Celebrating the history of public radio with Radiolab

iZotope News  |  January 13, 2017

January 13, 1910 is celebrated as the first public radio broadcast in history, when Italian tenor Enrico Caruso and Czech soprano Emmy Destinn took to the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City, and their performances of arias from Tosca were broadcast wirelessly.

From that first broadcast, to FDR’s legendary "Fireside Chats," to Orson Welles’ “The War of the Worlds,” to the rise of National Public Radio (NPR), and now podcasts and live-streams, our world has been transformed by the voices and sounds coming over the airwaves. But behind the great moment in history that started it all was the work of many important people.

American inventor Lee de Forest was responsible for that particular broadcast, but his work was proceeded by other luminaries in the race to wireless communication, like Heinrich Hertz, Nikola Tesla, Guglielmo Marconi, and Reginald Fessenden. There are likely hundreds of other researchers, engineers, inventors, assistants, and colleagues who played a significant part in bringing about modern radio, but whose names aren’t as familiar as these gentleman. Without all of their contributions, we might not have much of the technology we rely on inside of the audio, music, and film industries (de Forest went on to invent the Triode vacuum tube and was a pioneer in “talking pictures”).

Modern broadcasting stretches far beyond these primitive roots, with terrestrial radio now augmented by television, the internet, podcasts, and more. Behind the modern programs that we now enjoy are a legion of roles and responsibilities to make sure that the content, quality, and experience is exceptional. As we celebrate the 107th anniversary of that first broadcast, we’d like to recognize some of the important people behind great radio.

Behind the broadcast

For every announcer that we hear “on the air,” there are producers, engineers, editors, program directors, general managers, and supporting teams making sure they sound great and are prepared with the latest information. The Society of Broadcast Engineers boasts a membership of over 5,000 people throughout the world, many working across television, radio, and streaming media, and their skills are in high-demand. Organizations like the National Association of Broadcasters and the IBC Conference draw tens of thousands of people to their annual conventions, who are there to learn about new trends in the industry and keep up with the rapid changes in technology as broadcasting has evolved from terrestrial radio to streaming and beyond. The work of all these individuals isn’t often acknowledged by listeners of the news they report, the music they play, or the storytelling they share, but their dedication to the craft of creating great experiences for listeners remains unwavering.

The evolving roles of broadcasting at Radiolab

“We have a very collaborative team. It comes out of everyone just wanting to help,” shares Dylan Keefe, Director of Sound Design for Radiolab, a radio program and podcast distributed by WNYC Studios and broadcast on more than 450 public radio stations nationwide. “We have about 12-14 people working on Radiolab, usually with about 5 dedicated to production (of the bi-weekly show), and it’s important to us that everybody is a part of the editorial process. Usually a single producer will become the project manager or lead on a story, and from the earliest moments they are making drafts that the whole team reflects on.”

Each producer on the team may wear many different hats to effectively tell the story. “We have such a talented team, we’re encouraging everybody to contribute to sound design and reinforcing the story with music,” says Keefe. With music and sound design being such an integral part of Radiolab, the work has to start early. “We want every single piece to be like its own little documentary.” That includes creating original music and sound design for every segment.

From the very beginning of production on a new segment, the team is thinking about the music and the mood. “We’ll consider ‘what sort of feel do we want the piece to have?’. In those very early stages we start developing a mood board. Any sorts of documents that could be associated with the topic: links, fashion, logos, anything outside the realm of words. Something that’s going to help us use associative or tactile references where words might fail.”

Listening to their show, it’s easy to get immersed in the story and not realize all the effort that has gone into making the experience so compelling, but with a glimpse behind the curtain, we can gather a new appreciation for the hard work of these teams.

You can learn more about the individuals who make up the Radiolab team on their website, and watch how the show comes together in this complete video of one of their live shows, filmed in Seattle.

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