Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

From GI Roundtable 28: How Far Should the Government Control Radio? (1946) 

The advertising of certain wares has today become the means of supporting a whole mass-communications industry—an industry that provides entertainment, rapid news service, political forums, symphony orchestra and grand opera programs, and a nation-wide audience for government messages and announcements. This peculiar form of enterprise has evolved gradually. It was not clearly seen as the inevitable use for the new invention in the early days of radio.

Although the underlying discoveries in the radio field go back to the 1880’s, not until 1907, when Dr. Lee De Forest invented the “grid” tube, did broadcasting of the human voice become feasible. One night Dr. De Forest, trusting to luck, invited a Swedish concert singer who was visiting his laboratory to sing into the complicated machinery he had built. A wireless operator in the Brooklyn Navy Yard happened to hear her voice and America had a new toy and weapon.

At first the Bell Telephone Company took the trouble to control many radio patents, out of fear of radio as competition for wire telephones. Other interested corporations were Westinghouse, General Electric, the American Marconi Company—all of them thinking of the radio as a substitute for the telephone in point-to-point communication.


Party lines for everyone?

The first regular broadcasting station started in 1920 when a few businessmen and engineers realized the possible uses of radios as “music boxes for the home.” The objection was made that broadcasting couldn’t support itself. In order to share in the noise people had only to pay the purchase price of a receiving set. Who would pay for the programs? More and more people became interested, nevertheless, some in the commercial possibilities, some in radio as a hobby.

Throughout the country “hams” and businessmen were building tiny sending sets, talking to one another, filling the air with words. By the end of 1923, there were more than 600 radio stations on the air. Among the most important were those owned by electric and telephone companies, department stores, and newspapers.

All of them were trying to learn the usefulness of the new gadget so that they might adapt it to their businesses. Their broadcasts were either just talk, recorded and concert music, or news read from the evening papers. Gradually, the more important stations began to expand their programs. An opera was broadcast, the first radio serial appeared, variety shows made up of humor and music were begun.

At first a few and then more and more corporations with things to sell the public began to buy time and talent for radio broadcasts. Snowballing as it went, the radio industry grew as more people bought sets to hear the better programs put on because more people were buying sets. The first networks made their appearance.

Radio traffic jam

The development of the new device was hampered, however, by the lack of any sort of radio policeman. Groups of sound waves couldn’t get from the broadcasting studios to the receivers without being interrupted by other groups.

At first, the various stations made gentlemen’s agreements not to broadcast on one another’s wave lengths. But it was not a matter to be regulated by the thoughtfulness of gentlemen.

The amateurs, for instance, might broadcast on a favorite wave length regardless of who else was using it. If one of these hams playing ragtime records ran afoul of a symphony concert, nothing but an unholy din would get through to the listener. Or two hams talking to one another would walk right in on a radio serial.

More often than not, the air would be filled with queer, unintelligible shrieks of pain as the sound waves stepped on one another.

The people concerned about the development of commercial broadcasting were helpless. Nobody had any clear right to a particular wave length. But to build an audience it was necessary to guarantee clear reception at the same places on the tuning dial all the time. Obviously it was time to call in a traffic cop.

Government regulation

Governments throughout the world first became interested in the radio because of its possible uses in ship-rescue work. International agreements which our government signed provided a common signal of distress-the “CQD,” which resulted in the spectacular saving of lives in the Florida and Titanic disasters, and later became the “SOS.”

In the field of land broadcasting, too, the government’s interest was made clear. Congress maintained from the first that radio was a matter of public concern and that the representatives of the people had a right to determine how the ether was used. In the words of one representative “the right of the public to service is superior to the right of any individual to use the ether.”

In 1912, the United States government began to regulate radio transmission of all kinds. In that. year the Radio Act gave the secretary of commerce and labor (then a single department) the power to license stations. But this power was not great enough to prevent the unforeseen “babel of the air” that developed in the middle 1920’s.

The first radio traffic cop

To straighten out the wave-length mess a Federal Radio Commission was created by Congress in 1927. At that time there were only 90 channels available with 732 radio stations trying to use them. By assigning stations far enough apart to the same channel, specifying the power to be used, and staggering the time of activity carefully, all but about 150 of these were able to continue operating.

Gradually, more and more rules for broadcasting were set up. At first Congress was hesitant about placing a permanent government agency over the whole industry. But it soon became clear to station owners, consumers, and officials that the job to be done was a big one.

During the late 1920’s and early 1930’s the leaders of the radio industry called on Congress and the president for help. They asked for a better regulatory system and clearer determination of the government’s policies and powers.

In 1933 the president asked a group of government administrators to study the whole radio situation so that some more efficient way of dealing with it could be worked out. They recommended that “the communication service as far as Congressional action is involved, should be regulated by a single body.” At the same time Congressional committees attacked the problem.

Next section: How Does Federal Policing of the Air Waves Work?