While the wonders of wireless entertainment swept over the world during the 1930’s, early Soviet radio broadcasting took a much different path.
During the 1920’s, the Soviet Union began its five year plans for economic growth and modernization. Electrification was followed by “radiofication”. Yes, that was the word they used.
Early Soviet radio broadcasting started in 1924, but with a twist. The first broadcast system was comprised of 50 loudspeakers on busy Moscow streets connected to a forty watt amplifier. While there were experiments with wired radio across Europe and elsewhere, the Soviet Union adopted the model a big way. By 1941, the wired radio system had grown to 6 million speakers in public places and individual homes. After being largely destroyed during World War 2, it was quickly rebuilt and peaked around 1974 with 55 million speakers. Emphasis during the early 1950’s was on spreading the system to rural areas and Eastern Bloc countries.
After Stalin’s death, the use of normal radios – what the Soviets called “wave receivers” – picked up. By 1963, the use of normal radio broadcasting began to exceed wired radio. Around the same time, Soviet jamming of external radio broadcasts peaked. Arguably, the USSR spent more resources on its 2500 jamming transmitters than it did on domestic radio broadcast infrastructure. By the 1970’s, the use of wired radio began to decline rapidly, especially outside of the Russian Federation.
There is some debate as to how much of the Soviet use of wired radio was political versus economic. I suspect it was both. The Communist Part encouraged citizens to listen to radio collectively rather than individually. Restricting broadcasting infrastructure to state owned wiring enabled control. At the same time, it was probably cheaper to wire speakers around the country than to build a western-style broadcasting system.
Early Soviet Radio Broadcasting – Bold Plans, Meager Results
Although accurate performance statistics around the many five year plans are meager, most observers agree that the “radiofication” plans consistently fell sort. In theory it should have worked. Planners specified a reliable wired network to feed signals around the Soviet Union and then distribute them locally – much like a power utility. Quality was designed to provide 50 dB signal-to-noise ratio at 10 kHz bandwidth for urban locations, and 6 kHz for rural.
Distribution followed the typical Soviet paradigm of state-regional-local. The main programs were diffused from Moscow to thousands of relay stations. These relays were under state control and many had the ability to add regional programming. Over time, the distribution system became completely automated, and wires were buried underground to save cost.
Wired radio was especially useful for collective farms, who could also use the system for internal communications. Sets were inexpensive and easy to operate with just a volume knob. Unfortunately, ongoing disparities existed between plans and actual industrial performance. Manufacturers often failed to deliver their quotas of wired receivers. Often they substituted poor quality components, especially speakers. Sometimes, they just could not get supplies of parts.
After 1962, the Soviet wired radio system expanded to providing three program channels over the same wires. These were broadcast on different carrier frequencies. Wired receivers had to be modified with filters to select between the three channels.
Today, Russian radio is over the air and going digital. However, it shares many of the same listenership decline and concentration of ownership patterns found in most other countries.
Incidentally, wired radio still exists in North Korea. The government has one radio network that is hard wired into all residences and workplaces. The news and commentary on this private network is considered too sensitive for the outside world to hear.