This Day In Information: Federal Radio Commission

Today in 1927, President Calvin Coolidge signed the 1927 Radio Act, creating the Federal Radio Commission, forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission (established in 1934).At first, as Steven Lubar observes in InfoCulture, “…many people bought radios just to see what they were like. They fiddled with the dials, counted the stations they could receive, and marveled at how far away they were. Distance seemed half the fun of radio… One listener wrote in 1924: ‘In radio it is not the substance of communication without wires, but the fact of it that enthralls…. Someday, perhaps, I shall take an interest in radio programs. But at my present stage they are merely the tedium between call letters.’ … In 1924 Radio Broadcast magazine had asked its readers to report the most distant station they could pick up. In 1927 the magazine asked what they wanted to hear. ”

By 1927, the technology and growth of radio had outpaced existing Congressional regulation, written in 1912 when radio meant ship-to-shore broadcasting. Radio was loosely regulated through its growth years in the 1920s. By mailing a postcard to Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, anyone with a radio transmitter, ranging from college students experimenting in science classes, to amateur inventors who ordered kits, to newspaper-operated stations, could broadcast on the frequency chosen by Hoover. The airwaves by 1927 were an open forum for anyone with the expertise and equipment 15 to reach a forum with 25 million listeners.

By 1926, radio in the United States included 15,111 amateur stations, 1,902 ship stations, 553 land stations for maritime use, and 536 broadcasting stations. For those 536 broadcasting stations, the government allocated only eighty-nine wave lengths.

Maine Congressman Wallace White warned his colleagues in 1926 that radio stations jammed the airwaves, causing interference between stations in many locations. In the words of the New York Times, the radio signal almost anywhere on the dial sounded like “the whistle of the peanut stand.”  The undisciplined and unregulated voice of the public interfered with corporate goals of delivering programming and advertising on a dependable schedule to a mass audience.

Congress faced many difficulties in trying to write legislation. No precedent existed for managing broadcasting except the powerless Radio Act of 1912. No one knew in 1926 where the technology was going nor what radio would be like even the next year, so Congress was trying to write law to cover potentialities. Sen. Key Pittman of Nevada expressed his frustration to the Senate chair: “I do not think, sir, that in the 14 years I have been here there has ever been a question before the Senate that in the very nature of the thing Senators can know so little about as this subject.”  Nor was the public much better informed, Pittman noted, even though he received telegrams daily urging passage. “I am receiving many telegrams from my State urging me to vote for this conference report, and informing me that things will go to pieces, that there will be a terrible situation in this country that cannot be coped with unless this report is adopted. Those telegrams come from people, most of whom, I know, know nothing on earth about this bill.”

The Radio Act of 1927 was based on a number of assumptions: that the equality of transmission facilities, reception, and service were worthy political goals; the notion that the spectrum belonged to the public but could be licensed to individuals; and that the number of channels on the spectrum was limited when compared to those who wanted access to it.



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