The history of radio and sport
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For World Radio Day, we look at how the radio was integral to the development and popularisation of sport across the world.

In 2011, 13 February was chosen to be World Radio Day by UNESCO, and was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly in 2012. The day marks the ability of the radio to reach out to the widest audience and shape society’s experience of diversity. As one of the most widely consumed media across the globe, radio remains very important, over a century since it first came into existence.

Radio and sport

Radio has contributed to almost every part of our lives, and sport is no exception. Sport and radio have a long and deep relationship, and radio has had a large impact on the development and popularisation of sport across the world.

Initially, scores from sport matches were announced after the game, with some highlights also provided. Results had to be telephoned or wired back to the station. This changed in the 1920s, when radio stations began to be granted commercial licenses in countries across the world. In April 1921, KDKA in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, in the United States, gave a live, play-by-play broadcast of a boxing match between Johnny Dundee and Johnny Ray. This was the first recorded voice broadcasting of a sport event ever.

In Australia and New Zealand, the earliest sports commentary happened in 1923, broadcasting from the Nelson station on the Australasian boxing matches.

In the UK, with the formation of the public BBC in 1926, radio broadcasting of sports events started to take off. In January 1927, a match between Arsenal and Sheffield United was broadcast on the BBC, becoming the first football match in the country to be on live radio. Listeners had to reference a grid published in a magazine, the Radio Times, to understand the position of the players that the commentator was referring to in their broadcast.

In 1964, the first sports talk radio show in history was launched, hosted by Bill Mazer on New York’s WNBC. Even today, sports-only radio channels and radio sports talk shows remain relevant and important, with hundreds of channels and shows dedicated to different sports airing across the world.

Bringing people together

Radio has brought people together, and one of the ways in which it has done so is through sport broadcasting. Indeed, the broadcasting of sport matches was an integral part of inter-war entertainment and helped solidify a national sporting culture in the UK.

In the US, broadcasts of college football games US allowed the “nationalisation of football,” since inter-regional football became available to the masses. The same has been noted in Australia – the country, while grappling with the Great Depression, was able to come together through radio broadcasts of cricket matches.

Radio has often made people feel connected to their communities, and has also helped people form a sense of community with other sport enthusiasts. Since radio ownership was not as widespread in its early years, people had to physically gather together to listen to a broadcast.

Taking people away from the game

However, not everyone was happy with these technological developments. Team owners and officials of different clubs found that the ease and access of the radio meant that fewer people were attending the games to watch them, leading to less revenue from ticket sales. Between 1934 and 1939, the New York Giants, the Yankees and the Brooklyn Dodgers banned all broadcasts of their games.

These views were also held in other parts of the world – the BBC often struggled to gain access to football matches due to push back from club management, and even in Australia and New Zealand, there were threats to ban commentators from matches, to promote local audiences to attend games.

Who is missing?

As University of Cumbria’s Mike Huggins has pointed out, however, women’s sport, apart from tennis, received notably less coverage from radio broadcasters in the UK. In comparison, they were given more attention in cinema newsreels and print media. A full decade after the live broadcast of its first men’s football match, the BBC began commentary on women’s hockey, billiards and figure skating in 1937, and the BBC was dominated by male sports commentators.

This is an issue that continues to persist. Even though sports radio remains popular even today, very few women cover sports on the radio. In comparison, though there are still more men than women covering sports in television, print and other digital media, there are many more women in these media, and radio is lagging in closing the gender divide.

Further, radio coverage of sport still emphasises traditional form of male-dominated elite sport, often disregarding coverage along the lines of gender, age, and disability. Though community radio stations do cover and promote grassroots sport, more can be done to ensure a diversity of sports and players are given more radio time.

This year’s World Radio Day theme is “Radio and Trust.” With radio taking on new forms now, through internet and satellite streaming services, a new era of the radio is afoot. As an inexpensive media source, radio continues to be important for many, especially among the marginalised and those in developing countries.

Sports radio continues to retain its place in our lives, but, moving forward, it is important for it to look inwards, and see how it is ensuring that all voices are heard. Radio has been an important tool to increase the accessibility of sport, but to be a true catalyst for integration and social participation, it must ensure that the voices of the marginalised are included, and different perspectives are given a voice.