1. The Rise of Corporate Broadcasting

From: Active Radio

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As the radiola craze swept the nation in the roaring twenties, corporate and educational broadcasters struggled to chart the destiny of the new medium. Both groups looked to Congress to regulate the distribution of licenses and keep some order in the chaos of rapid expansion. Between 1927 and 1934, the government and the emerging “mass media” industry, led by the newly formed National Broadcasting Company (formed in 1926), jointly worked to establish the principle that the nation ’s commercial stations best served the “public interest.” With the federal government ’s redistribution of more than one hundred licenses from church, university , and civic stations to commercial stations during this period, noncommercial broadcasting in the United States was effectively smothered in the cradle. This was neither a simple nor an uncontroversial process. With the creation of the Federal Radio Commission in 1927, the government began the delicate process of balancing the rhetoric that the airwaves were a public resource with the reality that the vast majority of “our” radio channels were actively placed in the hands of a small oligarchy of powerful private interests, broadcast corporations that continue to shape the media (and hence social and political) environment in which we live seventy years later. Understanding the early history of radio provides one context for measuring the extent of Pacifica’s later accomplishment. “This Magic Called Radio” At the behest of the navy, Congress granted the control of wireless telegraphy to the secretary of commerce in 1912. Government oversight prevented the hundreds 1. The Rise of Corporate Broadcasting Business succeeds rather better than the state in imposing its restraints upon individuals, because its imperatives are disguised as choices. — Walter Hamilton, quoted in James Rorty, Order on the Air 11 of amateur ham radio operators from crowding the airwaves with extraneous dots and dashes, a practice the navy claimed interfered with the use of “radiotelegraphy ” in choreographing naval exercises. Acting under the penumbra of the Constitution ’s Commerce Clause, President Taft signed into law a Radio Act in 1912 mandating that whoever wished to transmit “radiograms” must first apply to the secretary of commerce. The secretary of commerce was authorized to grant a transmitting license to all those requesting one. Shipping companies as well as individual private operators applied for licenses, along with dozens of schools and universities where experiments in radiotelegraphy had been part of the physics curriculum for more than a decade. In all, more than eight thousand permits for sending wireless telegraphic signals were issued in the four years before the United States entered World War I. (Of course, the number of receivers was far higher than transmitters, by some estimates over one hundred thousand.)1 From the outset, both commercial and noncommercial operators played a central role in the development of what would later come to be called “radio.” “Noncommercial ” here refers to both educational institutions and the precocious amateur ham operators. In the first decades of this century, thousands of amateur aficionados (called “DXers” in the lingo) built their own crystal sets that could both transmit and receive wireless telegraphic signals. In 1910 the Wireless Association of America claimed ten thousand members; in 1912 the New York Times estimated that 122 wireless clubs held “over-the-air” meetings in Morse code on prearranged frequencies.2 Their experiments hastened the development of the basic technological infrastructure that would flower into broadcasting within a decade. World War I brought a blackout to this activity, shutting down all nonmilitary radio use of radiotelegraphy. Immediately after the war, thousands of amateurs, released from wartime restrictions, renewed their licenses and began experimenting with a variety of novel approaches to the medium. Although some had experimented with broadcasting both voice and music previously, the quality and range had generally been limited. Naval engineers, spurred by the war effort, had dramatically enhanced the capacities of transmitters, amplifiers, and receivers. In 1918, ham operators were thrilled by the extraordinary new opportunities for transmitting and receiving voice messages and music. Although the war’s end reopened the ether to the DXers, their day had passed. The war had proven the immense strategic value of wireless communication. Lessons learned from naval tactics now enabled shipping companies and distributors to coordinate their schedules far more efficiently using wireless. The navy, in alliance with different mercantile concerns, once again impelled the government to act, this time to hasten the establishment of a national radio corporation 12 THE RISE OF CORPORATE BROADCASTING technologically sophisticated enough to contest the control of the...