When you're trying to get that distant radio station to come in just a little bit clearer, it can seem like antennas are more about black magic than science. However, it does come down to science, and with a bit of knowledge and some basic math, you can ensure that you have the perfect length antenna for your situation.
Wavelengths and Frequencies
Radio stations are often referred to by their frequency -- 97.3 MHz, 1010 kHz and so on. In most cases this is the most accurate and sensible way to refer to a particular station. Radio dials and displays show frequency, and are generally quite precise. However, radio signals are a form of electromagnetic radiation, which is a type of wave, and just like waves in the ocean, radio waves have a wavelength -- the distance from peak to peak -- which is directly tied to the frequency. To determine wavelength, you divide the speed of light in meters per second -- 299,792,458 -- by the frequency in megahertz.
Antenna Size Matters
In order for an antenna to be most efficient and give you the strongest received signal possible, it needs to be resonant. A resonant antenna is one where the size of the antenna is matched to the wavelength that it is intended to receive. In this case, there are two basic types of resonant antenna: the half-wave dipole and the quarter-wave monopole.
Without even realizing it, you've seen both of these antennas many times before. Television "rabbit ears" are a dipole -- two equal length radiating elements -- while quarter-wave monopoles are the standard antenna used for car radios. Both make very effective receiving antennas when built to the right length, and the formula for calculating that length is simple. For a half-wave dipole, divide the number 468 by the frequency in megahertz to get the length of the antenna in feet; for a quarter-wave monopole, divide the number 234 by the frequency in megahertz to get the antenna length in feet.
If you're interested in better FM broadcast reception, these formulas make for antennas of reasonable size for almost any location. A half-wave antenna for the FM broadcast band is only 4.75 feet long. However, if it is AM or shortwave listening you are interested in, resonant antennas can become very long. Even a quarter-wave antenna for 1000 kHz in the AM band is 234 feet long. In cases when using a resonant antenna is not practical, simply make the antenna as long as possible -- more metal in the air will never hurt your cause when trying to pick up radio signals.
- The ARRL Antenna Book 21st Edition; L.B. Cebik, et al.
- 1728.org: Electromagnetic Frequency, Wavelength and Energy Ultra Calculator
- NR6CA.org: Useful Formulas
- Photo Credit Comstock/Comstock/Getty Images