Are Those Who Ignore History Doomed to Repeat It?

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II. Radio and Television

The second major industry that Wu examines is broadcasting. His narrative begins with the early days of radio and the emergence of television and culminates with the advent of cable television. Although each example exhibits some of the features of Wu’s Cycle, each deviates from the pattern in important ways that invite further analysis.

A. Radio

Wu’s narrative on the history of radio centers on David Sarnoff, the president of the Radio Company of America (RCA) and its wholly owned subsidiary, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC). The first turn of the Cycle occurred when Sarnoff and RCA took the open technology that was early radio (p 39) and subdued it by the mid-1930s (p 84). Faced with the fact that AT&T’s long-distance network provided “the only practical means of moving sound around the nation” (p 76), Sarnoff used patent litigation to induce AT&T to abandon radio altogether (pp 79–81). In addition, Sarnoff protected RCA’s legacy AM radio business by preventing FM, which first emerged in the 1930s, from becoming an important medium until the 1970s (pp 133, 135).

Told in this way, the story of radio fits Wu’s great-man account of a media mogul who crushes the opposition. Yet the account of Sarnoff-as-monopolist works only if one overlooks the fact that NBC faced serious competition throughout its existence. Beginning in the mid-1920s, first Arthur Judson and then William Paley built the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) into a serious rival to NBC. In this case, CBS was able to use government pressure to force AT&T to open its long-distance lines to networks other than NBC.65 Yet CBS appears only a few times in Wu’s narrative, usually in passing as part of a budding duopoly (pp 83, 132, 139). And yet there is no exploration of how CBS managed to survive, let alone thrive. Although CBS makes a tenuous appearance, the Mutual Broadcasting System (MBS), which represented the other major rival to NBC,66 is completely missing. Sarnoff’s control over radio was thus far from airtight, which makes this episode an uncomfortable fit with Wu’s Cycle.

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