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Celebrating Public Radio Day: The History of Public Radio

May 03, 2011

Happy Public Radio Day! What better way to commemorate this day than a little history? Keep reading to learn a little bit more about this popular public service.

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By Sarah Wright

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What Is Public Radio?

When you hear the term 'public radio', you might think about your local public radio station. Or you might think about the state-run radio stations that are the norm in many nations around the world. Though television and the Internet are ever more popular, many people still rely on the radio as a source of news and entertainment.

In the U.S., public radio refers to noncommercial broadcasts that are funded through a combination of listener and government support. Though public radio is funded in part through grants from federal and local governments, public radio stations and content producers in the U.S. function independently from government influence.

In the Beginning

Like many technological advances, including the Internet, radio technology was mostly used for government, military and academic purposes before it became widely available to the public. Radio as we know it started its evolution in the early 1900s, and the first regular, non-commercial, non-governmental radio broadcasting was done by a station at the University of Wisconsin - Madison. This station, 9XM (now known as WHA), started broadcasting in 1916. These broadcasts were not what we hear today; instead, they were mostly Morse code signals.

In 1917, non-governmental radio broadcasts of all kinds were halted in the face of World War I. After the war ended, radio technology had grown and changed enough to transmit voices and music. The 1920s saw radio stations born out of colleges and universities, mostly. In the 1940s, the lower range of numbers in the FM band were set aside for educational and non-commercial purposes, arguably kicking off the designation that was to set public radio apart from other types of radio.

In 1967, President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which catalyzed the formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The CPB is a non-profit organization funded by the federal government, and its activities cover both radio and television public broadcasting. The formation of the CPB helped to formalize the association between public radio stations, and this association eventually led to the founding of National Public Radio (NPR). NPR has evolved since its founding in 1970 into a major media organization that produces and syndicates informational and educational content across the nation.

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Public Radio Today

When you think of public radio now, you probably think of NPR. The current structure of public radio is more complex than it might seem to casual observers. National Public Radio is an organization that creates content to be distributed to affiliates. Most places in the U.S. - from rural upstate South Carolina to Seattle - have a local NPR affiliate. The affiliates decide what will be broadcasted when. NPR itself does not necessarily have control over the content broadcasted by local affiliates. Additionally, not all public radio stations are NPR member stations.

In addition to NPR, there are other content providers for public radio in the United States. One of the most popular public radio shows in the nation, This American Life, is actually not produced by NPR. Instead, it is produced by Public Radio International (PRI), which is also responsible for producing such popular public radio shows as The World. Your local affiliate may also choose to broadcast local programming, such as programming from a college or university, or shows from public radio stations in other English-speaking nations.

There's been some recent controversy over government funding for public radio. Though this funding is important for NPR and other public media success, listener support is also quite vital. If you love public radio and want to keep listening, you might want to consider making a donation to your local station.

Public radio programs have covered some of the most interesting and controversial news stories in recent history, including that of the 'rubber room' program in New York.

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