On the morning of December 23, 1900, at a weather station in Maryland, Canadian inventor Reginald Aubrey Fessenden leaned into a microphone and spoke.

“One, two, three, four. Is it snowing where you are, Mr. Thiessen? If it is, telegraph back and let me know.”

Reginald Aubrey Fessenden | Adsum
Reginald Aubrey Fessenden broadcast the first program of music and voice ever transmitted over long distances.

At a station 1.5km away, Mr. Thiessen listened to the broadcast on his receiver and immediately telegraphed back to let Fessenden know that yes, it was snowing.

This was the first successful radio broadcast of a human voice and it laid the foundation for the future of the medium, both technically –– Fessenden’s breakthrough came through his work with amplitude modulation of electromagnetic waves, which would put the AM in AM radio––but also stylistically. Fessenden spoke conversationally, addressed his audience in the informal second person singular, and even provided a casual invitation for his audience to participate.

Over a century later, these are still the stylistic tenets of radio broadcasting, whether delivering the news on the BBC World Service, DJing on an FM station, or talking to a child on a walkie-talkie. The essence of radio remains the connection and intimacy of listening to a voice that is speaking directly to you.

FDR Fireside Chats | Adsum
FDR's "fireside chats", transmitted over the radiowaves, were integral in allowing him to connect with and unite the American people during WWII. His tone and demeanor communicated self-assurance during times of despair and uncertainty; a far cry from the tweets of today.

When done well, that connection between voice and listener can create an imagined sense of experience that surpasses that of any other artistic medium, and even, sometimes, that of real life.

A great sports play-by-play announcer creates a living, moving image in the mind of a listener, complete with drama, emotion, and significance. To sit in a car and listen to Vin Scully’s radio call of a Dodgers baseball game at any point in his 67-year career as the team’s radio announcer was a more elegant and beautiful experience of the game than could have been had even by watching the game live from the field. His ability to move a listener through each pitch and action, their significance the game, the personal stories of each player, and all of its significance within the history of Dodgers baseball, and to do it with such natural ease made the visuals unnecessary. Everything necessary to the experience was already contained within his voice.

Vin Scully the announcer for the Brooklyn Dodgers | Adsum
Vin Scully doing some was the announcer for his beloved Brooklyn Dodgers until 1957.

The beauty of radio is that its limitations are the same reasons for its transcendence. Even the sound of interference or natural destruction to the sound quality makes it only feel more organic and alive.

In the 1990s, hip hop music and culture found their way to Japan in large part due to people recording hour long blocks of American radio stations like Hot 97 in New York directly to cassette tapes, then sending those tapes to Tokyo where they were sold at very small, specific shops. It’s not hard to imagine that hearing a rough cassette tape recording of a Mobb Deep song set within the living context of the radio DJ’s voice, the local ads, and the songs before and after it would be a more living and powerful experience than listening to a CD version of the same track in perfect fidelity.

Funkmaster Flex on Hot 97 | Adsum
Live mixtapes of Funkmaster Flex on New York's Hot 97 were, and still are, highly coveted recordings around the world.

While the internet has destroyed so many other forms of media, radio is as strong now as it’s ever been, in large part because it’s always been a simple democratic medium that anyone could participate in. Anyone could set up an antenna and start broadcasting, and now anyone can make a podcast or internet radio station. The fundamentals are the same as they were 120 years ago when Fessenden asked Mr. Thiessen if it was snowing. All you need is a voice and a way to broadcast it.

And if there is such a thing as the magic of radio, it’s that you can read the transcript of Fessenden’s broadcast to Thiessen, 120 years later, and clearly hear in your mind not only the sound of his voice but the particular sound of interference caused by the snow.