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  • The Savior of the Nation? Regulating Radio in the Interwar Period
  • Heidi J. S. Tworek (bio)

In 1924, Baron John Reith, the first general manager of the BBC, waxed lyrical about the role of broadcasting in British society. Reith called broadcasting “a servant of culture and culture has been called the study of perfection.” 1 Like many in the interwar period, Reith invested radio with almost sublime potential to elevate listeners, overcome the trauma of World War I, and bridge class divides. Reith actively molded content to achieve these goals, like those involved in radio elsewhere. After the destruction of World War I, utopian hopes emerged for national radio communities that could flourish under the umbrella of international technical standards for issues such as spectrum.

Many have examined radio systems as national phenomena or categorized them based upon private or public-sector funding. In 1946, Judith Waller, director of Public Service at NBC, argued that there were three radio systems: state-owned; the British Royal Charter system of an independent nonprofit, public corporation; and the American commercial system. For Waller, institutional arrangements necessarily led to particular ideas of the audience and programming. Media content emerged from national politics and funding systems derived from political choices. “In dictator-controlled countries,” wrote Waller, “the objective of broadcasting is to give the people what the state wants them to have; in Great Britain the objective seems to be to give the people what they ought to have; in America broadcasters give the audience what it wants.” 2 [End Page 465]

These divisions were far from clear in the 1920s, when radio emerged. From the postwar perspective, Nazi Germany seemed the archetype of dictator-controlled radio, while Britain and the United States epitomized the other two systems. The three countries ended up in different places by the 1930s, but there were surprising parallels in institutions and attitudes to radio in the 1920s. In all three countries, radio appeared to offer elites the chance to build national communities through a private domestic device, though experiences in the 1930s heavily tempered or erased that optimism. American radio ultimately did not educate the masses like a university on air. British attempts to expand the BBC to the Empire did not create imperial cohesion. German radio could not prevent the fall of the Weimar Republic or the rise of the Nazis (even as the Nazis themselves seized upon radio to foster a Volksgemeinschaft ). In the Soviet Union, by contrast, wired public sets and collective listening were the hallmarks of radio until after World War II. Only in the 1950s did the shift from wired to wireless sets turn radio from a mainly collective and public experience into a private activity. 3 Unlike radio under Communism, German, British, and American radio emerged from comparable and intertwined cultural and political understandings of radio along with technological exchange.

Comparative histories frequently examine synchronic similarities and differences, rather than diachronic change over time. In other words, comparison often illustrates snapshots while historical approaches investigate how the negatives developed into those snapshots. 4 Historians have examined Anglo-American broadcasting as well as compared German and American broadcasting, but not all three. 5 Diachronic comparison can explain not just initial similarities, but also why systems diverged as much as they did in these three countries. Communications scholars, meanwhile, often seek to compare systems rather than discuss how they emerged. The classic example is Four Theories of the Press, first published in 1956. It divided media into four theoretical types—authoritarian, libertarian, social responsibility, and Soviet Communist—to derive the normative characteristics of each. While disputing its conclusions, many subsequent scholars have sought to categorize media systems. 6 In making the models ahistorical, however, they precluded considering shared roots and lineages. Comparison in this case does not mean classification, but interconnection.

Within certain parameters, national systems could resemble one another. International regulation only addressed technical standards such as spectrum (the range of available radio frequencies), enabling myriad national [End Page 466] institutional arrangements. 7 German, British, and American radio initially exhibited similarities for three main reasons. First, radio emerged from a transnational exchange of technologies and the international coordination of technical standards. Second, the global...


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