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Friday, September 19, 2014 |  Madison, WI: 59.0° F  Partly Cloudy with Haze
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What's the frequency?

The Forward Theater production The Farnsworth Invention tells a somewhat fictionalized version of the invention of television. David Sarnoff, of the RCA/NBC radio empire, was among those who ridiculed the new technology, but he made sure he cornered a substantial position in the field. Sure enough, picture with voice eventually overwhelmed radio, and the death knell sounded for Marconi's invention.

Here we are, three-quarters of a century later, and we're still writing cover stories about the medium of radio. Our focus now, though, is on low-powered FM, which we might call the people's technology. That's the point contributor Phil Busse is making, anyway, as numerous civic and community groups have secured government licenses granting access to the airwaves.

The premise in broadcast law in this country is that the airwaves belong to the public. Thus, the government is in charge of granting slices of these waves to operating entities, ensuring that you do not pick up a cacophony of competing signals when you dial a frequency on your radio or TV. And FM (frequency modulation) signals carry differently than AM (amplitude modulation) signals, being primarily line-of-sight while AM signals can go through the ground, through the air, even bounce back to Earth off cloud cover. They are very hard to control, making low-powered FM the solution to mass distribution of radio licenses. Big broadcast entities have claimed the majority of the spectrum, but certain portions of the frequency band were reserved for public, noncommercial enterprise.

Television has largely abandoned the airwaves for cable and satellite transmission, opening up even more frequency for low-powered radio and television. But it's the radio field that's booming, as countless organizations find it a relatively cheap and effective way to engage (potentially) large numbers of people.

Radio has come a long way since the first experimental broadcasts at the University of Wisconsin and the first commercial station that followed, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pa., in 1920. And it still has a long way to go.

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