Who Is It That Fills The Air With Radio Waves?

There are about 900 radio stations broadcasting to the American public. With them originate most of the noises sent into the homes of our radio-listening millions. Beginning in a broadcasting studio, talk or music goes into a microphone. The sound waves, or parades of air wiggles, become electrical wiggles in the microphone and from it proceed along telephone wires to a transmitter. From the towering antenna connected with the transmitter the waves are sent through the air to be picked up by radio sets wherever they may be. In the radio receiver the electrical waves are translated back into a close approximation of the original sounds. That is what finally comes out of the loud-speaker.

While they are traveling through the ether to the receiving antenna, the parade of waves from a transmitter must have the road to themselves. If a nearby station is transmitting at the same time, its waves will interfere with the parade unless they are pitched at a different frequency. For the hours it is on the air, therefore, and within the range of its “voice,” a radio station must have what is called a “wave channel”—or “frequency channel”—clear of other broadcasts.

How many channels are there?

There is a limit to the possible number of these channels. We do not yet know how to make use of many of the frequencies between 10 kilocycles and 30,000,000 kilocycles—the “radio spectrum.” Many of the rest are used for point-to-point communication such as ship-to-ship or ship-to-shore, for aviation, for radar, and for other nonbroadcast purposes. From one end of the ordinary home broadcast receiver dial to the other, there are only 106 channels now carrying broadcast sounds. This means that, even with the most careful planning, not too many groups of sounds can be broadcast at once without getting in one another’s way. It now seems inevitable that there will always be a scarcity of sound broadcasting channels. The prewar number has been increased by opening up a whole new set of channels for FM (frequency modulation) broadcasting. But even then, there won’t be nearly enough to give everybody the program he wants when he wants it. Which sounds are to go out, and which are not? News or music? Speeches by Democrats or by Republicans? Soap operas or school programs? The radio pie is only “so big,” and someone must decide what the American people are to get.

Who makes up the radio menu?

There are five chefs who make up the radio menu: the government, the stations, the networks, the sponsors, and the advertising agencies.

The government. First chef is the Federal Communications Commission. FCC, an agency of the federal government, issues licenses entitling corporations or persons to buy, build, or operate radio stations. As a condition of granting these licenses, FCC enforces certain requirements laid down by Congress and by its own regulations.

The stations. The 900-odd station managers are, collectively, the second chef. These men have the major task of selecting the programs that succeed each other in blocks of 15 minutes or more throughout the broadcasting day, week after week and year after year.

The stations are divided into three groups. First are the 30 or more stations owned by the networks. For them, of course, the networks rather than the individual stations largely determine the programs. Second are the 650 or more stations affiliated with the networks. This means that each station enters into a contract with a network for the regular use of programs provided by that network. Third are the 200 independent stations that have no network affiliations and that select or originate their own programs. This last group consists mainly of smaller stations with limited transmitting power. They make liberal use of mechanical recordings of musical or other programs.

The networks. The third of the chefs making up the nation’s radio menu is, collectively, the four national networks. More than 700 stations—4 out of every 5 radio stations in the country—are owned by or affiliated with the National Broadcasting Company, the Columbia Broadcasting System, the Mutual Broadcasting System, or the American Broadcasting Company (formerly the Blue Network). Together they use 95 percent of the evening broadcast power. In addition to these giants, there are between 25 and 30 smaller regional networks.

The percentage of stations affiliated with the networks has climbed steadily despite the fact that the number of stations is also growing. In 1935 the nets had as affiliates 30 percent of all stations. By 1945 the percentage was 79. The networks have contracts with the biggest, most powerful stations in America. One-half the total broadcasting time sold to advertisers is sold by the big networks. This means that network programs occupy half the time on the air and provide a large share of the income of the stations in the four major chains.

The oldest net is NBC. It is wholly owned by another company, the Radio Corporation of America, which makes many kinds of radio and phonograph equipment and has a world-wide radio telegraph system for commercial messages. Beginning in 1923 with 2 stations, NBC now has affiliation contracts with more than 100 stations, spread over the nation. In addition, it owns 6 stations directly.

Second in size is CBS, which also provides programs to more than 100 stations. Financial control through stock ownership is in the hands of the William S. Paley family. CBS owns 8 stations outright.

Mutual owns no broadcasting stations. Although it has contracts with many more stations than the other networks, they are, as a rule, the smaller and less powerful ones. Mutual belongs to its key stations and the people who control them. Most important of these are WOR in New York (owned by the R. H. Macy-L. Bamberger department stores) and WGN in Chicago (owned by the Chicago Tribune). Other important Mutual owners are a West Coast regional network, the Yankee Network, the United Broadcasting Company of Ohio, and the Cincinnati Times-Star.

Newest comer to the network field is the Blue, or American Broadcasting Company as it is now called, which was at one time part of NBC. Like the others, ABC has contracts with more than 100 stations. Control is in the hands of Edward J. Noble, who made a fortune in “Life Savers”; Chester J. LaRoche, formerly of the Young and Rubicam advertising agency; and Time, Inc., which publishes Life, Time, and Fortune magazines.

The networks originate noncommercial or “sustaining” programs, arrange for commercial programs, and sell both kinds to the individual stations. Business organizations or “sponsors,” as they are called, pay advertising agencies to prepare radio programs for wide audiences. The advertising agencies buy station time for these programs through the networks, which thus act as brokers between the stations and the people anxious to get the ear of the public. The networks sell access to listening audiences mainly through advertising agencies acting for the sponsors.

This arrangement for determining the radio menu of the American people covers only a part of the total radio time available—that given to “sponsored” or paid-for shows. The remainder of the programs are called “sustaining” because they are not paid for by outside sponsors or prepared by advertising agencies. They are prepared and provided by the networks and sold to the individual stations or originate at the individual stations themselves.

The most important hours on the radio schedule—the early evening hours—when the greatest number of people listen to their radios are usually assigned to sponsored programs. Here are to be found the entertainment programs of wide audience appeal. In a typical 6 to 11 P.M. period, for instance, 80 to 90 percent of the programs are commercially sponsored.

The sustaining programs are, nevertheless, of great importance in serving the radio public. They include news bulletins, daily foreign news roundups, some symphony programs and university round-table forums. The line between the two kinds of programs is by no means absolute. Occasionally shows which begin as network sustaining programs develop such an audience that sponsors take them over. Examples are Information Please, the Sunday Philharmonic Orchestra concerts, and the Town Meeting of the Air.

The sponsors. It is clear that for sponsored programs there are other chefs than networks and stations really preparing the radio fare. These are the sponsors—the fourth chef—who themselves pay for the time they use to entertain the listening public and, persuade it to buy their wares.

There are, of course, a large number of local businesses which advertise on individual radio stations serving a particular locality. However, more than 70 percent of the $300,000,000 spent by businessmen for radio time comes from national and regional advertisers.

Growing numbers of business houses desiring to build a huge mass market for a product have turned to the radio as a favorite advertising medium. There are more corporations wanting to buy access to the great network audiences than can find time on the air.

Because of the limited number of available frequencies, the networks and stations now must select among the applicants for advertising space. In 1943 only 144 of the nearly three million businesses in the country bought 97 percent of the national networks’ time.

In the same year two advertisers were the source of one-fourth of NBC’s entire advertising business. Ten advertisers supplied over 60 percent of its business. Very much the same situation was true of the other three big networks. At present, three-quarters of all national network income comes from four major commodity groups: food, drink, and confections; drugs; soaps and cleansers; and tobacco.

The advertising agencies. There is, however, a fifth chef, perhaps the most important of all—the advertising agencies. The sponsoring companies decide the general types of programs they want to use in promoting their products. They do not furnish the programs directly. The advertising agencies write and produce the sponsored programs; find, buy, and build talent; pick networks, stations, and times; and so on.

Among advertising agencies the radio field is so specialized that approximately two dozen of them control the lion’s share of business for all four major networks. Here then, in advertising offices, are the makers of many of the principal entertainment dishes served up on the radio, as well as the bread, butter, and advertising sauces spread through the day in songs, stories, and direct appeals to buy.