Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

From what has gone before, it is clear that the radio industry is complex. No one is completely satisfied with the way it produces programs or with its relations to the government. Its difficulties grow out of the fact that it has more than one function. It renders a definite public service by communicating, recording, and reporting news, ideas, and events for the public. But also, as an advertising medium for some dozens of industries, it operates to make profits for those industries and for itself.

Like most American institutions radio started out under the management of private persons and corporations. But radio’s medium of operation-the air above our heads-was more like the sea or a public highway than like private land. It belonged to everyone, and it could not be divided -up among private owners. Only a limited number could use the “highway” at any one time. And since more than that number wanted to use it, the government had to parcel out the ether’s use by license, deciding who should use it and in what ways.

Radio stations resemble newspapers in that both report . news and both serve as platforms for the spreading of views and the debate of public issues. The similarity naturally brings up the question of freedom of the press as it applies-or should apply-to radio. The traditional mistrust of government control of or influence over the press is the foremost problem.

It would appear that radio comes under the clear meaning, if not the exact words, of the first amendment to the Constitution: “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.” Yet for physical reasons, radio cannot operate free from some government control. And it is very difficult in practice to draw a clear line between partial control and complete control.


Conflicts of split personality

Out of the dual nature of radio as a profit-making business and a public service, numerous conflicts arise. Should radio be essentially a medium for selling goods? Should it fill more and more hours at higher rates with profitable advertisements-accompanied by entertainment devices for attracting listeners to the ads? If it does that, how can it, as a sound, profit-making business venture, stop short of crowding out the other, nonprofit function entirely? At the least will it not be tempted to put profits ahead of public service?

If such a trend sets in, would another radio system eventually appear, supported in some other way, to meet the public’s need for undiluted news, commentaries, forums, public announcements, and educational activities? If so, would the present highly organized, skillfully led broadcasting industry find that the goose that lays the golden egg had quietly died?

On the other hand, should broadcasters consciously and responsibly assume a double role? Can radio be at once a public-service medium and a private advertising medium? Can broadcasters design a radio menu which balances in proper proportions and separates in proper compartments two items of diet so different? Accurate reporting of news, truthful comment on public events, and unbiased presentation of political, economic, and social views call for one set of principles. Plugs for hair tonic or claims for vitamin pills, both exaggerated beyond the bounds of accuracy, call for another set.

Can the radio string together quarter-hours of music, comedy, commentary, and advertising gems without violating listener sensibilities and tastes? Can the station owner and the network say to the advertisers who foot their bills: “This kind of plug, yes, and that kind, no. So much time for ads and no more”?

Can they say to the person or the group who would attack their own or their principal advertiser’s interest, “Yes, you may have time and your fair share of time on our schedule”? Will radio, with television and facsimile added, forego the technical advantage of unified control and centralized management? Should it conscientiously do so for the sake of avoiding monopoly control by keeping ownership in many hands?

Does radio give anything like the skill, talent, and time to educational purposes that it does to amusement? Should it do so if radio is potentially equal, let us say, to books, magazines, and lecture halls as a serious educational instrument?

Possible solutions in the future: FM

These are the kinds of problems that radio, as an industry serving both a public and a commercial function, will be facing in the years ahead. The problems do not, however, have to be met and solved within the present framework of the four networks and 900 stations now occupying the 550-1600 kilocycle range on the dial. Frequency modulation broadcasting (FM), occupying a group of channels higher up in the spectrum, is ready for extensive commercial development. FCC can, if it desires, grant FM licenses to 2,700 stations without their broadcasts interfering with one another. One of the major networks has itself declared that FM opens the way for six or more new networks as well. The technical characteristics of this newer method of broadcasting may make it possible, therefore, for a large number of stations to serve a single community.

FM also offers other opportunities for variety. With FCC approval, a new set of noncommercial networks is being planned. These would link together the endowed and public educational institutions engaged in broadcasting. Their educational and other public-service and cultural programs, thus, would all be under public educational authority and be supported by taxation or endowment rather than advertising.

This plan would place alongside commercial radio an entirely public-service radio on a state-wide network basis. And the request is for full morning-to-night service.

Subscription radio, television, and facsimile

The former head of a leading radio advertising agency has also proposed so-called “subscription radio” for FCC approval. This is based on a recently invented device (pig-squeal) which will permit broadcasting companies to transmit programs only to those listeners who subscribe a certain amount of money monthly. The scheme is somewhat like the British system of supporting radio by imposing individual license fees on each receiver.

If frequencies are granted for such an enterprise, it will be an interesting experiment in broadcasting paid for by the listeners rather than by the advertisers. The daily program would be completely free from advertising interruptions. Such programs would be on the same dial and would compete directly with the commercial advertising radio.

FM, at most, will gradually supplant our present transmission-reception system by amplitude modulation. Television, also in the offing, is a more radical innovation. Unlike FM radio, its technical characteristics seem to call for very expensive installations and high program production costs. It may tend toward greater concentration of ownership.

Possibly the highly-centralized motion-picture industry may become a principal maker of television programs. The broadcast networks interested in television clearly want to keep the making of programs within their own control. They would rather not serve merely as buyers and sellers of programs made in advertising agency studios.

It would be foolhardy to predict what chefs will actually make up the television menu, or what kind of food they will serve for the spectator-listener. But they are not likely to be the same chefs who now serve the radio audience.

Facsimile broadcasting, which at some future date may transmit printed bulletins by radio, will draw closer together the interests of newspapers and radio. It will present new possibilities and new problems in the control and communication of news. Facsimile will also make it possible to “deliver” magazines and books to our homes by radio.

Short-wave and international regulation

Finally, the war stimulated great development of international short-wave broadcasting, entirely at the hands of government agencies and for war purposes. The return of peace will probably allow the government to step out of the direct control and direct operation of short-wave facilities. But short-wave radio is an international agency of communication. Private broadcasters interested in developing short-wave programs, therefore, feel that the federal government will have to exercise more control than it does in the case of domestic radio. What form future American short-wave broadcasting will take and precisely what role the government will play in it have not yet been decided.

Radio waves-and short waves in particular-have no respect for political boundaries. Just as their disregard of state lines makes federal supervision necessary, so their inability to stop at national borders calls for international regulation. It’s another case of having to create a superior authority or set of rules in order to avoid impossible confusion.

To take the most obvious examples, radio stations in Canada and the United States must stay off each other’s wave lengths. So must the stations in Europe’s many nations. The only way to solve effectively this and the many other international problems of radio is by international agreement. As new techniques of broadcasting are developed, the international as well as the domestic consequences become more complex.

At the moment, then, radio bristles with unsolved problems of long standing, with new opportunities, and with new problems.

Next section: What Solutions Have Other Nations Tried?