). This first transatlantic signal comprised of just the letter ‘S' being sent over and over again by Morse code. After his triumphant, long distance break through, Marconi has been quoted as saying “I now know that all my anticipations had been justified. I now felt for the first time absolutely certain that the day would come when mankind would be able to send messages round the wires, not only across the Atlantic, but between the furthermost ends of the earth”

This break through in innovation and technology meant that radio waves could compete with the transatlantic telegraph cables and it also demonstrated that Marconi's invention could be used for more than private communications and could be evolved into a commercial product.

The Commercialisation of Radio

By the 1920's the commercial potential of radio had been realised. The British Broadcasting Company was established in the United Kingdom to provide radio broadcasts and entertainment to the public sector. As is stated in Cave (1996 pp.17-18), “Radio broadcasting in the United Kingdom began shortly after the World War I as a commercial service promoted by radio manufacturers. The companies concerned formed the British Broadcasting Company from a group of local stations in 1922.”

By the time the BBC was founded, many people in the general public did not see the use of the BBC. “In 1922 the BBC first came into existence. At that time the initials meant nothing to most people: they even meant nothing to John Reith, who became the BBC's first General Manager.” Briggs (1961 pp.3)

The General Manager of the newly formed BBC, John Reith, decided that the general public did not know what they wanted to listen to on the radio, and that it would be beneficial if the BBC chose what to broadcast at certain times. Reith is quoted as saying “few [listeners] know what they want and very few want what they need. … Entertainment, pure and simple”. Reith (1924 pp.34)

In the UK, the BBC was responsible for the monopoly of radio broadcasting, but in the United States of America, radio took more of a commercial, unregulated route than the BBC's regulated cultural approach. Many small time radio stations were set up using revenue from advertising rather than tax payer's money. As Taylor (2002 pp.429) stated, “The year 1922 saw the number of new stations skyrocket”. Briggs documents how the number of stations had skyrocketed, “By the end of 1924 there were 530 American radio stations” Briggs (1961 pp.57). This shows that many people jumped onto the radio ‘bandwagon' due to the unregulated approach, there were not nearly as many stations active in the UK due to the monopoly the BBC held over radio transmissions.

As time went on, the better stations gained more listeners and the lesser stations simply died out. It could have been seen as survival of the fittest. By having such a wide variety of stations to choose from in the US, it gave the listener the option to choose what they wanted to listen to, as is stated in Taylor (2002 pp.429), “it could uplift everyone culturally by playing good music; it could provide news; it could provide crucial weather and agricultural information for farmers; it could educate”. This was totally the opposite approach Reith had taken as the BBC decided what the listener would listen to, and due to their large monopoly in the UK, the listener did not have much of a choice.

Origins of International Radio Broadcasting

International Communications is defined by Monroe (2003 pp.71) as an “elegant term for a complex combination of State-sponsored news, information and entertainment directed at a population outside the sponsoring State's boundaries. It is the use of electronic media by one society to shape the opinion of the people and leaders of another”

As the radio technology was rapidly advancing, the prospect of International broadcasting became a reality. Germany was one of the first countries that adopted the technology to broadcast programs into other countries. As is stated in Westover, D. & Molleda, J-C. (2003 pp.2), “Germany may have been the first country to use international broadcasting as early as 1915, when it established a regular radio news service that was accepted and used by multiple neutral countries in the region”. This shows that the Germans were pushing to be at the forefront of the newest technology and were looking at new ways to utilise radio as a means of long distance communication. Unfortunately, as it stated in Westover, D. & Molleda, J-C. (2003 pp.2), “these early broadcasts were Morse code transmission understood only by a relatively few”. These early experimentations with International broadcasting did not have a mass audience, probably a few select individuals at first, but it was the basis of what Germany's propaganda campaign in World War II was built upon.

Radio: International Communications & War

International communications have been used in many wars most notably; it was used to an unprecedented extent during World War II.

Radio & International communications played a vital role in the First World War also; it played a huge part in getting the Americans involved with the war and onto the side of the Allies. Once war had been declared, the British cut the underwater cables that connected Germany to America. This meant that any International communications between the two countries had to go through British broadcasting systems. This gave the British the opportunity to censor what German information they passed on and also enabled them to twist the truth so it would get the Americans on the side of the British in the war.

After the First World War, the success of the allies was seen due to their clever use of propaganda using several means including the radio. Looking ahead to World War II, Hitler wrote (1932):

“Artillery preparation before an attack, as during the World War, will be replaced in future by the psychological dislocation of the enemy through revolutionary propaganda. The enemy must be demoralized and driven to passivity…Our strategy is to destroy the enemy from within, to conquer him through himself. Mental confusion, contradictory feelings, indecision, panic - these are our weapons” Davies (1999 pp.487)

Hitler saw the importance of propaganda and how it played a vital role in winning the First World War. It was during the Second World War that the Germans would revolutionise the way propaganda could shape a war.

As stated in Hale (1975 pp. Introduction), “Radio is the only unstoppable medium of mass communication”. This “unstoppable medium” made radio a perfect tool for propaganda in World War II. Both the Allied and Axis forces utilised radio to spread news, information and propaganda campaigns against the enemy. “The widespread use of radio propaganda during the war established both the power and the limitations of the medium. The war was a testing ground for the principles of psychological warfare, for the claims of ‘white' (overt) against ‘black' (covert and misleading) propaganda.” Hale (1975 pp. Introduction). Once war breaks out, truth is said to be the first casualty.

By the start of World War II the BBC had been established for around 17 years. It had realised the potential of radio and international communications and had set up a policy to tell the truth to the public in good times and bad times. This policy showed that they were not hiding any information and was done so they could gain credibility and the trust of the general public. If on the other hand, the BBC decided not to tell the truth during the bad times and instead broadcast lies to hide the real truth, and the public found out about this, would the public still trust the credibility of the BBC when they were broadcasting good news? …Probably not. It was in the BBC's best interest to be impartial at all times.

The Nazi party had a rather different approach to the use of international radio during the Second World War. Its approach was opportunistic and to tell lies to the public that put the Nazi party in a good light as quickly as possible. Hale writes about the Nazi's approach to International radio broadcasting when she says that Hitler had “a desire to persuade the masses to believe in their case, as many as possible as quickly as possible. Hale (1975 pp.163). She also references the Nazi's strategy in telling false truths to the public to get their case across by saying, “Just as the Nazi propagandists were prepared to lie, twist, invent and add colour without reference to truth, so were they prepared to doctor reports and programmes which purported to be real” Hale (1975 pp.11).

The Germans realised the potential of radio to spread the power & fear of the Nazi party, the used this to their advantage in their heavy propaganda campaign against the Allies, “as Hitler once wrote of radio in Mein Kampf; ‘It is a terrible weapon in the hands of those who know how to make use of it'” Hale (1975 pp.1).

An example of International communications being utilised during World War II can be seen when the Allies set up ‘false' radio stations that broadcast to Nazi occupied countries. These black propaganda radio stations were made out to be genuine Nazi German radio stations, appearing to act like a genuine German station whereas they were spreading false information intended to undermine the Nazi party's power. As far as any of the listeners were concerned, the information from the radio station was true so they believed what they were hearing. In retaliation to this, the Nazi's set up black propaganda radio stations to perform the exact same operation against the allies and to combat the ‘propaganda radio war'.

As is stated in Hale (1975 pp.106), “Between 1939 and 1945 more than sixty black stations were established”. These figures show that the black radio propaganda between the enemies and the general public was an important asset to deceive the enemy and to cause unrest in the general population. It was an important strategy to shape the morale and mindsets of the population and also to influence enemy troops. An example of the Nazi's use of a black propaganda station is given in Hale (1975 pp.107), “ Towards the end of the war, the Germans brought into operation an unusual black station, Radio Arnhem, to confuse both the Dutch, soon to be liberated, and the advancing Allies. BBC programmes were broadcast on it from 6.25am to 11.00pm, but they were interspersed with bogus material including news and messages from prisoners”. This goes to show that the Germans were trying to give false impressions in order to confuse the Dutch population and to the Allied armies about the state of the war, whilst posing as an Allied controlled radio station.

This shows how the Germans were trying to counter the black propaganda stations of the allies and to further their use of radio as a propaganda tool. The Germans tried to limit the damage done by Allied radio stations by handing out radio receivers to the public which could only be tuned to official German radio stations. It became an offence to listen to anything but German radio stations, and if people were caught doing otherwise, they would face the death penalty.

Another example of Nazi German propaganda stations attempting to discourage Allied forces & the British population was the story of William Joyce, known otherwise as ‘Lord Haw-Haw'. During World War II, Joyce was the main German broadcaster in English on the station ‘Reichssender Hamburg' which broadcasted out of Germany. His program was broadcast with propaganda in mind, as he knew that Allied forces and their families back in Britain would be listening. Although the British Government disapproved of people listening to his broadcasts, it was not made illegal, and his program had peak listening figures of over 6 million people. Joyce used many techniques to discourage the Allies, most notably reporting on the sinking of Allied ships and the shooting down of Allied aircraft. This gave the false impression to the Allies and public that there had been far more casualties than there actually were, but due to the lack of news available from the front lines, people back in Britain tuned in just to try and hear of any news regarding loved ones who had been missing in action. In 1946, after the British captured Joyce in Northern Germany, he was hanged on charges of treason against the British Crown due of his Nazi influenced propagandistic broadcasts against the Allies during the war.

The unprecedented use of radio in the Second World War paved the way for propaganda and international communications in the Cold War which lasted between 1945 and 1991. During this time, communist and non-communist countries tried to influence each other's domestic population by using the medium of radio. As Hale stated in her book, ‘Radio Power' regarding the International radio stations of the West, “The Voice of America, Radio Liberty, Radio Free Europe, the American Forces Network, Radio in the American Sector (RIAS), are all state-funded” Hale (1975 pp.32). These Western stations played a pivotal role in the Cold War and were all backed by their respective Governments. The Soviet Union's most recognised station was Radio Moscow, which is now known as the Voice of Russia.

During the Cold War in 1956, a student demonstration in Hungary turned into a full scale revolt against the occupying Government of the People's Republic of Hungary. The country was under control by the Soviet Union and many of its policies were Soviet imposed and universally disliked. It was at the same time Radio Free Europe, which was funded by Western states, began to broadcast updates regarding the political situation of the country and its military status to the public. The CIA backed radio station tried to appeal to the Hungarians to revolt against the Stalin led Government and promised that American troops would support them, but the support never came. Radio Free Europe was never trusted again by International audiences after this incident. Radio Free Europe was seen as an influential catalyst in inciting the revolution of the Hungarian people.

Although a lot of focus has been put on using International radio as a weapon during times of war, International radio has also been used for means of peace too; it was during the Cuban missile crisis in 1962 that Radio Moscow and the Voice of America helped to calm tensions between nations and promote diplomacy. The Cuban missile crisis is the closest we have ever come to a nuclear war; people say that we were only days or even hours away from the first missile being launched which would have had a catastrophic effect. During the talks between Russia and America, Radio Moscow sent a message to President Kennedy stating that they were going to back down. This message was sent through the standard diplomatic channels. The message took a long time to decipher, time which was quickly running out, so Radio Moscow broadcast the message over the International radio stating that Russia were backing down. Instead of responding through the standard diplomatic channels, the Americans broadcast that they agreed to Russia backing down over the airwaves of the Voice of America. This was seen as a ‘Hotline' between Russia and America. If it was not for the advancement of radio in International Communications, we could have had a full scale nuclear war which would have inevitably killed millions of people.


Before the invention of radio, many different forms of long distance communication existed. In very primitive times, homing pigeons were trained to carry messages long distances. The earliest example of this being used was over 3,000 years ago by the Egyptians and Persians. This form of communication was even used in World War I to send important messages when radio could not be used due to the fear of the information being intercepted by the enemy.

Optical Telegrams were also used to communicate. There were different variations of how this method was used. Smoke signals were used by the Native American Indians as a form of long distance communication; this method was even used by the Germans in World War I. Another form of optical telegrams would be reflecting sun light by use of mirrors. This was used as early as 405BC by the Ancient Greeks.

These primitive means of long distance communications did not match up to the technological breakthrough of the radio. Radio transmissions were able to travel longer distances; from the use of propaganda to long distance news, the invention of the radio has definitely transformed International communications. From its first conception, the radio was set to break boundaries and transform the way people communicated with each other; radio is one of the most effective means of communication to this day. The mass use of radio in many different wars just shows how powerful the medium is at influencing people's opinions and empowering the country, as is said in Hale (1975 pp. Introduction X) “International radio propaganda has stood the test of time because it can do things which other means of persuasion, education, and information cannot do. It can flash news, and reaction to it, across the world quicker than any other medium.”

Without radio, the outcome of international conflicts may have been different, and the world would not be in such an advanced technological state that we are in now.

International radio can be used as a weapon of war, where “radio propaganda can be an explosive weapon, an artillery barrage, the punching arm of an aggressive diplomacy or a freedom struggle” Hale (1975 pp.163) and also as a tool for peace between nations.

Radio transformed International communications by enabling countries to communicate quickly and efficiently with each other. It cut the term ‘long distance' out of long distance communications, as it was just as easy to communicate with people on the other side of the Atlantic ocean than it was to communicate with people in the same country. No longer were people waiting days and even weeks for mail to arrive when a message could just be sent via radio. Without radio, the world would not be as we know it today.