How the Radio Spectrum Works

By: Marshall Brain  | 

You've probably heard about AM radio and FM radio, VHF and UHF television, citizens band radio, shortwave radio and so on. Have you ever wondered what all of those different names really mean? What's the difference between them?

A radio wave is an electromagnetic wave propagated by an antenna. Radio waves have different frequencies, and by tuning a radio receiver to a specific frequency you can pick up a specific signal.


In the United States, the FCC (Federal Communications Commission) decides who is able to use which frequencies for which purposes, and it issues licenses to stations for specific frequencies. 

When you listen to a radio station and the announcer says, "You are listening to 91.5 FM WRKX The Rock!," what the announcer means is that you are listening to a radio station broadcasting a frequency modulated (FM) radio signal at a frequency of 91.5 megahertz, with FCC-assigned call letters of WRKX. Megahertz means "millions of cycles per second," so "91.5 megahertz" means that the transmitter at the radio station is oscillating at a frequency of 91,500,000 cycles per second. Your FM radio can tune in to that specific frequency and give you clear reception of that station. All FM radio stations transmit in a band of frequencies between 88 megahertz and 108 megahertz. This band of the radio spectrum is used for no other purpose but FM radio broadcasts.

In the same way, amplitude modulated (AM) radio is confined to a band from 535 kilohertz to 1,700 kilohertz (kilo meaning "thousands," so 535,000 to 1,700,000 cycles per second). So an AM radio station that says, "This is AM 680 WPTF" means that the radio station is broadcasting an AM radio signal at 680 kilohertz and its FCC-assigned call letters are WPTF.

On the next page, learn more about about frequency bands and the frequencies that common gadgets use.