“The Public Interest Must Dominate:” Herbert Hoover and
Broadcasting’s Public Interest Standard (6,498 words)
Mass Media, Communication and Theatre
Texas A&M University-Commerce
P.O. Box 3011
Commerce, Texas 75429-3011
J.M. Dempsey is an associate professor of radio-television at Texas A&M University-Commerce. He is the author, co-author, or editor of three books: Eddie Barker’s Notebook: Stories That Made the News (and Some Better Ones That Didn’t!); The Light Crust Doughboys Are On the Air!; and The Jack Ruby Trial Revisited: The Diary of Jury Foreman Max Causey. He holds a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from East Texas State University.
“The Public Interest Must Dominate:” Herbert Hoover and
Broadcasting’s Public Interest Standard
In the embryonic years of American broadcasting, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover profoundly affected the development of American broadcasting. Hoover, in fact, was the first to articulate the public-interest standard of U.S. broadcasting. Today, broadcasting struggles with the public-interest issues of monopolization, censorship, the quality and content of programming, and the decline of localism, also concerns in Hoover’s time. And so it is useful to understand what Hoover meant by public service in broadcasting. Further, this article will consider the extent to which broadcasting has achieved Hoover’s vision of the public interest.
Early in 2005, Senator John McCain announced legislation to reduce television-station license terms from eight years to three. McCain was responding to a study of local television news during the 2004 elections by the Norman Lear Center at the University of Southern California. The study found stories on accidents received eight times more news coverage than stories about local elections, and sports and weather received 12 times more coverage. “To those broadcasters whose dismal performance is captured in this study or whose performance was as dismal as the broadcasters in the study, I question how you are meeting your obligation to use the nation’s spectrum to serve the public interest,” McCain said (Triplett, 2005, p. 6).1
Since the Radio Act of 1927 created the Federal Radio Commission (the forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission), it has been understood that broadcasters had an obligation to serve in “the public interest, convenience, and necessity” (Barnouw, 1966).
In the embryonic years of American broadcasting, Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce under Presidents Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge, and later president himself, profoundly affected the development of American broadcasting. In particular, Hoover’s leadership strongly influenced the concept that broadcasters, receiving licenses to use the public airwaves for commercial purposes, should in return provide a measure of public service. Indeed, Hoover was the first to articulate the public-interest standard of U.S. broadcasting (Krasnow, Longley and Terry, 1982; Krattenmaker and Powe, 1994).
The idea of Hoover as a supporter of strong public-interest requirements for broadcasters is greatly at odds with his popular image today as a conservative’s conservative and the man who took the fall for the Great Depression. But Hoover came to national attention in the role of humanitarian when he took the lead in providing relief for war-ravaged Belgium and Northern France during and after World War I (Smith, 1984). Hoover’s papers reveal that, while he very much believed in self-regulation, he also was a strong advocate for the notion that broadcasting — more than a profit-centered medium for advertising and entertainment — should serve the general public interest.
Hoover’s role in broadcasting history is underappreciated. For example, in a widely-used textbook that covers the history of the medium, Hoover receives only one passing mention (Head, Spann, McGregor, 2001).
As a means of sorting out the many questions relating to the development of the fledgling radio broadcasting industry, Hoover called a series of radio conferences in the 1920s, bringing together manufacturers, broadcasters, and others. To the third radio conference, the commerce secretary asserted:
Radio has passed from the field of an adventure to that of a public utility. Nor among the utilities is there one whose activities may yet come more closely to the life of each and every one of our citizens, nor which holds out great possibilities of future influence, nor which is of more potential public concern. It must now be considered as a great agency of public service (“Address to Third,” 1924, p. 1).
Long-standing differences of opinion exist of what it means to serve the “public interest, convenience and necessity,” some going so far as to say the standard is “vague to the point of vacuousness” (Robinson, in Krasnow, 1997, p. 3). Senator McCain’s proposed legislation is an example of criticism that broadcasters today are not living up to even the most casual reading of the public-interest standard. An op-ed in Broadcasting & Cable, “Let’s Define the Public Interest,” admonishes broadcasters to once again embrace their “public-interest obligations” (Benton and Goodmon, 2005, p. 54).
Today, broadcasting struggles with the public-interest issues of monopolization, censorship, the quality and content of programming and the decline of localism, also concerns in Hoover’s time. And so it is useful to understand what Hoover, a man whose influence was greatly responsible for the standard, meant by public service in broadcasting. Further, this article will consider the extent to which broadcasting has achieved Hoover’s vision of the public interest.
This study uses archival material contained in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, supplemented by other historical sources, to explore Hoover’s philosophy of the public interest in broadcasting.
In leading his series of radio conferences starting in 1922, Hoover hoped that the radio industry would be able to regulate itself, without further federal legislation. But when the Zenith Corporation in 1925 successfully challenged Hoover’s authority as secretary of commerce to restrict its Chicago radio station from moving to a more desirable frequency, Congress responded with the Radio Act of 1927, which became the framework for U.S. broadcasting regulation (Krasnow, et al., 1982).
One of the co-authors of the 1927 radio act, Congressman Wallace H. White, acknowledged that the public-interest standard originated in Hoover’s series of radio conferences. “The recent radio conference … recommended that licenses should be issued only to those stations whose operation would render a benefit to the public, are necessary in the public interest, or would contribute to the development of the act. . . . It will rest upon an assurance of public interest to be served,” White wrote (Krasnow, 1997, p. 4).
The origin of the phrase “public interest, convenience and necessity” is unclear. Another of the co-authors of the Radio Act of 1927, Senator Clarence Dill, told one-time FCC Commissioner Newton Minow that a young lawyer from the Interstate Commerce Commission suggested the phrase, which had been included in the Federal Transportation Act of 1920. “That sounded pretty good, so we decided we could use it, too,” Dill explained (Minow and Lamay, 1995, p. 4, in Krasnow, 1997, p. 5).
While Hoover gave impetus to the adoption of the public-interest standard and helped shape its meaning, by no means was Hoover’s vision of public service in broadcasting the only one. Among others, the American Civil Liberties Union challenged the prevailing view of what the public interest should mean. During the debate over the shape that broadcasting should take that continued throughout the 1920s, Morris Ernst of the ACLU argued for freer public access to the airwaves than that envisioned by Hoover and the broadcast industry. While Hoover saw censorship specifically as the federal government dictating program choices to broadcasters, Ernst argued that “free speech is a misnomer when one has to pay $400 an hour on one of the good New York stations” (Benjamin, 2001, p. 71). Ernst proposed in 1926 that nonprofit organizations should receive preference in the licensing of radio stations, because they presumably would be less fearful of angering audiences with controversial views (Benjamin, 2001).
Merlin Aylesworth, the president of NBC, replied to Ernst in an address to the ACLU. Aylesworth interpreted Ernst’s comments as favoring a free-for-all of expression on the airwaves, and said economic necessity required broadcasting to represent the mainstream of public tastes. “Freedom of the air does not and can never mean unlimited license of speech, or the right to bore, insult or outrage the radio listening public,” Aylesworth said. He likened NBC’s decision-making process in deciding what programs and speakers should be allowed on the air to the judicious editing of a daily newspaper (Benjamin, 2001, p. 79).2
Views of the public-interest standard have widely varied, even among FCC chairmen. Minow, who served in the Kennedy administration, famously remarked that television was a “vast wasteland” because of its mostly vapid programming, and placed a high value on public service in broadcasting. “There were two words I wanted to be remembered in that speech,” Minow commented in recent years. “The two words were not ‘vast wasteland.’ The two words were ‘public interest’” (Alesia, 2002, p. A-7). On the other hand, Mark Fowler, the FCC chairman under the Reagan administration, asserted: “Why is there this national obsession to tamper with this box of transistors and tubes when we don’t do the same for Time magazine? . . . The television is just another appliance — it’s a toaster with pictures” (Mueller, 1981, p. 52).
Indeed, various public-advocacy groups have criticized broadcasters’ performance in recent years when deregulation has lessened the emphasis on serving the public interest and have proposed new public-service requirements for broadcasting. A Media Access Project study found that 70% of the 40 television stations they studied provided no regularly scheduled local public-affairs programming. With digital broadcasting on the horizon, and the debate raging over the allotment of spectrum space for new digital-broadcasting channels, the group called for the FCC to require that stations devote 20% of the digital capacity or program time to public-service programming, and to provide free time to political candidates (“What’s Local,” 1998). Broadcasters respond that their commitment to the public interest should be measured in other ways besides programming. A National Association of Broadcasters study reported that broadcasters contributed $9.6 billion to public service in 2003, including public-service announcements and funds raised for charity and disaster relief (Wharton, 1981).
Hoover, born in the tiny farming community of West Bank, Iowa, to devout Quaker parents and orphaned by the age of 10, nevertheless became a member of the first freshman class at Stanford University. His studies in geology led to a career as a mining engineer. As the manager of a British gold-mining enterprise, he earned a fortune of up to $5 million dollars by the age of 36 (Houck, 2001).
Hoover’s personal qualities can be seen as influencing how he came to conceive the public-service role of broadcasting. As a young American coming of age early in the 20th century, he was among those “caught up in unregulated competition and a crescendo of unthinking optimism.” Yet he was deeply influenced by the Quaker admonition to “create a social and economic system which will so function as to sustain and enrich life for all” (Smith, 1984, p. 77). And so, as secretary of commerce, Hoover brought a combination of market-oriented and socially conscious values to his role as regulator of early radio.
Hoover on THE public INTEREST and broadcasting
As he spoke to the First National Radio Conference in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 27, 1922, the idea of the public interest very much on Hoover’s mind. “We are indeed today on the threshold of a new means of widespread communication of intelligence that has the most profound importance from the point of view of public education and public welfare,” Hoover told the conference.
Contemplating what form broadcasting regulation should take, Hoover was certain that some measure of public service should be part of the proposition. He asked the delegates to recommend what additional power the commerce department should seek from Congress so that “the maximum public good shall be secured” from broadcasting. Hoover resolutely told the conference that it must keep the public interest foremost in mind. “There is involved in all of this regulation the necessity to so establish the public [‘s] right over the ether roads that there may be no national regret that we have parted with a great national asset into uncontrolled hands,” Hoover said (“Minutes of Open,” 1922, p. 4).
A Department of Commerce report following the conference echoed Hoover’s sentiments: “It is the sense of the conference that radio communication is a public utility and as such should be regulated and controlled by the Federal government in the public interest.” The conference report elaborated that “the degree of public interest” offered by a station should be decisive in the granting of licenses (“Tentative Report,” 1922).
While Hoover made references to the public interest in broadcasting starting with the First National Radio Conference in 1922, broadcasting historian Erwin G. Krasnow (1997) and former FCC member Susan Ness (1994) place the establishment of the public-service principle in Hoover’s address to the Fourth National Radio Conference on Nov. 9, 1925. “The ether is a public medium and its use must be for public benefit,” he said. “The use of a radio channel is justified only if there is public benefit. . . . I have no frozen views on radio, except that the public interest must dominate. . . . The greatest public interest must be the deciding factor. I presume that few will dissent as to the correctness of this principle, for all will agree that public good must overbalance private desire” (“A Statement ... on Radio Progress,” 1925, p. 14).
What did Hoover mean when he said that broadcasting should serve in “the greatest public interest”? He did not specifically define the concept of the public interest in broadcasting. But in a series of public comments over the years, Hoover emphasized several key concepts in connection with broadcasting and the public interest:
Broadcasting should serve the “listening public” with a high standard of programming, insured by the listeners themselves, free to choose among competing stations.
Broadcasting should avoid control by monopoly.
Programming should be free of direct government control, which Hoover considered the equivalent of censorship.
Localism, the principle that listeners are best served by local stations, should be preferred over a national system of broadcasting.
Radio stations should transmit clear, interference-free programming to the listeners.
Service to the “listening public”
“It is our duty as public officials, it is our duty as men engaged in the industry, and it is our duty as a great listening public to assure the future conduct of this industry with the single view to public interest,” Hoover said (“Proceedings of Third,” 1924, p. 9). The inclusion of the listening public’s “duty” in the equation is significant.
An engineer by training, Hoover of necessity devoted much attention to the vexing problems of channel allocation and interference, themselves key aspects of serving the public interest. But he also took an interest in what the content of radio programming would be, and implicit in his comments was the assumption that the public would demand quality programming and would reject what it found offensive or simply not entertaining. Hoover told a radio manufacturers’ exhibition in New York that broadcasters must work to maintain its listeners: “It is, therefore, the listener in whom we are primarily interested, not only as an industry but as a public service. There is no industry so dependent upon public good will and interest” (“Radio: Its Influence,” 1925, p. 2).
Hoover presumed that the listening public would revolt against blatant “direct” advertising. If radio became dominated by advertising, the “audience will disappear in disgust,” he said (“Radio Talk,”1924, p. 9). By no means was Hoover alone in this view. Hoover had an exchange with E.P. Edwards, the General Electric radio department manager, at the First National Radio Conference, in which Edwards suggested restricting radio advertising to the daytime hours, then the time of day when fewer listeners tuned in. Hoover asked how stations could support themselves without “cluttering” the airwaves with “material they [the listeners] would resent?” Edwards replied: “A great deal of resentment has already been expressed, I understand, because of personal advertising mixed with entertainment features” (“Minutes of Open,” 1922, p. 22).
Hoover believed that the listeners themselves would insure that the public interest was served. In 1924, noting that radio receivers allowed listeners their choice of stations, he said: “This will, I believe solve the problem by competitive programs. . . . These stations naturally are endeavoring to please their listeners and thus there is an indirect censorship by the public. This is the place where it belongs” (“Radio Talk,” 1924, p. 9).
However, Hoover, unlike latter-day FCC commissioner Fowler, saw that the radio (or, later, television) receiver was something more than just another household appliance. Clearly, Hoover believed that broadcasting should strive to elevate the listener, to promote education and citizenship, as well as provide entertainment. At the Third National Radio Conference on October 7, 1924, Hoover noted that for the first time in history, it would be possible to communicate with millions of people at the same time, providing entertainment but also addressing national problems. “An obligation rests on us to see that it is devoted to real service and to develop the material that is transmitted which is really worthwhile,” Hoover said (“Address to Third,” 1924, p. 21). The next year, at the Fourth National Radio Conference, Hoover was more direct in asserting that the profit motive should not overwhelm the public interest: “We can surely agree that no one can raise a cry of deprivation of free speech if he is compelled to prove that there is something more than naked commercial selfishness in his purpose” (“A Statement ... on Radio Progress,” 1925, p. 14).
Opposition to monopoly
As one aspect of insuring that the public interest would be served by broadcasting, Hoover emphasized the importance of preventing radio from being dominated by monopoly. He argued for a system of licensing that required broadcasters to renew their licenses every few years. Hoover told the Fourth National Radio Conference it was necessary to screen out those who, for a variety of reasons, were not qualified to broadcast; until that time, no such procedure existed. A “broadcasting privilege” should be granted based in part on “the service he [the broadcaster] proposes to render,” Hoover said. He said those who received broadcasting licenses should not hold them indefinitely. To do so would be to grant the monopoly of a channel. “It would destroy the public assurance that it will be used for public benefit,” Hoover said (“A Statement ... on Radio Progress,” 1925, p. 14).
RCA president David Sarnoff, perhaps the most powerful figure in the early years of American broadcasting apart from Hoover, had proposed a system of “super power” stations, having virtually unlimited power, covering the entire country, and operated by RCA and other major manufacturers (Smulyan, 1994). Hoover, normally sympathetic to business interests, saw this as a dangerous step toward monopoly. Speaking at the Third National Radio Conference, Hoover said: “The conference has been strongly urged to recommend the abolition of all limits on power, but it refuses to do so. . . . The conference is unalterably opposed to any monopoly in broadcasting.” The conference recommended setting a power limit of 50,000 watts, which remains the greatest power allowed for AM stations (“Proceedings of Third,” 1924, p. 9).
Explicitly opposing a monopoly of the dominant radio manufacturers of the day, Hoover opposed domination by any “corporation, individual or combination. It would be in principle the same as though the entire press of the country was so controlled” (“Statement by Sec. Hoover,” 1924). Hoover saw the avoidance of a broadcasting monopoly as a First Amendment issue: “What we must safeguard is that there shall be no interference with free speech, that no monopoly of broadcasting stations should grow up under which any person or group could determine what material will be delivered to the public” (“Radio Talk,” 1924, p. 9).
Opposition to government “censorship”
While Hoover staunchly held that a monopoly of private interests should not be allowed to control broadcasting, he just as strongly opposed government domination of broadcasting. Direct government control, Hoover felt, would hinder all aspects of broadcasting’s development. But also, Hoover saw the imposition of programming requirements on radio as a form of censorship, and favored allowing the stations to decide the content of their programs. “Determining the priority of material to be broadcasted implies indirect censorship. . . . I certainly am opposed to the Government undertaking any censorship even with the present limited number of stations,” Hoover said. “It is better that these questions should be determined by the 570 different broadcasting stations than by any government official” (“Radio Talk,” 1924, p. 9).
Broadcast engineer C.M. Jansky, Jr., who participated in all four of the radio conferences, asserted that Hoover should be recognized as the “Father of the American System of Free Broadcasting.” “At this critical time, Herbert Hoover in no uncertain terms pointed the way toward the development of a broadcasting system which, while of necessity regulated by government, nevertheless is neither owned nor censored by government,” Jansky wrote (“The Contributions,” 1957, p. 47).
Ironically, during the First National Radio Conference in 1922, Hoover actually mused over the creation of a government-sanctioned service, speaking of “permitting one of the public service corporations to set up a broadcast system to be used generally by all sections of the government” (“Minutes of Open,” 1922, p. 22). But Hoover always felt uncomfortable with direct government control of broadcasting and never seriously pursued the notion.
Like many men of his day, Hoover took for granted that profanity and indecency would be banned from the airwaves and did not consider this to be censorship. The secretary would not have agonized over the First Amendment implications of assessing large fines for a pop singer baring her breast or another blurting the “f” word on the air. For the parent, Hoover noted, preventing pernicious broadcasts from entering the home was more challenging than blocking undesirable books and magazines. “We can protect the home by preventing the entry of printed matter destructive to its ideals, but we must doubleguard the radio,” he said. The 1934 Communications Act, the descendant of the Radio Act of 1927, reflected Hoover’s view, renouncing the “power of censorship” for the FCC, but adding, “No person . . . shall utter any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of radio communication” (Wallace, 1996, p. 1).
Hoover also saw no contradiction in his belief that broadcasting should serve the public interest but operate within the realm of free enterprise. He believed that government should work closely with business to promote the social good, but avoid coercive action. Hoover favored minimalist government, but was comfortable with using the power of the government, through the Department of Commerce, to encourage industrial self-regulation. He promoted the establishment of trade associations, by which industries would govern themselves (Houck, 2001).
For example, on the free-speech issue of whether “direct” advertising should be permitted over the air, Hoover commented: “The problem of radio publicity should be solved by the industry itself, and not by government compulsion and legislation.” In Hoover’s mind, business could be trusted, ultimately, to do the right thing, if only because the public would punish businesses that did not. Of the radio conferences Hoover organized, historian Erik Barnouw observed:
That Hoover should turn for counsel to the most successful elements in the industry was taken for granted. This was cooperation – an administration policy. That their initiative would, in the nature of things, produce public benefit was an accepted article of faith. Another was that excesses would create their own antidotes through public reaction. Where enlightened business leaders were involved, all that would be needed would be an executive word of caution (Barnouw, 1966, p. 178).
“This may be called an experiment in industrial self-government,” Hoover told the Third National Radio Conference. “The voluntary imposition of its own rules and a high sense of service will go far to make further legislation or administrative intervention unnecessary” (“Proceedings of Third,” October 6-10, 1924, p. 9).
As already discussed, Hoover at the Third National Radio Conference in 1924 opposed a proposal for a system of a few “super-power” stations serving the entire country. In doing this, Hoover not only opposed a monopoly in broadcasting, he also advocated broadcast localism. “It [superpower broadcasting] has many implications of interference with local stations and of monopoly,” Hoover said (“Proceedings of Third,” 1925, p. 9).
As part of the debate over super-power stations, Hoover specifically supported localism by recommending greater power limits for local radio stations, thereby improving the quality of service to rural listeners. “We must have at all times a special thought for the owners of small sets and for those whose homes are far from great centers of population,” he said. Hoover said broadcasting’s mission would not be achieved until people living in rural areas were able to receive broadcasting service “equal to that of people in the cities” (“Proceedings of Third,” 1925, p. 9).
As part of Hoover’s historic statement on the public interest at the 1925 radio conference, the secretary suggested the standard of localism, the concept of a far-flung system of stations serving local communities. Noting with irony that he was not known for wanting to extend government regulation more than absolutely necessary, Hoover concluded, “I am even endeavoring to create enlarged local responsibility” (“Statement By Sec. Hoover,” 1924).
“The local material available for the local program is of the highest importance,” Hoover told the third radio conference. But Hoover did not see local broadcasting alone as satisfactory for radio to achieve its full potential. He added that a system of “interconnection,” national network broadcasting serving local stations, was needed “to fulfill adequately the broadcasting mission” (“Proceedings of Third,” 1924, p. 9).
At the Fourth National Radio Conference in 1925, Hoover again stressed the concept of localism, this time in the context of freedom of speech. “So far as opportunity goes to explain one’s views upon questions of controversy, political, religious or social, it would seem that 578 independent stations, many competing in each locality, might give ample opportunity for great latitude in remarks,” he said (“Radio Problems,” 1925, in Benjamin, 2001, p. 30).
Clear transmission and reception
Of course, it was obvious that the radio listener — the public — must be able to clearly hear radio transmissions, whether amateur or commercial. But what we take for granted today — an orderly system in which stations broadcast at assigned frequencies in a well-defined broadcast band — did not exist in the early 1920s. The most basic necessity for a system of broadcasting that provided public service — one that was technically proficient — had to be established. In fact, an article in Radio News magazine, “Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity” (1929, p. 2), focused mainly on the “clarity of reception unexcelled by the radio reception of any country in the world” and credited this to “a stronger law to regulate radio,” the Radio Act of 1927.
In calling the series of national radio conferences, Hoover, the engineer, more than anything else sought to bring order to the chaos. “The amount of interference has increased greatly and threatens to destroy the art,” Hoover warned (“News Release,” 1923). At the most basic level, if listeners could not hear the programs, Hoover said, radio broadcasters could not serve the public: “That is the motive of the broadcaster who gives us better programs and better quality of transmission, and is the object of the manufacturer of receiving sets that they should give more reliable and more perfect reception” (“Radio: Its Influence,” 1925, p. 2).
Replying to a letter from a listener extolling the potential of radio to educate and uplift, Hoover wrote in 1923 that the commerce department had resolved to achieve “the disentanglement of technical conflicts in the industry which, if allowed to run, would ultimately destroy it” (“Letter to R.H. Peacock,” 1923).
Hoover’s vision of broadcasting centered on the distribution of information to the American public. At his time in history, he could not take for granted the physical ability of each radio station to successfully transmit to expectant listeners. “It [the local station] must be able to deliver important pronouncements of public men,” Hoover said. “It must bring instantly to our people a hundred and one matters of national interest” (“Address to Third,”1924, p. 1).
As Hoover implicitly defined public service, the argument can be made that broadcasting has mostly achieved his vision.
At the most basic level, broadcasting and the public have been well-served by the organization of the broadcast band and limitations on transmitting power, which came about from the national radio conferences that Hoover directed, allowing for relatively trouble-free listening. While we take this for granted today, listeners in the 1920s certainly could not (“Public Interest, Convenience,” 1929). The four radio conferences passed dozens of recommendations concerning the reduction of interference and the organization of the broadcast band before the Radio Act of 1927 finally established the AM radio band that has served with only a few changes since then (White, 2004). Of course, the FM band and the VHF and UHF television bands came later.
A review of the official records from each of the four radio conferences shows that the participants responded to Hoover’s directions concerning public service with recommendations that closely reflected the secretary’s own views. For example, on the centrality of service to the listening public, the report of the fourth radio conference asserted that broadcast licenses should be issued only to those who “in the opinion of the Secretary of Commerce will render a benefit to the public, or are necessary in the public interest” (“Proceedings of the Fourth,” 1926, p. 29). On Hoover’s insistence that no monopoly be permitted in broadcasting, the fourth radio conference recommended that broadcast station owners enjoy “the use of such station for a reasonable period,” a period of five years. “No monopoly in radio communications shall be permitted,” the conference stated (“Proceedings of the Fourth,” 1926, p. 18).
On the issue of censorship, a subcommittee report written at the conclusion of the third conference recommended that the Department of Commerce not regulate the material broadcast on any stations. “To regulate the programs under these conditions would mean censorship,” the report said (“Recommendations for Regulation,” 1924, p. 17). On localism, the series of radio conferences designated Class A, Class B and Class C radio stations, categorized by power and frequencies, providing for a system of local and regional broadcasting, as well as helping to eliminate interference in the broadcast band (“Recommendations of the National,” 1923).
The secretary’s influence could further be seen when in 1928 the FRC delivered its first major interpretation of the public-interest standard. Echoing Hoover’s landmark 1925 statement (“The dominant element for consideration in the radio field is, and always will be, the great body of the listening public . . .”) the FRC admonished broadcasters: “The emphasis must be first and foremost on the interest, the convenience, and the necessity of the listening public, and not on the interest, convenience, or necessity of the individual broadcaster or the advertiser.” In the resolution of a dispute between three Chicago radio stations known as “the Great Lakes Decision” in 1929, the FRC again harkened to Hoover’s principle, requiring that a station should meet “the tastes, needs and desires of all substantial groups among the listening public” (Krasnow, 1997, p.5-6).
While Hoover’s vision of the public interest standard may have been largely attained, whether the public has been well-served is open to debate. The secretary’s faith that the “listening public” would insist on a high standard of programming often seems to have been misplaced. Certainly, Hoover’s conviction that the public would reject outright commercialism proved entirely unfounded. In his memoirs, Hoover admitted being dismayed by excessive commercialism in broadcasting. “The dignified presentation of the sponsor has too often been abandoned for hucksters’ tattle, interlarded into the middle of programs and tiresomely continued at the end,” he wrote. In fact, as late as 1952, Hoover feared a public revolt against the commercial "misuses of radio" that would result in much stricter governmental control of broadcasting (“The Memoirs,” 1952, p. 147).3
On the other hand, Hoover’s prediction that listeners and viewers would naturally regulate the content of programming has indeed proved practical. Beyond the obvious example that programs with high ratings succeed while those with low ratings perish, one study suggests that broadcast television is finally responding to the public’s increasing discomfort with the level of sex and violence in its programs. Notwithstanding, the Center for Media and Public Affairs found a 29% drop in sexual content and a 17% decline in violence on broadcast television from 1999 to 2001 (“Hollywood Cleans Up,” 2002, p. 1; Elber, 2003).
Hoover’s comments to a 1925 manufacturers’ exhibition that broadcasters must serve the public by providing programming that “maintains their [the listeners’] interest” (“Radio: Its Influence,” 1925, p. 2) proved prophetic and would be echoed by many of today’s market-oriented broadcasters as the only true measure of public service.
The trend toward niche broadcasting, with radio and television programs increasingly targeted at demographically narrow audiences, may have contributed to the public tolerance for language and scenes that would have been considered outrageous in years past.
As Wallace (1996) and others have suggested, the expectation for commercially operated stations to serve a significant public-service role may have been unrealistic from the start. The British model of a publicly funded corporation charged with the service function might have been a more practical way of achieving a high-standard of programming — one that promotes education and citizenship — and Hoover’s other public-interest objectives.
Hoover’s faith in cooperation between government and business to bring about social good — his “experiment in industrial self-government ” — seems to have been largely unjustified.
Broadcasters sometimes seem indifferent to the public-service value of their on-air product. Criticized for running ads touting dubious weight-loss potions, the manager of five St. Louis radio stations responded: “Part of being in a free society is that people can make a reasonable claim and it’s up to the citizenry to decide” (Toroian, 2002, p. A-1). Under fire for staging sexually explicit on-air stunts, nationally syndicated radio “shock jock” Anthony Cumia responded that he is not responsible for any negative effects on young listeners, and rejected any notion of broadcasting as a public service: “We’re entertainers. We’re not psychologists. We’re not doctors. We’re not day-care workers” (O’Reilly, 2002, p. 7). The former chairman of the National Association of Broadcasters Radio Board, Ted Snider, argued that there should be no public-service standard at all, other than meeting technical operating standards (Snider, 1998). Broadcasters argue that the billions they contribute to public-interest projects should be considered as public service, even when such projects take place off the air.
Hoover steered broadcasting away from a monopoly of powerful business interests, as might have occurred if David Sarnoff’s vision of a system of “super power” stations had prevailed. By requiring broadcasters to obtain licenses and periodically apply for license renewal, Hoover’s guidance prevented, in his words, a “monopoly of a channel on the air” (“A Statement ... on Radio Progress,” 1925, p. 14). However, about 98 percent of broadcast license renewals go unchallenged (Head, et al, 2001), meaning almost all stations hold licenses indefinitely. “Most people do not even know that they can challenge the renewal of a local radio or television station,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps observed (Kleder, 2003). For most of broadcasting’s history, the number of stations that a single owner could hold was strictly limited. Owners could hold only one television license, one AM radio and one FM license in a community. But in recent years, when broadcasting has been extensively deregulated, giant corporations have soaked up hundreds of stations, often owning several formerly competing stations in a local market (Compaine, 2000).
Political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool (1983) argues that the entire concept behind the Communications Act of 1934 — the successor of the Radio Act of 1927 — was fundamentally flawed, allowing a monopolization of the airwaves if not the stations themselves. Another observer imagined a system in which anyone could have a turn on the air: “Congress could have declared radio broadcasters to be common carriers [such as telegraph or telephone companies] opening up the spectrum to every conceivable variety of speech. . . . It granted a relatively few broadcasters a monopoly over the content of the airwaves — while imposing on them a public-interest obligation.” Under the common-carrier model, broadcast stations would simply provide the means for transmitting programs produced by others (Wallace, 1996).4
Censorship — at least as characterized in Hoover’s definition, the government “determining the priority of material” (“Radio Talk,” 1924, p. 9) — has been avoided, although some would argue for a more expansive definition of censorship. Decisions on programming content are left to station management; presumably, public interest and self interest coincide, with the stations’ success depending on giving the public what it demands. Former CBS president Frank Stanton articulated this marketplace approach, contending that “a program in which a large part of the audience is interested is by that very fact a program in the public interest.” The marketplace philosophy achieved supremacy in the 1980s when the FCC dropped the Fairness Doctrine, which required that stations air opposing sides of controversial issues. In this view, listener and viewer tastes alone should determine the content of programming, and government-imposed demands for “fairness” amount to censorship, hindering the free expression of ideas (Kellner, 1990, in McLaren, 2002).
Critics of the American system of broadcasting object that, while direct government censorship and control of what is said over the air has largely been avoided, corporate censorship has been just as restrictive, preventing voices that are not well within the mainstream of views from being heard. Consumer advocate Ralph Nader, in supporting the creation of the low-power FM service for non-commercial community broadcasters, echoed the point that ACLU spokesman Morris Ernst made in the 1920s. “With the very limited exception of talk radio, listeners are excluded on their own airwaves, while the wealthy may speak through radio by controlling who uses their stations and for what purposes,” Nader said. “What good is freedom of speech if nobody can afford it?” (Nader, 1999, p. 1)
As Hoover advocated during the radio conferences, the Radio Act of 1927 created a local system of broadcasting, but in a deregulated era of cable, satellite broadcasting, and webcasting, broadcasters’ commitment to localism has been questioned. In 2004, the FCC announced a notice of inquiry and the formation of a localism task force “to measure localism and the efficacy of the Commission’s localism rules” (“Localism Task Force,” 2004). The FCC earlier had held hearings on ownership rules. “We heard the voice of public concern about the media loud and clear. Localism is at the core of these concerns,” FCC Chairman Micheal Powell said (Fiske, 2003, p. 1). Senator McCain’s proposed legislation promoting coverage of local elections, mentioned at the start of this article, is called the “Localism in Broadcasting Reform Act” (Franzil, 2005).
The long-time president and CEO of the National Broadcasting Association, Eddie Fritts, defended the industry against charges that consolidation of station ownership has diluted the standard of localism, and reasserted broadcasting’s commitment to the standard. “The one franchise we have that no one else has, is localism,” Fritts said. “The cable companies don’t have it, for all intents and practical purposes; satellite companies don’t have it; the phone companies don’t have it” (“Fritts surveys,” 2005, p. 33).
Many concerns remain about the public-interest value of broadcasting; the degree to which it is satisfactory or unsatisfactory is largely a philosophical matter. Hoover can be praised for laying the foundation of a system that has served broadcasting and the public well for nearly 80 years, or criticized for a lack of foresight. Certainly, Hoover himself was disenchanted with the commercialism that came to dominate broadcasting, and, as an opponent of monopoly, he might well have been disappointed by the recent move toward consolidation of station ownership. In any case, there is no doubt that Herbert Hoover played a profound role in making certain that a public-interest standard was applied to broadcasting and in shaping the form that it took.
1 The National Association of Broadcasters responded to McCain’s legislation by saying the Lear study was “slanted to fall in line with the authors’ predetermined conclusions.” The NAB said the 11 television markets included in the study were not representative of the nation’s 210 local television markets.
2 An anecdote from the early days of radio illustrates the conflict between more idealistic visions of public-service broadcasting and Hoover’s essential practicality. A religious group, believing the end of the world was at hand, petitioned the commerce department for a broadcasting license, so its message could be delivered to the unsuspecting world. Presumably, to deny a license to the group based on its quirky religious beliefs would not be in keeping with the notion that all ideas should be given an equal opportunity to be heard on the airwaves. Hoover tartly replied to the group that if the world was ending in a month, buying time on established stations would be a smarter use of its money (Smith, 1984).
3 Hoover was not alone in being appalled in later years by the amount and character of advertising on radio and television. Senator Clarence C. Dill, sponsor of the Radio Act of 1927, which created the Federal Radio Commission, wrote: “None of us, forty years ago, could have any conception whatsoever of how the greed for profits would subvert our purpose to give the American people the use of the radio waves in the ‘public interest,’ simply by overcommercialization of programs” (Dill, 1970, p. 120).
4 Indeed, such a philosophy existed at the time of the First National Radio Conference in 1922. WEAF, AT&T’s station in New York, provided facilities over which the public could broadcast messages, but the station itself did not broadcast its own programs. “It is up to the public to make use of that service in whatever way it is advantageous and desirable to the public,” AT&T representative A.H. Griswold told the conference (Griswold, 1922, p. 5).
Whether this would have resulted in a programming schedule dominated by what we now call “infomercials” cannot be known. Certainly, the air time for virtually all broadcast programs would be “paid for” by their producers, whether they were selling a product or an idea, and rates for air time on the most powerful stations would no doubt have been costly. The first program on WEAF was a 10-minute “toll broadcast” promoting the sale of real-estate on Long Island. Entertainment programs soon developed such as the “The Browning King Orchestra,” promoting the Browning King clothing store. But the WEAF toll-broadcasting approach disappeared when AT&T sold its broadcasting operations to RCA and its partners in 1926 (Head, et al, 2001).
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