The Hidden History of US Broadcasting
by BAR managing editor Bruce Dixon
Originally posted at Black Agenda ReportMost 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
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 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.