Free to air is an expression used to describe both television and radio broadcasts that are not encrypted. This enables anyone with a satellite dish to pick up these programs without subscribing to a cable company. When first radio and then television began, virtually all programs on major networks were free to air and could be listened to or viewed by anyone in close enough range to broadcast antennas.
Today most networks, particularly in the US, are unavailable unless one has cable or satellite dish service, which is able to break encrypted codes. Even free to air programming may be difficult to obtain if it is broadcast via a satellite and one does not own a satellite dish. Very few programs or stations use older methods of broadcasting, thus the famous TV rabbit ear antennas have lost their function.
With radio, there are still many free to air broadcasts available without subscribing to a satellite radio service. In fact, most popular radio programs are still broadcast in a free to air format, though many argue listening to the radio is not exactly free. With the exception of public radio, one must endure constant interruptions from commercial breaks, making satellite radio a more pleasant option for some. Many would rather pay a fee that allows them access to uninterrupted programming, than to have to listen to commercials.
Most free to air television stations also take breaks for commercials, with the exception of stations like PBS. Even now, however, viewers may need to watch a commercial or notification of sponsorship prior to a program. As well, many loyal PBS fans resent the need to raise funds through pledge drives. Often PBS will show its most interesting or popular programs during such a drive, but will take long breaks to ask people to support the network.
Though free to air programming may be free to watch, it is not free for the broadcasting company. All broadcasting radio and television stations must pay licensing fees to legally broadcast. Some pirate radio and television stations exist, but the location of such broadcasting is usually discovered and shut down.
In countries other than the US, much of the television programming may be free to air, a thought that irks most Americans who pay steadily increasing cable fees. In Europe for example, the majority of programming is free to air, and satellite programming for radio is also of this type.