Free Radio by Dr. Jim Grubbs

Added on by Sharmistha Ray.


They are all around us.  Electromagnetic waves careening from all directions.  Don’t be alarmed.  These cosmic vibrations are the very essence of all known elements.  Each object in our universe, from individual atomic particles to the largest objects in space, emits unique wave patterns.  When we learned to harness these electromagnetic properties in the nineteenth century, we began on a course of creating what we call “radio.” 

In this natural state, radio is free—free to travel wherever it wants—free to act as a carrier of information—any information—without bias and without restriction.  Radio knows no geographical or political boundaries.  Radio knows no single language.  Radio knows no economic status.  Radio knows only the universal and cosmic truth of its natural existence.  While radio weakens in strength as it traverses the cosmos, it never completely goes away.  In theory, every radio transmission from the beginning of time is still out there—somewhere—just waiting to be intercepted.

There is no natural cost for riding these waves.  And even a concentrated effort to stop them is fraught with difficulty.  Radio wants to be free.  One might think of this as a corollary to Stewart Brand’s (1987) (best known as editor of the Whole Earth Catalog) notion of Information Wants to Be Free.  Radio is, at its most basic level, a carrier of information.

From the earliest transmissions, we as a society have searched for ways to utilize this carrier of information to meet the needs of our communities large and small.  Radio has evolved into a real-time source of information, education, and entertainment.  While the powerhouse stations of the big city serve entire regions, it’s only natural that the content they broadcast must appeal to a large and diverse audience.  It’s the small town stations, the “mom and pop” operations, that continue to deliver news of small communities and provide the sort of entertainment most beloved by those communities.  With the demise of many small town newspapers, more than ever, small market radio is an important community resource.  The best among these stations continue to fulfill the destiny of Free Radio on a very local basis (Grubbs, 1998).  

This essay focuses on the ways in which radio brings the very fabric of small town and rural life into our homes, cars, and indeed, anywhere we travel.  It is, in many ways, the antithesis of “mass media.”  We begin by looking at some early broadcasts, consider recent threats to the existence of this important resource, and examine how some small stations have met that threat and continue to thrive.  Finally, we’ll offer some insights into what the future holds.

In short, this essay embraces the notion of “free radio” as a powerful mode of communication. By necessity, this is a warp-speed overview of a vast topic, so we’ve provided a list of sources at the end that you may consult to learn more.  See especially Sterling and Kittross (2001).



The earliest radio broadcasts intended for the community were accomplished not by commercial interests but by hobbyist or “amateur radio” enthusiasts.  The earliest transmissions (circa 1900) were primarily related to maritime interests and were intended for point-to-point communication—not broadcasting (DeSoto, 1936).  In 1909 when the first radio clubs were formed, radio frequency energy was generated by allowing a spark to jump across a wide gap—a system suitable only for Morse coded messages.  The frequencies used at the time were in the range of today’s commercial AM broadcast band and below (300-6000 meters). In the United States, the Navy was charged with policing the air waves since they were the primary user of the technology.  Voice broadcasts came later.

It was not uncommon in the years prior to 1922 for a neighborhood “ham radio” operator to construct a transmitter and antenna system at his or her home.  While some were content to communicate one-on-one (or “point-to-point”) with other experimenters, some saw the opportunity to use this evolving technology to transmit general public information and entertainment.  Many a son, daughter, or spouse made their radio debuts demonstrating their musical talents or oratorical skills in a home rigged studio connected to an unlicensed and unregulated transmitter system. 

A number of pre-1920 publications offered diagrams and descriptions of radio devices that could be assembled by the hobbyist, as well as news from their readers about their “homebrew” operations.  It is through these publications and news stories of the day that we have an insight into the role of amateur or hobbyist broadcasters during this early period of radio.

While the Navy tried to maintain control of the radio spectrum at the turn of the century, they were ineffective with the general public (Marvin, 1988).  The onset of World War I shut down all such operations but they came back in force even stronger after the war (Lewis, 1991).  In January of 1922, hobbyists were restricted by law to only point-to-point communication.  “Broadcasting” now required a special license.  The Radio Act of 1912 and later the Radio Act of 1927 served to codify the “rules of the road” for all wireless communication in the United States.  The Department of Commerce and Labor was given the authority to fine those that operated outside of its strict code of rules.

As early as 1909, hobbyist Charles Herrold began broadcasts.  As 1913 arrived, his broadcasts were on a regular but limited schedule of both music and voice performance.  His station was later licensed in 1916 as 6XF and he was also authorized for mobile transmissions as 6XE.  Wartime restrictions shut down all amateur stations in 1917, but he resumed operations again in 1919.

In 1919, Hugo Gernsback, a prolific publisher and champion of radio, included information about a test transmission featuring live opera.  Unfortunately, the article doesn’t include the name of the opera house or the broadcaster. 

An article in the November 1920 edition of Radio News titled “The Radio Preacher “ (and a similar story titled “A Real ‘Sky’ Pilot” printed in the February 1921 issue of The American Missionary) chronicles Charles A. Stanley’s amateur station, 9BW in Kansas, which featured Sunday night sermons by “the original radio preacher” Dr. Clayton B. Wells.

Also in 1920, The New York Times carried a story titled “PHONOGRAPH’S  MUSIC  HEARD  ON  RADIOPHONES:  400  Listen  to  Selections  Transmitted  by  Local  Inventor.”   The article explains that Frank Conrad took his phonograph over to his wireless transmitter and played a selection of phonograph discs.  Over time, the Saturday evening broadcast established an audience of 400 listeners, though we don’t know how the paper arrived at that figure.

Noted radio historian Donna Halper (2001) tells the story of 19 year old Eunice Randall Thompson, broadcasting over station 1XE at Tufts College beginning in 1919.  Eunice may have been the first woman to be both an announcer and an engineer.  She is remembered for many things, including reading radio children’s bed-time stories. 

These are just a few examples of early broadcasts preserved for history by the popular radio magazines of the day.  It was such a popular hobby that during the early days of radio there were at least 50 radio-related publications on the newsstand.



Commercial Interests Dominate 

The next chapter of radio history began in earnest in the 1920s as commercial interests sought licenses for the specific purpose of capitalizing on the public’s fascination and dedication to radio broadcasts.  It was not unusual, for example, for a furniture store to construct its own radio station.  Why?  To encourage the purchase of radio receivers.  Major corporations like Sears saw the value in owning their own station—WLS—World’s Largest Store.  Nashville based WSM—whose slogan was We Shield Millions—was the radio voice of The National Life and Accident Insurance Company.  Even the unions saw the value in a powerful radio voice.  WCFL—The Voice of Labor—owned by the Chicago Federation of Labor went on the air in July 1926 and retained its ownership until it was sold in 1978. 

Depressed Economy—Thriving Radio Audience

Next came the depression; ironically, economic hardship created an environment rich in possibilities for radio entertainment.  Radio was “free”—at least once you purchased the receiving set and installed it.  While World War II would place some severe restrictions on radio broadcasting, stations adapted and became the primary source for “instant” news with radio linking reporters around the globe.  The same technologies allowed for stations to be effectively networked such that popular shows originating around the country could be heard across the entire nation.  Radio shows were so popular that theaters would pause their feature films during the most popular radio shows and pipe in the radio channel to the delight of the movie going public.  The picture show resumed after the radio show concluded.


Radio with Moving Pictures

New technology to rival radio—in the form of television—was technically viable prior to World War II, but until the war ended, all manufacturing resources were devoted to the war effort.  Once television became available, radio, especially local radio, began a period of economic decline.  Why just listen when you could listen and watch!  Some declared radio “dead.”  Not only radio suffered—so did movie theaters.  

Rock and Roll to the Rescue/FM Underground/Talk Radio

What “saved” radio was rock and roll! (Douglas, 1999.)  Throughout the 1950s, financially strapped station owners found that teenagers were gaining more and more spending power.  They were also underserved as an audience.  Rock and roll brought in listeners by the thousands with advertisement dollars to match.  The trend continued well into the 1960s and even early 1970s, but the attraction of AM Top 40 stations waned.  A new force was developing in the form of FM stations that played a greater variety of music.  Some of them were considered to be underground stations; they not only presented alternative music but also espoused a counter-cultural message throughout their broadcasts.  Of course they did this while quite willingly accepting traditional advertising.  This time, it was a matter of FM with its superior sound quality and greater entertainment choices “killing” AM.  But the AM dial was not about to become silent.  Enter “talk radio.”  While less than ideal for music, AM technology suits the human voice well and the talk radio format blossomed.

Each of these eras of broadcasting is worthy of its own expanded treatment.  Please refer to the suggested readings at the end of this essay or browse the exhibit library for additional resources.

Meanwhile Back in the Small Towns 

During this entire period, much of the original amateur/hobbyist spirit of highly localized community broadcasting continued quietly to develop.  Many stations offered live music programs each day, often featuring a revered local pianist or organist.  Listeners learned who had died and who had been born, who got married in the community and other social news.  The “swap shop” became a favorite feature.  Agricultural reports, hymn time, recipe shows, and a variety of other local fare dominated the schedule.  Local Girl and Boy Scout troops and 4H members visited the studios and broadcast their hellos to family and friends.  The whole sound generally wasn’t very polished but it was the familiar voice and ethos of the rural communities being served.  A combination of the depression and World War II did restrict the number of start-up small community operations during the period, but by 1950, the situation changed drastically.

Even though television threatened to steal the radio audience, it would take some time before there was a critical mass of sets in the hands of viewers.  Additionally, television stations were almost always associated with big cities, and their signals were, as often as not, either undetectable or extremely marginal in rural communities, especially in the Midwestern and Western states.  Radio was still the key to local information.

Rural community radio continued to thrive well into the 1970s.  An economic downturn and the increasing cost of doing business challenged small town broadcasters. 



By the 1970s there was a large and powerful movement against the restrictive rules that governed the use and content of radio (Hillyard & Keith, 2005). This dissatisfaction eventually led to the deregulation of the medium during Ronald Reagan’s presidency.  Much of the call for deregulation came from large corporations with radio interests who were looking for ways to expand but were stymied by ownership rules.  Deregulation changed how radio stations operated. For example, stations were no longer required to dedicate a certain percentage of their airtime to public affairs or non-entertainment programming. No longer were stations charged with ascertaining community needs within their broadcast territory, and the requirement for detailed program logs was eliminated. Additionally, the licensing process was made significantly easier, and caps on ownership were raised. 

On August 4, 1987, Congress voted to abolish the Fairness Doctrine entirely—no longer requiring stations to provide “equal time” for opposing views. In March of 1992, the station ownership caps were again raised. Congress proposed the complete elimination of ownership caps, and a significant relaxation of the cross-ownership rules that were then in place. Just a few years before the turn of the century, the Telecommunications Act of 1997 virtually eliminated any ownership caps that remained, and subsequently opened the floodgates for mass ownership of stations, with some companies owning hundreds or even a thousand or more stations. 

The result of deregulation led to a more sinister effect than just large corporations buying up smaller operations.  Prior to the onset of deregulation (e.g. Bates & Chambers, 1999; Chambers, 2001; Dawkins & Scott, 2003; Drushel, 1998), many rural communities enjoyed the presence of one or more locally owned and operated radio stations.  The acquisition of rural stations for the purpose of repositioning them in larger markets began as soon as the FCC started to deregulate the market in 1981 (Bates & Chambers, 1999).  Further deregulation, including the Telecommunications Act of 1997, has contributed to the phenomenon. 

Specifically, the technique allowed access to larger markets, even though there were no available frequencies.  For example, stations in the following markets were purchased for the purpose of serving the Springfield, Illinois metropolitan area [population 111,454 in 2000]: Hillsboro [population 4,349 in 2000], Lincoln [population 15,369 in 2000], Jacksonville [population 18,940 in 2000], Taylorville [population 11,427 in 2000], and Virden [population 3,488 in 2000].  The result was the loss of a local voice for listeners in the affected markets.  In most cases, local studios were abandoned, transmitting facilities were relocated as close to the true intended market as possible, and the “new” station was marketed primarily as a service to the new, larger community.  Overnight, smaller communities lost their local outlook.  The new corporate owners cared little about serving their city of license.  Rather, they concentrated on the audiences available to them in the nearby larger cities.  (Grubbs, 2008.) 

Broadcasting and Cable Magazine noted that in 1996, the top 25 station groups controlled just 7.3 percent of all stations.  A mere four years later after the most recent rewrite of the Telecommunications Act stripped most caps on ownership, the top 25 groups controlled 23.4 percent (2,471 of 10,549) of all stations and 57 percent of all revenue, with a single entity, Clear Channel, accounting for 20 percent of that revenue and more than 1,000 stations (“Clearly,”  2000, p. 50).  

The justification?  Corporate America claimed they were “saving” small town radio—with some studies showing that more than half of the commercial radio stations—many in smaller markets—lost money in 1990.  Consolidation allowed for economies of scale.  The fixed costs could be spread among groups of stations.

The damage done during this period of consolidation is still felt very strongly today.  But over time, big corporations learned that even with the efficiencies they offered, they could not realize a profit in some operations.  There was also a significant backlash as more and more stations were effectively “stolen” from their original communities.   This created an opportunity for local interests to reclaim community stations by re-purchasing them.  Creative engineering solutions and interpretations of Federal Communication Commission rules and regulations were also being applied to assist potential small market broadcasters and return ownership to local citizens.



Rising above the casualties of deregulation are a smaller but well-fortified group of stations that have found a way to survive.  One small station owner says:  “Small-market radio will survive only if it serves its listeners and its advertisers. It doesn’t mean being a jukebox—it means reading the news, the obituaries, doing the swap shops, the ball games, sponsoring the fish fries.  You have to love radio to stay in it. There’s not a lot of money in it, even for ownership. You have to love it and the community.” (Randy Miller, Personal Communication.) 

We often associate small town radio with country and gospel music, agricultural reports, and local news of a type that harkens back to the weekly newspapers of the nineteenth century that distributed the news of local births, deaths, marriages—an electronic form of town gossip rather than world caliber news coverage or the latest musical phenomena.   But they provide far more.  The best of the surviving small town radio stations offer us true community based programming—not just another iteration of big corporation radio.  The political buzzword for this type of programming is broadcast localism.  The FCC itself notes that radio stations “are licensed to local communities, and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) has long required broadcasters to serve the needs and interests of the communities to which they are licensed.  Congress has also required that the FCC assign broadcast stations to communities around the country to assure widespread service, and the Commission has given priority to affording local service as part of this requirement.  Broadcast ‘localism’ encompasses these requirements.”  (FCC, n.d., para 1)



A study conducted from May 2006 through June 2007 (Grubbs, 2008) examined successful small town radio stations and identified some common elements of small town radio survivors:


     1) In order to maintain a high level of local commitment, on-site involvement of

         ownership is critical. 


     2) Station involvement in community activities is paramount.  Staff from the     

         most successful stations are out in their communities every day.  They don’t

         just participate in events planned by others; they provide leadership by    

         creating community activities themselves.  They are at the very fabric of     

         their respective communities.


     3) Longevity is a key element.  Successful small town stations have a rich

         history in their communities.  The “youngest” have been around for 15

         years or more, while others proudly claim a 60 year or longer history of

         serving their communities.


     4) The “bread and butter” for many small stations is local sports in the form

         of high school games, often supplemented by coverage of professional

         teams of local interest.  It’s not just coverage of some local school sports

         that appears to make the difference.  Rather, it’s a commitment to covering

         as many games as possible right down to Little League in some cases.


     5) At least in agriculturally rich areas such as the Midwest, agri-business

         news remains an important force.


     6) Successful stations make extraordinary efforts to hire extraordinary people

         that are a good fit with the local community.  And they find a way to keep

         them motivated and loyal to the station.  Modest incentives have been used

         to retain quality staff.


     7) From a technical standpoint, engineering and legal advice can literally

         “save” a small market station.  In short, the same techniques that benefit

         the big corporate owners when they seek ways to increase their presence

         in larger markets can be used by community broadcasters to their own




Another form of empowering radio comes in the form of the non-commercial “community station.”  Generally licensed in the non-profit portion of the FM spectrum (88.1 to 91.9 MHz) these stations are often modestly powered and staffed entirely or mostly by community volunteers.  Those wishing to learn more might examine the history of KDNA/KDHX in St. Louis, WEFT in Champaign Illinois, or WFHR in Bloomington, Indiana (e.g. Engleman, 1996; McCourt, 1999). 



While regulation in the early twentieth century effectively ended community broadcasts by hobbyists, their interest and dedication has never gone away.  These are the people who have pioneered many of the radio technologies we take for granted today.  They helped establish FM as a viable form of communication; they created mobile phone connections that were the forerunner to today’s cell phones; they have contributed to satellite communication technology through a series of privately built and financed satellites (Davidoff, 1998).  One set of experiments helped to define the protocol used for our GPS systems.  And amateur enthusiasts created a wireless computer communication protocol long before most of us had any notion of a “wireless computer network.”



Radio is now a “legacy” technology.  It’s been around for about 125 years.  And while analog technology is giving way to digital means of transmission, there is no sign that radio as we know it is going away anytime soon.  So what does the future hold for “free radio?”

In our lifetime, we will likely see the cessation of virtually all traditional analog radio, such as our current AM and FM bands.  Just as the United States has committed to an entirely digital approach to broadcast television, the mandate to do the same for over the air radio is already in the works, but it’s a complicated issue—so was the change from analog to digital television. 

When we think about the future of free radio, it’s important that we split the discussion into two distinct areas.  Recall that radio waves are simply the carrier (or medium) that provide the means of transmitting information.  Technologies will come and go; the technical nature of the carrier will shape the content—perhaps allowing higher resolution, multiple dimensions, and incorporation of other senses.  An ideal carrier or medium would introduce no bias of its own—it would be completely transparent to the message—the ideas—ride along the carrier it provides.  The message—the content—is anything we as humankind can imagine. 

We continue to develop carriers that lend themselves to truly mass availability.  But we still live in much smaller communities with an innate desire and need for localized information.  Our challenge will be to create convenient and effective ways to continue to make that local information available.  The connectedness of our world brings us the best art and entertainment available.  We can travel, virtually, to the finest music halls, the best cinemas, the most interesting galleries, and the most vibrant street fairs.  But for most of us, there is still something very unique and very desirable about making our own art and sharing that with our neighbors.  Listening live and in person to musicians you know is a different experience than hearing the same or similar music from a distant source.  Learning about “free radio” at the gallery is a different experience than reading about it online.

 The future of “free radio” will be defined by people like you.  You’ve started your journey by engaging in the Free Radio project. Our hope is that you use your experiences throughout your life to empower your own vision using the freedom and power of “free radio.”




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          Journal of Media Economics, 12(1), 19-34.


Brand, S. (1987).  The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT.  New York:



Carron, P. (1986).  Morse Code:  The Essential Language.  Newington,

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Chambers, T.  (2001). Losing Owners:  Deregulation and Small Radio Markets.

            Journal of Radio Studies, 8(2), 292-315.


Clearly, it’s Clear Channel. (2000, September 18). Broadcasting & Cable, p. 50.


Davidoff, M.  (1998). The Radio Amateur’s Satellite Handbook. Newington,

            Connecticut:  American Radio Relay League.


Dawkins, W. & M. Scott. (2003, May).  Battle for the Airwaves!.  Black Enterprise

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DeSoto, C. (1936).  200 Meters and Down, the Story of Amateur Radio.

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Douglas, S. (1995).  Where the Girls Are: Growing Up Female with the Mass

            Media.  New York:  Times Books.


Douglas, S.  (1999).  Listening In.   New York:  Times Books.


Drushel, B. (1998). The Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Radio Market

            Structure. Journal of Media Economics, 11(3), 3-20.


Engleman, R.  (1996).  Public Radio and Television in America:  A Political

            History.  Thousand Oaks, CA:  Sage Publications.


Federal Communications Commission. (n.d.).  FCC consumer facts: Broadcast

            and localism.  Retrieved December 30, 2011 from

            localism/Localism Fact Sheet.pdf.


Grubbs, J. (2004).  Women Broadcasters of World War II.  Journal of Radio

            Studies, Volume: 11, Pages: 40-54.


Grubbs, J. (2008).  Indentifying Factors for Success in Rural Community Radio.

            Washington, DC:  National Association of Broadcasters.




Halper, D. and Fishman, D. (2001).  Invisible Stars: A Social History of Women in

             American Broadcasting.  Armonk, NY:  M.E. Sharpe.


Hillyard, R. & Keith, M. (2005).  The Quieted Voice:  The Rise and Demise of

             Localism in American Radio.  Carbondale:  Southern Illinois Press.


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Marvin, C. (1988).  When Old Technologies Were New: Thinking About Electric

             Communication in the Late Nineteenth Century.  New York:  Oxford

             University Press.


McCourt, T. (1999).  Conflicting Communication Interests in America:  The Case

             of National Public Radio.  Westport Connecticut:  Praeger.


Sterling, C. and  Kittross, J.  (2001).  Stay Tuned: A History of American

             Broadcasting, Third Edition. Mahwah, NJ:  Lawrence Erlbaum