How Radio Works

The Simplest AM Receiver

In the case of a strong AM signal, it turns out that you can create a simple radio receiver with just two parts and some wire! The process is extremely simple -- here's what you need:

  • A diode - You can get a diode for about $1 at Radio Shack. Part number 276-1123 will do.
  • Two pieces of wire - You'll need about 20 to 30 feet (15 to 20 meters) of wire. Radio Shack part number 278-1224 is great, but any wire will do.
  • A small metal stake that you can drive into the ground (or, if the transmitter has a guard rail or metal fence nearby, you can use that)
  • A crystal earphone - Unfortunately, Radio Shack does not sell one. However, Radio Shack does sell a Crystal Radio Kit (part number 28-178) that contains the earphone, diode, wire and a tuner (which means that you don't need to stand right next to the transmitter for this to work), all for $10.

You now need to find and be near an AM radio station's transmitting tower (within a mile/1.6 km or so) for this to work. Here's what you do:

  • Drive the stake into the ground, or find a convenient metal fence post. Strip the insulation off the end of a 10-foot (3-meter) piece of wire and wrap it around the stake/post five or 10 times to get a good solid connection. This is the ground wire.
  • Attach the diode to the other end of the ground wire.
  • Take another piece of wire, 10 to 20 feet long (3 to 6 meters), and connect one end of it to the other end of the diode. This wire is your antenna. Lay it out on the ground, or hang it in a tree, but make sure the bare end does not touch the ground.
  • Connect the two leads from the earplug to either end of the diode, like this:

Now if you put the earplug in your ear, you will hear the radio station -- that is the simplest possible radio receiver! This super-simple project will not work if you are very far from the station, but it does demonstrate how simple a radio receiver can be.

Here's how it works. Your wire antenna is receiving all sorts of radio signals, but because you are so close to a particular transmitter it doesn't really matter. The nearby signal overwhelms everything else by a factor of millions. Because you are so close to the transmitter, the antenna is also receiving lots of energy -- enough to drive an earphone! Therefore, you don't need a tuner or batteries or anything else. The diode acts as a detector for the AM signal as described in the previous section. So you can hear the station despite the lack of a tuner and an amplifier!

The Crystal Radio Kit that Radio Shack sells (28-178) contains two extra parts: an inductor and a capacitor. These two parts create a tuner that gives the radio extra range. See How Oscillators Work for details.