The Hidden History of US Broadcastingby Bruce Dixon
Most Americans, right up to and including doctorate-level media scholars don’t know that as late as the mid 1920’s over forty percent of the more than 500 radio stations across the US were in the hands of not for profit, noncommercial broadcasters. For starters, corporations were generally slow to see the profit potential of broadcast radio. But public opinion was a much larger barrier. Most Ameicans believed that commercial broadcasting, owned and operated by greedy and amoral corporations, was inimical to the public interest, and should be balanced by an extremely strong noncommercial broadcast sector, or banned outright. NBC and CBS were founded in 1926 and 1927, and till the end of the decade, the very notion of commercial advertising on the radio remained so unpopular and abhorrent that
“Throughout the late 1920s, NBC presented itself not as a traditional for-profit corporation, but as a public service corporation that would sell advertising only as necessary to subsidize high-quality noncommercial fare…”
According to “The Battle For the US Airwaves, 1928-1935″ one of 23 penetrating essays on the history and present state of media and democracy in Dr. Robert McChesney’s latest work, The Political Economy of Media. He recounts that when commercial interests undertook the seizure of the broadcast spectrum from the not for profit and noncommercial station operators, they were faced with three tasks.
- They had to oust the entrenched noncommercial and not for profit pioneers of radio broadcasting from their stations, their frequencies and their audiences;
- They had to circumvent the will of the American people, which lopsidedly favored the not for profit broadcasters and opposed corporate domination of the airwaves, and carry out their processes in a manner that avoided public scrutiny or debate;
- They had to rewrite the history of broadcasting to conceal their handiwork and present it as “the American Way”, the only sensible, possible and natural outcome.
The first step in the process came in 1926, when a federal judge ruled that the Department of Commerce’s system for licensing radio broadcasters was illegal. This resulted in a few brief months of free-for-all in which the number of broadcasters radically increased again, with many stepping on each other’s frequencies. The on-the-air chaos created a shock-doctrine kind of opportunity, the ideal excuse for a new federal intervention that would radically restructure radio broadcasting in the interest of for-profit corporations.
Since public opinion overwhelmingly rejected the notion of for-profit commercial broadcasting, every round in the restructuring of radio broadcasting would have to be conducted as far outside the public view as possible. By the 1920s the traditions of corporate welfare and “regulation” through government agencies staffed with executives of the same industry that was being regulated were well entrenched. The Federal Radio Commission or FRC, established in 1926 to bring order to the airwaves, was quickly captured by a majority of off-duty broadcast execs and their sympathizers. The fix was in. Meetings and proceedings of the Federal Radio Commission were publicized selectively or not at all by newspapers, the other corporate mass media of that era.
Ignoring the pleas of congressmen and senators who wrote the Federal Radio Act to prevent the monopolization of the spectrum by commercial interests, the FRC swiftly passed rules that awarded all the choice frequencies and wattage to commercial broadcasters, mostly NBC and CBS. Noncommercial broadcasters were confined to dodgy frequencies at the edge of the dial. Chains of NBC and CBS stations were allowed to broadcast around the clock at 50,000 watts apiece, making them instant national powerhouses, while the noncommercial stations were limited to 5,000 or 1,000 watts or less and their broadcast hours limited. The licenses of not for profit broadcasters were not revoked, but they were forced to share the same frequencies and to split times with each other in a single market, making it difficult or impossible for them to generate funds from advertising, and to find or maintain their audiences. Again, according to McChesney,
“The networks were the big winners. In 1927 NBC had 28 affiliates, and CBS 16, for a combined 6.4% of the broadcast stations; within four years they accounted for 30% of the stations. And this alone vastly understates their new role, as all but three of the 40 clear channel stations were owned by or affiliated with one of the two networks… NBC and CBS accounted for nearly 70% of US broadcasting by 1931. By 1935 only four of the 62 stations that broadcast at 5,000 or more watts did not have a network affiliation…”
The sudden decline in the fortunes of not for profit and noncommercial broadcasters sparked widespread and energetic opposition that continued for several more years, but the lack of news coverage by the new lords of the broadcast spectrum, and the newspapers, who allied themselves with big broadcast media, kept this reargurad action from the public eye, and doomed it to failure. Without coverage in the mass media, the broad civic involvement that might have allowed popular sentiment against the commercialization of radio to make itself felt went unheard.
The advocates of noncommercial broadcasting were also divided. One group wanted to fund noncommercial radio with a small tax on radio receivers, in the same way that the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), and the high-quality national broadcast services of dozens of nations are financed. Another group believed that noncommercial broadcasting should be financed either by ads or more discreet “sponsorships” which would be called ads if they appeared on a commercial station.
The BBC and CBC models guaranteed a substantial revenue stream and up to a point, insulated the broadcaster both from commercial and political pressures. The “sponsorship” driven model of noncommercial broadcasting was more problematic because it forced noncommercial stations into direct competition for ad revenue with commercial stations. When the latter model won out, it made noncommercial stations even weaker compared to their for-profit counterparts. To please advertisers, they had to refrain from competing for audience share with commercial stations, and limit themselves to the kinds of material for-profit broadcasters would not touch, like what McChesney calls “elite cultural programming”. This is neatly explains how, eighty years later, you can have cases like the noncommercial station owned by the Atlanta public school system, in a city that’s been majority black city for more than a generation broadcasting nothing but NPR news and classical music 24 hours a day.
The Federal Radio Commission was a temporary measure. In 1934, Congress passed the Federal Communications Act, which created today’s Federal Communications Commission, the FCC. This legislation made its way through Congress during the same weeks as the major bills which constituted the New Deal. In the course of pushing the New Deal through Congress, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt made himself the blood enemies of almost every newspaper publisher in the nation. The president calculated that he could not afford to antagonize the all-powerful commercial broadcasters too. So the White House failed to weigh in, either before its passage with useful amendments, or afterward with mechanisms to enforce the few positive provisions of the law.
The Federal Communications Act of 1934 enshrined into statute the notions that the airwaves are scarce public property, and that broadcasters hold their licenses only on condition that they serve the public interest. But the law provides no schedules, procedures or other specific means to enforce the obligations of public service upon broadcasters. In the years since, an enormous weight of judicial precedent, administrative law and more statues have been built up which in effect recognize a license holders, not the public, as real owners of the broadcast airwaves, in stark contradiction to the provisions of the 1934 law.
To this day, more than seventy years later, no more than three successful challenges have ever been mounted to the renewal of broadcast licenses, despite scores or hundreds of attempts. And a radio or TV station licensee pays less for an extraordinarily lucrative radio or TV station license than a human citizen pays to license a used car.
McChesney concludes that
“…whereas many other democratic nations had extensive public hearings and debates before determining the types of broadcasting systems they eventually established, in the United States, these decisions were made quietly, behind closed doors, by self-interested elites with minimal public participation.”
Competition and the “free market” had nothing to do with it. Democracy had nothing to do with it.
By 1938, its hostile takeover of the broadcast spectrum complete, Big Media was rewriting its own history, declaring its rule the only sensible outcome. McChesney recounts RCA president David Sarnoff telling a nationwide NBC audience that
“…’Our American system of broadcasting is what it is because it operates in an American democracy. It’s a free system because this is a free country.’ CBS president William S. Paley informed a group of educators in 1937 that ‘he who attacks the American system of broadcasting attacks democracy itself.’”
And thus the conventional lore of how the broadcast regime came to be has been handed down to us. In the 1980s, the Reagan administration insulated broadcasters further against public interest challenges to their licenses by lengthening the period between license renewals from three to eight years, and shortening the number of questions asked to that the renewal form could fit on a postcard. And the Clinton-Gore administration passed the Federal Communications Act of 1995, which permit almost unlimited consolidation of radio stations, cable TV networks, newspapers and broadcast TV stations nationwide and in individual markets, leading directly to the rise of Clear Channel and Radio One, among other atrocities.
Sports and Mass Media
“Media Made Sport: A History of Sports Coverage in the United States” is another essay in The Political Economy of Media dissecting the central role of sports coverage in mass media. Inasmuch as mass media determine the stuff of public consciousness and public conversation, sports coverage, containing as it does the drama of conflict in a trivial context that offends or threatens nobody, makes ideal content in commercial mass media. Nineteenth century magazines carried extensive baseball coverage, and played an important role in publishing and standardizing the rules of the game. When daily newspapers too over much of their trade, they continued these practices, and often organized baseball teams and leagues.
Mass circulation newspapers invented spectator sports as we know them, with the extensive coverage that enables one who is not an actual participant to follow the games and the careers of those who are. Newspapers gave birth to sports sections, and sports writing as a branch of journalism.
Sportswriters and daily newspapers across the country made baseball “the national pastime”, the World Series a national event, and Babe Ruth and Jack Dempsey into folk heroes. When broadcast radio came along, it picked up the baton from the daily newspapers. The emergence of college football as a mass attraction was entirely due to many thousands of breathless pages of newspaper, and later, radio coverage. Sports coverage played a major role, McChesney asserts, in legitimizing early commercial radio.
“When the Dempsey-Tunney championship bout was broadcast in 1927, it was estimated that it generated sales of over $90,000 worth of radio receivers I one New York department store alone.”
When television came along, it picked up where radio left off. Early TV popularized boxing and wrestling, since it required only a single camera trained on the two participants, along with baseball and college football. With the 1960s advent of slow-motion, color TV and instant-replay technologies, and the lifting of anti-trust regulation that allowed entire leagues like the NFL to negotiate with broadcasters, professional football grew from almost nothing in the early 1950s to a multibillion dollar industry.
TV made the Olympic Games a marketable brand, and the explosive growth of basketball didn’t happen because it was just time for people to pick up the round ball. College basketball came into its own with the popularity of cable TV, which needed more material to broadcast. ESPN singlehandedly put “March Madness” into the national vocabulary, and did more than any other force to grow college and professional basketball.
McChesney’s Political Economy of Media contains other essays on the present and future of public broadcasting, the internet, and many more valuable insights and bits of history which are essential if we are to understand how the mass media shape the society we live in, with little or no democratic input and even less “free market” competition.
Bruce Dixon is based in Atlanta and is Managing Editor at Black Agenda Report. He can be reached at bruce.dixon(at)blackagendareport.com.
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