Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)
Tuesday,17 July, 2018
Issue 1236, (5 - 11 March 2015)

Ahram Weekly

No wires attached

Mai Samih looks at the development of radio in Egypt

No wires attached
No wires attached
Al-Ahram Weekly

The transmission or radio signals began in Egypt within the first decade of its development in Europe and North America. “Radio started to appear in the late 1920s and the beginning of the 1930s, and it was named ‘the talking metal box’ by people at the time, as this was what the radio was composed of — wood and metal,” says Fadia Al-Ghazali Harb, a radio programme host at the Al-Sharq Al-Awsat radio station.

People were amazed at the new invention, gathering listeners from all walks of life. “The radio was responsible for rapid changes in Egyptian society and was the voice of political authority since its birth, something that became especially true during the 1960s when the late president Gamal Abdel-Nasser used the radio station Sawt al-Arab to encourage neighbouring Arab countries to gain their independence,” Al-Ghazali Harb says.

“However, this positive role declined after the 1967 War when some stations were promoting rumours about the War. To this day, the radio is still affected by the political changes that occur in the country, as has been seen by presenters’ attitudes towards the 25 January and 30 June revolutions. There was also a diversity of views available on the radio even during the Mubarak era,” she adds.

 Al-Ghazali Harb describes the content of radio programmes in the past and compares them to the present: “Before the 1952 Revolution, the most prominent programmes were religious, political or musical, and they were presented in a very formal way using standard Arabic. The radio was a place that attracted the prominent writers of the age to take part in its programmes, among them Taha Hussein. Many university professors also spoke on the radio, something that continued to be true until television appeared.”

 Television took some of the popularity away from radio, she says, leading radio to make changes to keep its audience. “After TV appeared in the 60s, the radio ceased to be the number-one form of media for most people. Stations started to extend their services to 24 hours to compete with the TV, and local stations were opened for the same reason.”

“Al-Sharq Al-Awsat was the first radio station to present programmes using the informal language of ordinary people, some of its programmes lasting just five minutes. There have also been changes in the approach of presenting programmes, such as in the Ibrahim Essa school of presenters who begin their programmes by addressing the audience directly,” she comments, referring to Essa, a well-known presenter.

 During its development, radio faced many problems, some of which are still with us today. Says Al-Ghazali Harb, “There was a problem with some presenters during the transitional era after the revolution, for example, when some would just say anything, perhaps encouraging chaos. There was also a problem of bias.”

“There was, and still is to some extent, the problem of the standards used when choosing a radio presenter. Managers in the past were sometimes guilty of nepotism, and this affected the quality of the programmes in terms of the skills and the correctness of the language used by presenters.”

“The idea of a ‘scoop’ was also wrongly appreciated, with some presenters believing that they could get ahead in their jobs by deliberately fomenting scandal. For some time the authorities have not given the radio studios their due attention, unlike TV, and no doubt some are due for changes.” She adds

“Some private stations owned by opposition parties appoint actors or singers as journalists, and they can be used for political gain, betraying the idea of objective information.”

The preferences of listeners have also changed over time. “FM stations have been very popular with young people who listen to music. The participation of listeners from rural areas has become less than it was in the past as they now prefer to talk to the satellite TV presenters. The programmes that listeners prefer are those that are the most daring, among them some of the live talk shows,” Al-Ghazali Harb says.

The radio today and its grandchild, Internet radio, are still essential to people’s daily lives. “I listen to the Al-Qur’an Al-Kareem station all day on the radio and I barely switch it off. It is part of the routine of my life to listen to the religious programmes,” says a 32-year-old housewife.

“I like listening to the Arabic music programmes on the radio on my mobile phone for about an hour each day, and sometimes in the Internet café I listen to these programmes on the Internet radio as well. As for the political or news programmes, I see them on YouTube,” says one private-sector employee.

Al-Ghazali Harb describes the needs of the radio in a nutshell. “It is very important that the proper standards of choosing a radio presenter are abided by and that this presenter behaves in a responsible way and chooses the content of his programmes carefully. He should have the courage to choose the issues he talks about. If this is done, the radio will regain its popularity,” she concludes.

According to the book An Introductory History of British Broadcasting by Andrew Crisell, it was on 15 June 1920, in the Marconi Wireless works near Chelmsford in England, that Dame Nellie Melba, the Australian soprano, gave a concert in English, French and Italian on the new medium of radio. Her voice was heard throughout Europe and parts of North America for the first time on the new invention, ending 60 years of experiments.

The radio came to life on a gradual basis. It started with the work of James Clerk Maxwell, a professor of experimental physics at the University of Cambridge, who proved the existence of electromagnetic waves in 1864. Then Thomas Edison, the renowned American scientist, showed that an electric current could jump through space in the 1880s. German scientist Heinrich Hertz then showed that these waves could be caught with a receiver.

 It was in 1894 that English scientist Oliver Lodge used wireless waves to send messages in Morse code and proved that a receiver could be “tuned” to a particular transmitting station. But it was the Italian Guglielmo Marconi who was the real father of the radio, becoming famous for blending together earlier discoveries and inventions.

 “At the turn of the century he came to England and patented his own system of telegraphy, formed the first company for the manufacture of wireless apparatus (the Wireless Telegraph and Signal Company), saw his system adopted for ship-to-shore Morse communication, and in 1901 received a prearranged Morse code signal (the letter ‘S’) which was sent from the far side of the Atlantic,” writes Crisell  

By 1910, there were ship-to-shore and air-to-ground radio contacts. By 1915, due to the work of Fessenden and de Forest, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company was able to send speech signals for a distance of 3,500 miles from Arlington, Virginia, to Paris and then 5,000 miles to Honolulu.

In 1916, a young employee of the American Marconi Company, David Sarnoff, thought of the idea of a “Radio Music Box” that could be brought by ordinary people for household use, thus spreading the use of radio and enabling the public to listen to music, news and speech by adjusting the box to different wavelengths at the turn of a knob.

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