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Happy birthday, radio

November 2, 2009 - John Mehno

Commercial radio broadcasting as we know it began on Nov. 2, 1920 with KDKA's coverage of the Harding-Cox election returns. That means it wasn't until at least Nov. 4 that someone called a talk show and complained that Harding was going to turn the country into a socialist state. But I digress.

We probably take radio for granted. It's just there, at home or in the car. Unless you subscribe to satellite radio, you don't get a monthly bill for radio. It's just there, offering news and talk and sports and stations that play different kinds of music. It may not be your first choice for entertainment, but it's a consistent presence 24/7, there when you need and want it.

Radio isn't quite what it used to be. Deregulation has led to too many stations being owned by the same companies, and run on the cheap. Technology has made it easy for station owners to flip a switch and pick up syndicated programming, which means a lot of local flavor is gone. Some recent technical adjustments have made it tougher to pick up distant AM signals at night. The Internet has presented another form of competition. Now iPods make it possible to carry 2,000 of your favorite songs in your pocket.

For a generation of us, a transistor radio was the first entertainment medium over which a kid had complete control. Your parents may have dictated what you watched on the family's one TV, but radio was a personal choice. That's the strength of the medium, its one-on-one nature. Radio opened up other worlds. In a current environment where even the most basic cable package offers 70 channels, it's hard to explain the excitement of picking up baseball games from St. Louis and Top 40 powerhouses like WABC in New York and WLS in Chicago.

You may have to look a little deeper, but there are still good and interesting things being offered on radio. Some people believe that the AM band will go away in our lifetimes. Because of its lower fidelity, it mostly features talk and other spoken word programming these days. I don't know if that will happen, but it's certainly possible. Things change rapidly.

But for now, radio is still there, pretty much in the form we've always known. It's dependable. And it's free.

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