Published Date

January 1, 1946

Resource Type

GI Roundtable Series, Primary Source

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

Up to this point we have seen how government control of radio broadcasting started and grew—and why. We have examined the present situation. We have looked at the problems of the setup today and we have attempted to foresee the new problems that tomorrow will bring.

In theory there are and will be three possible methods of regulating radio and the related means of communication: (1) by strictly private, commercial interests in the broadcasting business; (2) by a mixture of private and governmental control; and (3) by complete government control and ownership. In practice the first method is not possible. The experience of confusion in the early life of radio convinced everyone that purely private control will not work. A “radio traffic cop” has to be put in authority to regulate and enforce the assignment of scarce frequency channels among the many bidders. Inasmuch as these channels are deemed to “belong” to all the people rather than to the private businesses which are licensed to use them, the government appears to be the only proper traffic control agent.

Opponents of further increase in the government’s control over radio seek a counterbalance in an increased number of private interests brought into the field. As a defense against the concentration of control in the hands of the government, they suggest that universities, municipal governments, trade unions, consumers’ cooperatives, and other noncommercial groups get into broadcasting. This kind of development will be made possible with the many new stations permitted through frequency modulation.

As a practical matter, therefore, the question is not whether radio should be privately or publicly regulated. It is how much public regulation there should be.


The British Broadcasting Corporation

Private control over broadcasting facilities and over program content is greatest in the United States. In totalitarian countries broadcasting is a government monopoly, supported out of tax funds and used to mobilize the support of the people for the ruling clique. No free public discussion is permitted. But government radio is not limited to totalitarian systems.

For comparative purposes, the organization of radio in Great Britain and the Dominions is most interesting to Americans. In the British Isles all broadcasting facilities are owned and operated by the British Broadcasting Corporation, a government agency. Since 1926, BBC has operated under Royal Charter authorized by Parliament. The management of the corporation is in the hands of a board of governors appointed by the Cabinet. Ultimate responsibility rests in the House of Commons.

Under its charter, which is renewed every ten years by Parliamentary act, BBC is authorized to use broadcasting as a means of “information, education and entertainment in the national interest.” Some critics of American broadcasting organization point to Britain as an example of how the government can control radio and satisfy the public. On the other hand, those who favor limiting the government’s power in radio argue that if a public agency controls access to the air, freedom of discussion is curtailed. They also assert that BBC does not produce as good programs as we enjoy in the United States.

The way of two dominions

Canada and Australia provide examples of radio control structure which are closer to our own. They may be called mixed systems. In both those nations, the government owns and operates a national network and individual stations. In addition, as FCC does in the United States, it licenses private operators who wish to broadcast. This setup has developed partly because of the large rural population, which could not be served profitably by private broadcasting.

Broadcasting in Canada is controlled by a government agency called the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. There are about 90 Canadian stations, of which 8 or more are owned and operated by the government–among them the 4 most powerful stations in the country. CBC also provides network programs to private stations in much the same way that the four major networks in the United States do. Programs from all four American networks are also distributed in Canada through the CBC. CBC regulations are something like a mixture of FCC rules on the one hand and the NAB Code on the other—but with the Code made obligatory and thus fully effective.

In Australia a larger proportion—about one-third—of the stations in operation are owned and managed by the Australian Broadcasting Commission, which operates the gone-national network. The others are privately operated. Stations owned by the government are supported by license fees paid by the owners of receiving sets. Private stations get their income from the sale of time. In Australia, the government links its own stations to the commercial stations for important programs or news announcements.

Other countries have worked out differing mixtures of government and private ownership and operation of radio. They have set up schemes of support through various combinations of tax, license-fee, and advertising revenue.

Thus radio has not yet settled down to a single fixed pattern in the democratic countries.

What is at stake?

Who is to control this wonderful new medium of human, communication, and how? Essentially it is a problem of deciding what kind of control involves the least risk and promises the most technical and social progress. There is little doubt about the objectives to be sought. Radio can be used to help make the listener into a mechanical man—a pawn of selfish interests. It may waste precious leisure time. It may propagandize for ideas and schemes that will be harmful.

On the other hand, it can serve the American public and the world public by strengthening men’s knowledge about themselves and the world in which they live. It can provide healthful amusement and entertainment. Through it a man can become a better human being and a more intelligent, better informed citizen.

Radio can become a real community nervous system, an invaluable instrument to unify and energize all the nation’s people and reach them all at once. It can distribute essential facts, significant truths, relaxing amusement, and inspiring artistic presentation.

The control of radio, therefore, is one of the exciting problems to be dealt with in the world now that the ward is ended.

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