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The Electromagnetic Waves And Spectrum

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Environmental Sciences
Wordcount: 5478 words Published: 5th May 2017

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The electromagnetic spectrum is the range of all possible frequencies of electromagnetic radiation. The “electromagnetic spectrum” of an object is the characteristic distribution of electromagnetic radiation emitted or absorbed by that particular object. The electromagnetic spectrum is a continuum of all electromagnetic waves arranged according to frequency and wavelength.

The electromagnetic spectrum extends from low frequencies used for modern radio to gamma radiation at the short-wavelength end, covering wavelengths from thousands of kilometres down to a fraction of the size of an atom. The long wavelength limit is the size of the universe itself, while it is thought that the short wavelength limit is in the vicinity of the Planck length, although in principle the spectrum is infinite and continuous. The sun, earth, and other bodies radiate electromagnetic energy of varying wavelengths. Electromagnetic energy passes through space at the speed of light in the form of sinusoidal waves. The wavelength is the distance from wave crest to wave crest (see figure below).

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Light is a particular type of electromagnetic radiation that can be seen and sensed by the human eye, but this energy exists at a wide range of wavelengths. The micron is the basic unit for measuring the wavelength of electromagnetic waves. The spectrum of waves is divided into sections based on wavelength. The shortest waves are gamma rays, which have wavelengths of 10e-6 microns or less. The longest waves are radio waves, which have wavelengths of many kilometres. The range of visible consists of the narrow portion of the spectrum, from 0.4 microns (blue) to 0.7 microns (red).


EM waves are typically described by any of the following three physical properties: the frequency f, wavelength λ, or photon energy E. Frequencies range from 2.4Ã-1023 Hz (1 GeV gamma rays) down to the local plasma frequency of the ionized interstellar medium (~1kHz). Wavelength is inversely proportional to the wave frequency, so gamma rays have very short wavelengths that are fractions of the size of atoms, whereas wavelengths can be as long as the universe. Photon energy is directly proportional to the wave frequency, so gamma rays have the highest energy (around a billion electron volts) and radio waves have very low energy (around femto electron volts). These relations are illustrated by the following equations:


c = 299,792,458 m/s is the speed of light in vacuum and

h = 6.62606896(33) Ã-10−34 J s = 4.13566733(10) Ã-10−15 eV s is Planck’s constant.

Whenever electromagnetic waves exist in a medium with matter, their wavelength is decreased. Wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation, no matter what medium they are travelling through, are usually quoted in terms of the vacuum wavelength, although this is not always explicitly stated.

Generally, EM radiation is classified by wavelength into radio wave, microwave, infrared, the visible region we perceive as light, ultraviolet, X-rays and gamma rays. The behaviour of EM radiation depends on its wavelength. When EM radiation interacts with single atoms and molecules, its behaviour also depends on the amount of energy per quantum (photon) it carries.

Spectroscopy can detect a much wider region of the EM spectrum than the visible range of 400 nm to 700 nm. A common laboratory spectroscope can detect wavelengths from 2 nm to 2500 nm. Detailed information about the physical properties of objects, gases, or even stars can be obtained from this type of device. Spectroscopes are widely used in astrophysics. For example, many hydrogen atoms emit a radio wave photon which has a wavelength of 21.12 cm. Also, frequencies of 30 Hz and below can be produced by and are important in the study of certain stellar nebulae and frequencies as high as 2.9Ã-1027 Hz have been detected from astrophysical sources.


The Spectrum of Electromagnetic Waves

While the classification scheme is generally accurate, in reality there is often some overlap between neighbouring types of electromagnetic energy. For example, SLF radio waves at 60 Hz may be received and studied by astronomers, or may be ducted along wires as electric power, although the latter is, strictly speaking, not electromagnetic radiation at all (see near and far field) The distinction between X and gamma rays is based on sources: gamma rays are the photons generated from nuclear decay or other nuclear and sub nuclear/particle process, whereas X-rays are generated by electronic transitions involving highly energetic inner atomic electrons. Generally, nuclear transitions are much more energetic than electronic transitions, so usually, gamma-rays are more energetic than X-rays, but exceptions exist. By analogy to electronic transitions, muonic atom transitions are also said to produce X-rays, even though their energy may exceed 6 mega electron volts (0.96 pJ), whereas there are many (77 known to be less than 10 keV (1.6 fJ)) low-energy nuclear transitions (e.g. the 7.6 eV (1.22 aJ) nuclear transition of thorium-229), and despite being one million-fold less energetic than some muonic X-rays, the emitted photons are still called gamma rays due to their nuclear origin.

Also, the region of the spectrum of the particular electromagnetic radiation is reference-frame dependent (on account of the Doppler shift for light) so EM radiation which one observer would say is in one region of the spectrum could appear to an observer moving at a substantial fraction of the speed of light with respect to the first to be in another part of the spectrum. For example, consider the cosmic microwave background. It was produced, when matter and radiation decoupled, by the de-excitation of hydrogen atoms to the ground state. These photons were from Lyman series transitions, putting them in the ultraviolet (UV) part of the electromagnetic spectrum. Now this radiation has undergone enough cosmological red shift to put it into the microwave region of the spectrum for observers moving slowly (compared to the speed of light) with respect to the cosmos. However, for particles moving near the speed of light, this radiation will be blue-shifted in their rest frame. The highest energy cosmic ray protons are moving such that, in their rest frame, this radiation is blueshifted to high energy gamma rays which interact with the proton to produce bound quark-antiquark pairs (pions). This is the source of the GZK limit

Radio Waves: – whose wavelength range from more than 104 m to about 0.1m, are the results of charges accelerating through conducting wires. They are generated by such electronic devices as LC oscillators and are used in radio and television communication systems.

Radio waves generally are utilized by antennas of appropriate size (according to the principle of resonance), with wavelengths ranging from hundreds of meters to about one millimetre. They are used for transmission of data, via modulation. Television, mobile phones, wireless networking and amateur radio all use radio waves. The use of the radio spectrum is regulated by many governments through frequency allocation.

Radio waves can be made to carry information by varying a combination of the amplitude, frequency and phase of the wave within a frequency band. When EM radiation impinges upon a conductor, it couples to the conductor, travels along it, and induces an electric current on the surface of that conductor by exciting the electrons of the conducting material. This effect (the skin effect) is used in antennas. EM radiation may also cause certain molecules to absorb energy and thus to heat up, causing thermal effects and sometimes burns. This is exploited in microwave ovens.

Microwaves: – The super high frequency (SHF) and extremely high frequency (EHF) of microwaves come next up the frequency scale. Microwaves are waves which are typically short enough to employ tubular metal waveguides of reasonable diameter. They have wavelengths ranging from approximately 0.3m to 10-4 m and are also generated by electronic devices. Because of their short wave lengths, they are well suited for radar system and for studying atomic and molecular properties of matter. Microwave ovens are an interesting domestic application of these waves. It has been suggested that the solar energy could be harnessed by beaming microwaves to the earth from a solar collector in space.

Microwave energy is produced with klystron and magnetron tubes, and with solid state diodes such as Gunn and IMPATT devices. Microwaves are absorbed by molecules that have a dipole moment in liquids. In a microwave oven, this effect is used to heat food. Low-intensity microwave radiation is used in Wi-Fi, although this is at intensity levels unable to cause thermal heating.

Volumetric heating, as used by microwaves, transfer energy through the material electromagnetically, not as a thermal heat flux. The benefit of this is a more uniform heating and reduced heating time; microwaves can heat material in less than 1% of the time of conventional heating methods.

When active, the average microwave oven is powerful enough to cause interference at close range with poorly shielded electromagnetic fields such as those found in mobile medical devices and cheap consumer electronics.

Infrared Waves: – have wavelengths ranging from approximately 10-3m to the longest wavelength of visible light, 7×10-7m. These waves, produced by molecules and room temperature objects, are readily absorbed by most materials. The infrared energy absorbed by a substance appears as internal energy because the energy agitates object’s atoms, increasing their vibrational or translational motion, which results in a temperature increase. Infrared radiation has practical and scientific applications in many areas, including physical therapy, IR photography and vibrational spectroscopy.

The infrared part of the electromagnetic spectrum covers the range from roughly 300 GHz (1 mm) to 400 THz (750 nm). It can be divided into three parts:

Far-infrared, from 300 GHz (1 mm) to 30 THz (10 μm). The lower part of this range may also be called microwaves. This radiation is typically absorbed by so-called rotational modes in gas-phase molecules, by molecular motions in liquids, and by phonons in solids. The water in the Earth’s atmosphere absorbs so strongly in this range that it renders the atmosphere effectively opaque. However, there are certain wavelength ranges (“windows”) within the opaque range which allow partial transmission, and can be used for astronomy. The wavelength range from approximately 200 μm up to a few mm is often referred to as “sub-millimetre” in astronomy, reserving far infrared for wavelengths below 200 μm.

Mid-infrared, from 30 to 120 THz (10 to 2.5 μm). Hot objects (black-body radiators) can radiate strongly in this range. It is absorbed by molecular vibrations, where the different atoms in a molecule vibrate around their equilibrium positions. This range is sometimes called the fingerprint region since the mid-infrared absorption spectrum of a compound is very specific for that compound.

Near-infrared, from 120 to 400 THz (2,500 to 750 nm). Physical processes that are relevant for this range are similar to those for visible light.

Visible light: – It is the most familiar form of electromagnetic spectrum the human eye can detect. Light is produced by the rearrangement of electrons in atoms and molecules. The various wavelengths of visible light, which correspond to different colours, range from red (λ=7×10-7) to violet (λ=4×10-7). The sensitivity of the human eye is a function of wavelength, being a maximum of 5.5×10-7m.

This is the range in which the sun and stars similar to it emit most of their radiation. It is probably not a coincidence that the human eye is sensitive to the wavelengths that the sun emits most strongly. Visible light (and near-infrared light) is typically absorbed and emitted by electrons in molecules and atoms that move from one energy level to another. The light we see with our eyes is really a very small portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. A rainbow shows the optical (visible) part of the electromagnetic spectrum; infrared (if you could see it) would be located just beyond the red side of the rainbow with ultraviolet appearing just beyond the violet end.

Electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength between 380 nm and 760 nm (790-400 terahertz) is detected by the human eye and perceived as visible light. Other wavelengths, especially near infrared (longer than 760 nm) and ultraviolet (shorter than 380 nm) are also sometimes referred to as light, especially when the visibility to humans is not relevant.

If radiation having a frequency in the visible region of the EM spectrum reflects off an object, say, a bowl of fruit, and then strikes our eyes, this results in our visual perception of the scene. Our brain’s visual system processes the multitude of reflected frequencies into different shades and hues, and through this not-entirely-understood psychophysical phenomenon, most people perceive a bowl of fruit.

At most wavelengths, however, the information carried by electromagnetic radiation is not directly detected by human senses. Natural sources produce EM radiation across the spectrum, and our technology can also manipulate a broad range of wavelengths. Optical fiber transmits light which, although not suitable for direct viewing, can carry data that can be translated into sound or an image. The coding used in such data is similar to that used with radio waves.

Ultraviolet light: – These cover wavelengths ranging from approximately 4×10-7 to 6×10-10m. The sun is an important source of ultraviolet (UV) light, which is the main cause of sun burn. Sunscreen lotions are transparent to visible light but absorb most of the ultraviolet light. The higher a sunscreen’s solar protection factor, or SPF, the greater the percentage of UV light absorbed. Ultraviolet rays have also been implicated in the formation of cataracts, a clouding of lens inside the eye.

Most of the UV light from the sun is absorbed by ozone (O3) molecules in the earth’s upper atmosphere, in a layer called the stratosphere. This ozone shield converts lethal high energy UV energy into IR radiation, which in turn warms the stratosphere.

Next in frequency comes ultraviolet (UV). This is radiation whose wavelength is shorter than the violet end of the visible spectrum, and longer than that of an X-ray.

Being very energetic, UV can break chemical bonds, making molecules unusually reactive or ionizing them (see photoelectric effect), in general changing their mutual behaviour. Sunburn, for example, is caused by the disruptive effects of UV radiation on skin cells, which is the main cause of skin cancer, if the radiation irreparably damages the complex DNA molecules in the cells (UV radiation is a proven mutagen). The Sun emits a large amount of UV radiation, which could quickly turn Earth into a barren desert. However, most of it is absorbed by the atmosphere’s ozone layer before reaching the surface.

X-rays: – They have wavelengths in the range from approximately 10-8m to 10-12m. The most common source of x-rays is the stopping of high-energy electrons upon bombarding a metal target. X-rays are used as a diagnostic tool in medicine (a process known as radiography) and as a treatment for certain forms of cancer as well as for high-energy physics and astronomy.. Because x-rays can damage or destroy living tissues and organisms, care must be taken to avoid unnecessary exposure or over exposure. X-rays are also used in the study of crystal structure because x-ray wavelengths are comparable to the atomic separation distances in solids (about 0.1nm).

Hard X-rays have shorter wavelengths than soft X-rays., Neutron stars and accretion disks around black holes emit X-rays, which enable us to study them. X-rays are given off by stars and are strongly emitted by some types of nebulae.

Gamma rays: – After hard X-rays comes gamma rays, which were discovered by Paul Villard in 1900, these are the most energetic photons, having no defined lower limit to their wavelength. They are electromagnetic waves emitted by radioactive nuclei (such as 60Co and 137Cs) and during certain nuclear reactions. High-energy gamma rays are a component of cosmic rays that enter the earth’s atmosphere from space. They have wavelength ranging from approximately 10-10m to less than 10-14m. Gamma rays are highly penetrating and produce serious damage when absorbed by living tissues. Consequently those working near such dangerous radiation must be protected with heavily absorbing material such as thick layers of lead.

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They are useful to astronomers in the study of high energy objects or regions, and find a use with physicists thanks to their penetrative ability and their production from radioisotopes. Gamma rays are also used for the irradiation of food and seed for sterilization, and in medicine they are used in radiation cancer therapy and some kinds of diagnostic imaging such as PET scans. The wavelength of gamma rays can be measured with high accuracy by means of Compton scattering.

Note: There are no precisely defined boundaries between the bands of the electromagnetic spectrum. Radiations of some types have a mixture of the properties of those in two regions of the spectrum. For example, red light resembles infrared radiation in that it can resonate some chemical bonds.


Application Areas of Electromagnetic Waves

Electromagnetic Waves in the modern world have led to evolvement of many advanced communication systems some of them are radio, television, radars, etc. We would now focus on how these electromagnetic waves which carry energy and momentum are used in various applications round the globe.


Telemetry is the process of making measurements from a remote location and transmitting those measurements to receiving equipment. The earliest telemetry systems, developed in the United States during the 1880s, monitored the distribution and use of electricity in a given region, and relayed this information back to power companies using telephone lines. By the end of World War I, electric companies used the power lines themselves as information relays, and though such electrical telemetry systems remain in use in some sectors, most modern telemetry systems apply radio signals.

An example of a modern telemetry application is the use of an input device called a transducer to measure information concerning an astronaut’s vital signs (heartbeat, blood pressure, body temperature, and so on) during a manned space flight. The transducer takes this information and converts it into an electrical impulse, which is then beamed to the space monitoring station on Earth. Because this signal carries information, it must be modulated, but there is little danger of interference with broadcast transmissions on Earth. Typically, signals from spacecraft are sent in a range above 10 10 Hz, far above the frequencies of most microwave transmissions for commercial purposes.


Radio waves can be used to send communication signals, or even to cook food; they can also be used to find and measure things. One of the most obvious applications in this regard is radar, an acronym for RAdio Detection And Ranging.

Radio makes it possible for pilots to “see” through clouds, rain, fog, and all manner of natural phenomena-not least of which is darkness. It can also identify objects, both natural and manmade, thus enabling a peacetime pilot to avoid hitting another craft or the side of a mountain. On the other hand, radar may help a pilot in wartime to detect the presence of an enemy. Nor is radar used only in the skies, or for military purposes, such as guiding missiles: on the ground, it is used to detect the speeds of objects such as automobiles on an interstate highway, as well as to track storms.

In the simplest model of radar operation, the unit sends out microwaves toward the target, and the waves bounce back off the target to the unit. Though the speed of light is reduced somewhat, due to the fact that waves are travelling through air rather than through a vacuum, it is, nonetheless, possible to account for this difference. Hence, the distance to the target can be calculated using the simple formula d = vt, where d is distance, v is velocity, and t is time.

Typically, a radar system includes the following: a frequency generator and a unit for controlling the timing of signals; a transmitter and, as with broadcast radio, a modulator; a duplexer, which switches back and forth between transmission and reception mode; an antenna; a receiver, which detects and amplifies the signals bounced back to the antenna; signal and data processing units; and data display units. In a monostatic unit-one in which the transmitter and receiver are in the same location-the unit has to be continually switched between sending and receiving modes. Clearly, a bistatic unit-one in which the transmitter and receiver antennas are at different locations-is generally preferable; but on an airplane, for instance, there is no choice but to use a monostatic unit.

In order to determine the range to a target-whether that target be a mountain, an enemy aircraft, or a storm-the target itself must first be detected. This can be challenging, because only a small portion of the transmitted pulse comes back to the receiving antenna. At the same time, the antenna receives reflections from a number of other objects, and it can be difficult to determine which signal comes from the target. For an aircraft in a wartime situation, these problems are compounded by the use of enemy countermeasures such as radar “jamming.” Still another difficulty facing a military flyer is the fact that the use of radar itself-that is the transmission of microwaves-makes the aircraft detectable to opposing forces.


The same microwaves that transmit FM and television signals-to name only the most obviously applications of microwave for communication-can also be harnessed to cook food. The microwave oven, introduced commercially in 1955, was an outgrowth of military technology developed a decade before.

During World War II, the Raytheon Manufacturing Company had experimented with a magnetron, a device for generating extremely short-wavelength radio signals as a means of improving the efficiency of military radar. While working with a magnetron, a technician named Percy Spencer was surprised to discover that a candy bar in his pocket had melted, even though he had not felt any heat. This led him to considering the possibilities of applying the magnetron to peacetime uses, and a decade later, Raytheon’s “radar range” hit the market.

Those early microwave ovens had none of varied power settings to which modern users of the microwave-found today in two-thirds of all American homes-are accustomed. In the first microwaves, the only settings were “on” and “off,” because there were only two possible adjustments: either the magnetron would produce, or not produce, microwaves. Today, it is possible to use a microwave for almost anything that involves the heating of food that contains water-from defrosting a steak to popping popcorn.

As noted much earlier, in the general discussion of electromagnetic radiation, there are three basic types of heat transfer: conduction, convection, and radiation. Without going into too much detail here, conduction generally involves heat transfer between molecules in a solid; convection takes place in a fluid (a gas such as air or a liquid such as water); and radiation, of course, requires no medium.

A conventional oven cooks through convection, though conduction also carries heat from the outer layers of a solid (for example, a turkey) to the interior. A microwave, on the other hand, uses radiation to heat the outer layers of the food; then conduction, as with a conventional oven, does the rest. The difference is that the microwave heats only the food-or, more specifically, the water, which then transfers heat throughout the item being heated-and not the dish or plate. Thus, many materials, as long as they do not contain water, can be placed in a microwave oven without being melted or burned. Metal, though it contains no water, is unsafe because the microwaves bounce off the metal surfaces, creating a microwave buildup that can produce sparks and damage the oven.

In a microwave oven, microwaves emitted by a small antenna are directed into the cooking compartment, and as they enter, they pass a set of turning metal fan blades. This is the stirrer, which disperses the microwaves uniformly over the surface of the food to be heated. As a microwave strikes a water molecule, resonance causes the molecule to align with the direction of the wave. An oscillating magnetron causes the microwaves to oscillate as well, and this, in turn, compels the water molecules to do the same. Thus, the water molecules are shifting in position several million times a second, and this vibration generates energy that heats the water.


Among the most familiar parts of the electromagnetic spectrum, in modern life at least, is radio. In most schematic representations of the spectrum, radio waves are shown either at the left end or the bottom, as an indication of the fact that these are the electromagnetic waves with the lowest frequencies, the longest wavelengths, and the smallest levels of photon energy. Included in this broad sub-spectrum, with frequencies up to about 10 7 Hertz are long-wave radio, short-wave radio, and microwaves. The areas of communication affected are many: broadcast radio, television, mobile phones, radar-and even highly specific forms of technology such as baby monitors.

Though the work of Maxwell and Hertz was foundational to the harnessing of radio waves for human use, the practical use of radio had its beginnings with Marconi. During the 1890s, he made the first radio transmissions, and, by the end of the century, he had succeeded in transmitting telegraph messages across the Atlantic Ocean-a feat which earned him the Nobel Prize for physics in 1909.

Marconi’s spark transmitters could send only coded messages, and due to the broad, long-wave length signals used, only a few stations could broadcast at the same time. The development of the electron tube in the early years of the twentieth century, however, made it possible to transmit narrower signals on stable frequencies. This, in turn, enabled the development of technology for sending speech and music over the airwaves.


A radio signal is simply a carrier: the process of adding information-that is, complex sounds such as those of speech or music-is called modulation. The first type of modulation developed was AM, or amplitude modulation, which Canadian-American physicist Reginald Aubrey Fessenden (1866-1932) demonstrated with the first United States radio broadcast in 1906. Amplitude modulation varies the instantaneous amplitude of the radio wave, a function of the radio station’s power, as a means of transmitting information.

By the end of World War I, radio had emerged as a popular mode of communication: for the first time in history, entire nations could hear the same sounds at the same time. During the 1930s, radio became increasingly important, both for entertainment and information. Families in the era of the Great Depression would gather around large “cathedral radios”-so named for their size and shape-to hear comedy programs, soap operas, news programs, and speeches by important public figures such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Throughout this era-indeed, for more than a half-century from the end of the first World War to the height of the Vietnam Conflict in the mid-1960s-AM held a dominant position in radio. This remained the case despite a number of limitations inherent in amplitude modulation: AM broadcasts flickered with popping noises from lightning, for instance, and cars with AM radios tended to lose their signal when going under a bridge. Yet, another mode of radio transmission was developed in the 1930s, thanks to American inventor and electrical engineer Edwin H. Armstrong (1890-1954). This was FM, or frequency modulation, which varied the radio signal’s frequency rather than its amplitude.

Not only did FM offer a different type of modulation; it was on an entirely different frequency range. Whereas AM is an example of a long-wave radio transmission, FM is on the microwave sector of the electromagnetic spectrum, along with television and radar. Due to its high frequency and form of modulation, FM offered a “clean” sound as compared with AM. The addition of FM stereo broadcasts in the 1950s offered still further improvements; yet despite the advantages of FM, audiences were slow to change, and FM did not become popular until the mid-to late 1960s.


AM signals have much longer wavelengths, and smaller frequencies, than do FM signals, and this, in turn, affects the means by which AM signals are propagated. There are, of course, much longer radio wavelengths; hence, AM signals are described as intermediate in wavelength. These intermediate-wavelength signals reflect off highly charged layers in the ionosphere between 25 and 200 mi (40-332 km) above Earth’s surface. Short-wave-length signals, such as those of FM, on the other hand, follow a straight-line path. As a result, AM broadcasts extend much farther than FM, particularly at night.

At a low level in the ionosphere is the D layer, created by the Sun when it is high in the sky. The D layer absorbs medium-wavelength signals during the day, and for this reason, AM signals do not travel far during daytime hours. After the Sun goes down, however, the D layer soon fades, and this makes it possible for AM signals to reflect off a much higher layer of the ionosphere known as the F layer. (This is also sometimes known as the Heaviside layer, or the Kennelly-Heaviside layer, after English physicist Oliver Heaviside and British-American electrical engineer Arthur Edwin Kennelly, who independently discovered the ionosphere in 1902.) AM signals “bounce” off the F layer as though it were a mirror, making it possible for a listener at night to pick up a signal from halfway across the country.

The Sun has other effects on long-wave and intermediate-wave radio transmissions. Sunspots, or dark areas that appear on the Sun in cycles of about 11 years, can result in a heavier buildup of the ionosphere than normal, thus impeding radio-signal propagation. In addition, occasional bombardment of Earth by charged particles from the Sun can also disrupt transmissions.

Due to the high frequencies of FM signals, these do not reflect off the ionosphere; instead, they are received as direct waves. For this reason, an FM station has a fairly short broadcast range, and this varies little with regard to day or night. The limited range of FM stations as compared to AM means that there is much less interference on the FM dial than for AM.

In the United States and most other countries, one cannot simply broadcast at will; the airwaves are regulated, and, in America, the governing authority is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The FCC, established in 1934, was an outgrowth of the Federal Radio Commission, founded by Congress seven years earlier. The FCC actually “sells air,” charging companies a fee to gain rights to a certain frequency. Those companies may in turn sell that air to ot


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