On May 7, 1895 — 126 years ago — Russian physicist Alexander Stepanovich Popov publicized what many consider to be the first-ever radio receiver. The day, commemorated by some as Radio Day, changed the world for the better.
Although the world has changed tremendously in the past 126 years, the technology that Popov pioneered remains as popular and important as ever. While new innovations, such as streaming services, serve a purpose, the statistics show that 70-percent of the American public still doesn’t use streaming services in their vehicles because they prefer AM/FM radio. In fact, all these years after its creation, radio remains the nation’s highest reach platform and continues to be heard by 91-percent of the adult population.
For those who work in the industry or actively appear on the radio, as do I, the reason is obvious. Radio listeners greatly appreciate the communal feel of the platform. I like to tell college radio hosts that I coach that consumers of news and music can get their fixes anywhere, but they’re turning into you and your show because they want to hear what you’re saying and playing. That’s why the best talk radio hosts and DJs have retained tens of millions of loyal weekly listeners for decades while streamers get 70-percent of their listens from just 3 to 5 percent of their total audiences.
Despite the proven popularity of radio, some companies still don’t appear to grasp its timelessness. Spotify, for example, recently released “Car Thing,” a new, portable in-car entertainment system that it seems to believe will cause drivers of older cars that lack infotainment systems to forget about the dial. Truth be told, though, streaming services have proven incapable of replacing the radio in even the newest and sophisticated of U.S. car models.
Just look at Tesla, which recently had to reverse course and restore access to the radio following wide public backlash. The company thought that its new infotainment system, which provided access to YouTube, Netflix, Hulu and Twitch, was more than capable of meeting the public’s demands, but it quickly realized that consumers appreciate radio’s ease of use advantage over streaming services, as well as the familial environment the host to listener relationship induces, too much to give it up.
The ageless utility of radio transcends beyond entertainment. After all these years, it continues to play an irreplaceable role in the government’s public safety efforts as well. And yet, unthinkably, some EV makers have contemplated taking the radio out of cars altogether, a move that would be senseless from both a consumer demand and public safety standpoint.
The Emergency Public Alert System, the only tool the government has to reach every part of the country at one time, is primarily powered by broadcast radio stations. No other form of signal, including TV and cellphone, is even close to being as resilient or reliable, which is why the radio proved so vital during Hurricane Sandy, Hurricane Harvey and other recent government emergency response operations.
For all these reasons and more, Brock Long, President Trump’s FEMA director, sang the radio’s praises in an article for the Detroit News, remarking that, “Just as boats and planes need to carry life vests, so do cars need to carry radios. Taking them out puts consumers at risk, plain and simple.”
James Lee Witt, a FEMA director that served under President Bill Clinton, struck a similar chord, stating, “Without broadcast radio, thousands of Americans can lose access to the vital public safety updates and warnings they depend on from government actors during emergencies, which could put them and others in harm’s way.”
Naysayers can continue to chant that “video killed the radio star” and predict the technology’s demise, but the reality is that the radio isn’t going anywhere. Today, 126 years after Popov shared his invention with the world, the public still can’t get enough of it. It will outlive today’s flavor of the month just as it outlived the record player, eight tracks, cassettes and the CD player.
One day, it will be recognized as one of history’s most important innovations. Until that time, though, my personal thanks will have to do. Alexander Stepanovich Popov, thank you for following through with your vision and changing the course of history. All our lives have been made better because of it.
• Andrew Langer, the president of Institute for Liberty, is a longtime talk radio host.