Preface

From: Active Radio

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Congressional hearings in 1926 found legislators debating federal regulation of radio. Of urgent concern was securing a stable means of financing the programming in the five-year-old industry. Since 1921 income from the sale of radiolas themselves had subsidized the cost of the broadcasts. But the moment loomed when most households would own a receiver, eliminating the potential revenue from this source. The practice of selling airtime to advertisers to cover programming expenses had not yet spread to the majority of the nearly seven hundred radio stations in the United States. In fact, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, to whom the federal regulation of broadcasting had been delegated, was on record opposing radio commercials: “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.”1 Of the many criticisms of paid advertising in this period, one of the more interesting came in written testimony to the Congress from W. G. Cowles, head of the Chicago-based Zenith Radio Corporation. In 1926, Cowles viewed advertising as a threat to national security. If stations were to relinquish control over their programs to any paying sponsor, “Bolshevist propaganda will have a better chance in this country than ever before. . . . All radical thinkers, whether in politics, religion , or anything else, will fill the air with their efforts to poison the minds. This situation is intolerable.”2 Congress continued its work for a year, fashioning the Dill-White Radio Act of 1927. This scaffold on which all subsequent telecommunication policy in the United States would rest contained but a single reference to advertising: any program sponsored by a business must identify that enterprise by name, so that wily, Preface IX unnamed advertisers could not “subliminally seduce” the audience, as a later idiom would put it. Thus, at the dawn of the mass media in the United States, the secretary of commerce publicly opposed the broadcasting of commercials, certain influential station owners equated advertised sponsorship with Bolshevist infiltration , and Congress believed that a law was needed to guarantee that advertisers identify themselves. Given what we now know about the relative significance of Bolshevism and commercialism in the history of this country’s mass media, the foregoing sketch might seem farcical. By 1930, businesses, advertising agencies, and station owners had united in their appreciation of the opportunity radio provided for enticing “the most numerous and attentive audience ever assembled . . . in the quiet and intimate atmosphere of the home[,] reached by the most natural channel for the exchange of human thought, namely the speaking voice.”3 The mass media in the United States have for the past seven decades operated under the imperative to capture the largest percentage of this “most numerous and attentive audience” for their sponsors. Broadcasters have shunned not only Bolshevism but most controversial or complicated topics that might jeopardize their audience share. Critics from the 1920s to the 1990s have observed that the world framed and broadcast by commercial media bears scant resemblance to any actual state of affairs. As the antihunger organization Bread for the World recently asserted, there are more U.S. reporters whose full-time job is covering the New York Yankees than there are reporters in the entire continent of Africa.4 Active Radio: Pacifica’s Brash Experiment, however, accentuates the positive: it investigates the heroic story of the listener-sponsored Pacifica radio network that against many odds established a noncommercial chain of five stations—in Berkeley, Los Angeles, New York, Houston, and Washington, D.C. Using the airwaves in a uniquely utopian manner, these stations have served as a voice promoting social justice, international solidarity, personal transformation, and creative expression for five decades. Through its engagement with the culture and politics of the postwar world, the network has invited alliances with nearly every transformatory movement of the past fifty years, from the Beats and hipsters to the Weather Underground, from Salvadoran guerrillas to militant vegans. By situating itself not as a neutral observer but as a committed participant within and across these movements, Pacifica hearkened to the demand of John Dewey that “the struggle for democracy has to be maintained on as many fronts as culture has aspects: political, economic, international, educational, scientific, artistic, and religious.”5 In its zeal, Pacifica has risked the loss of its licenses, had its transmitters bombed, seen its personnel arrested and jailed, and made errors of X PREFACE judgment and taste. Yet its tumultuous path has significantly increased the mass media’s sphere...


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