For the propagation and interception of radio waves, a transmitter and receiver are employed. A radio wave acts as a carrier of information-bearing signals; the information may be encoded directly on the wave by periodically interrupting its transmission (as in dot-and-dash telegraphy) or impressed on it by a process called modulation. The actual information in a modulated signal is contained in its sidebands, or frequencies added to the carrier wave, rather than in the carrier wave itself. The two most common types of modulation used in radio are amplitude modulation (AM) and frequency modulation (FM). Frequency modulation minimizes noise and provides greater fidelity than amplitude modulation, which is the older method of broadcasting. Both AM and FM are analog transmission systems, that is, they process sounds into continuously varying patterns of electrical signals, which resemble sound waves. Digital radio uses a transmission system in which the signals propagate as discrete voltage pulses, that is, as patterns of numbers; before transmission, an analog audio signal is converted into a digital signal, which may be transmitted in the AM or FM frequency range. A digital radio broadcast offers compact-disc-quality reception and reproduction on the FM band and FM-quality reception and reproduction on the AM band.
In its most common form, radio is used for the transmission of sounds (voice and music) and pictures (television). The sounds and images are converted into electrical signals by a microphone (sounds) or video camera (images), amplified, and used to modulate a carrier wave that has been generated by an oscillator circuit in a transmitter. The modulated carrier is also amplified, then applied to an antenna that converts the electrical signals to electromagnetic waves for radiation into space. Such waves radiate at the speed of light and are transmitted not only by line of sight but also by deflection from the ionosphere.
Receiving antennas intercept part of this radiation, change it back to the form of electrical signals, and feed it to a receiver. The most efficient and most common circuit for radio-frequency selection and amplification used in radio receivers is the super heterodyne. In that system, incoming signals are mixed with a signal from a local oscillator to produce intermediate frequencies (IF) that are equal to the arithmetical sum and difference of the incoming and local frequencies. One of those frequencies is applied to an amplifier. Because the IF amplifier operates at a single frequency, namely the intermediate frequency, it can be built for optimum selectivity and gain. The tuning control on a radio receiver adjusts the local oscillator frequency. If the incoming signals are above the threshold of sensitivity of the receiver and if the receiver is tuned to the frequency of the signal, it will amplify the signal and feed it to circuits that demodulate it, i.e., separate the signal wave itself from the carrier wave.
There are certain differences between AM and FM receivers. In an AM transmission, the carrier wave is constant in frequency and varies in amplitude (strength) according to the sounds present at the microphone; in FM, the carrier is constant in amplitude and varies in frequency. Because the noise that affects radio signals is partly, but not completely, manifested in amplitude variations, wideband FM receivers are inherently less sensitive to noise. In an FM receiver, the limiter and discriminator stages are circuits that respond solely to changes in frequency. The other stages of the FM receiver are similar to those of the AM receiver but require more care in design and assembly to make full use of FM's advantages. FM is also used in television sound systems. In both radio and television receivers, once the basic signals have been separated from the carrier wave they are fed to a loudspeaker or a display device (usually a cathode-ray tube), where they are converted into sound and visual images, respectively.