Discourse in Progress: The Experts Behind the Issues

Protecting the Public Interest in Radio’s ‘Golden Age’ and the Era of Net Neutrality

A. Brad Schwartz

Broadcast Hysteria by A. Brad Schwartz

Last month, the Federal Communications Commission reached a historic decision with its controversial vote to preserve net neutrality. The response from telecommunications giant Verizon to that vote was also notable—both for its haste and its theatricality. Within minutes of the decision, the company issued a strongly worded press release—dated “February 26, 1934,” and published in both Morse code and typewriter font—that censured the FCC for applying “1930s Rules [to] the Internet.”

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The reference is to the Communications Act of 1934, the legislation that established the FCC and empowered it to regulate electronic communications. By reclassifying the Internet as a “public utility” under Title II of that Act, the FCC mandated that Internet service providers treat all online traffic equally, and not speed up, slow down, or block access to any lawful content. This is fundamental to the idea of the free and open Internet, and defines the online experience as we currently know it.

Verizon chose to backdate their press release and publish it in old-timey font in order to emphasize that the law in question—the FCC’s founding charter—is over eighty years old. According to Verizon, the Communications Act can only hamstring the development of broadband services because it was “written in the era of the steam locomotive and the telegraph.” But as Vox pointed out on shortly after the vote, Congress has revised and even overhauled the Communications Act several times in later years, so the new rules are hardly as archaic as Verizon’s press release made them seem.

However, the larger error of Verizon’s statement is its implication that a New Deal-era law couldn’t possibly be relevant to the twenty-first century. In fact, the Communications Act was written in an age of profound media transformation very much like our own. In the 1930s, new technologies like the telephone and the radio changed how people thought about space, time, and even human interaction. It’s important to understand how Americans grappled with those changes eight decades ago, because we face very similar yet much greater changes today.

In the 1920s and 1930s, policymakers and reformers often discussed the rise of radio in terms that could easily apply to today’s Internet. By offering a constant stream of plays, music, news, and talks, radio promised to revitalize American culture. Psychologists Hadley Cantril and Gordon Allport, in their 1935 book The Psychology of Radio, called it “the greatest single democratizing agent since the invention of printing.” But this technology had a key limitation that threatened to undermine its democratic promise: only a finite number of broadcast frequencies are available. If too many people try to use the same airwaves, their transmissions will interfere with one another and drown each other out. Anyone can listen to the radio, but only a select few can be heard over its loudspeaker.

In order to avoid overcrowding the airwaves, the Communications Act requires that broadcasters operate with a license from the FCC, thereby limiting access to the microphone. But the same Act sought to preserve radio’s democratic promise by opening the door to a diverse array of content. The FCC maintained that the airwaves were public property, and that individuals licensed to use them had a responsibility to respect the public’s access to information—their right to be informed if they so chose. For this reason, the Communications Act specified that the FCC would only grant licenses to radio stations operating in “the public interest, convenience, or necessity.”

Congress left this language intentionally vague in order to avoid infringing on the First Amendment or giving the FCC any powers of censorship. There was no requirement to broadcast a certain amount of news or cultural programming each day, nor was the government empowered to decide which points of view the American people should hear. Although the FCC could revoke a station’s license for failing to serve the public interest, they rarely took such extreme action. Instead, the responsibility to act “in the public interest”—and the task of determining what that phrase meant—fell to the broadcasters themselves. According to Cantril and Allport, radio stations in the 1930s typically devoted between 60 and 90 percent of each broadcast day to commercial-free shows that were educational, informational, or culturally rich. Broadcasters willingly aired these shows at a loss, paying all costs of production while sacrificing airtime that could have been sold to a sponsor.

This approach led directly to the best programs of radio’s “golden age.” Unsponsored shows like CBS’s Columbia Workshop pushed the bounds of what radio writers and directors could achieve artistically, while discussion programs like NBC’s America’s Town Meeting of the Air thoughtfully explored important national issues. (Several episodes of ATMOTA, including one asking whether the United States should adopt compulsory health insurance can be heard here.) Orson Welles’s legendary War of the Worlds broadcast, which aired without a sponsor, was just one of many instances in which broadcasters freed from the need to please an advertiser stretched the limits of the medium in inventive ways.

The “golden age of radio” has much in common with the open Internet. Both depend on large platforms—major radio networks and Internet service providers—that are the product of both commerce and regulation; they would not exist without the free market, and they could not exist without the federal government. Like the public interest ideal of decades past, the policy of net neutrality—protected by the FCC’s recent ruling—preserves a culture of innovation by ensuring that all have access to cyberspace. Without that protection, the Internet could easily be carved up into tiers of service similar to cable TV, where access to certain content would be restricted to those able to pay for it. The Internet’s vibrancy would be sacrificed in a drive to monetize it completely. Much the same thing happened to American radio at the tail end of its “golden age.”

Public support for the FCC waned in the late 1930s as broadcasters promoted the idea of the “American system” of radio: commercial broadcasting unencumbered by government. Many Americans objected to the FCC’s mishandling of a series of controversial broadcasts—including Mae West’s notorious “Garden of Eden” skit in 1937, and War of the Worlds the following year—which seemed to paint them in the role of censor. Unfair comparisons were drawn between the FCC and the state-run broadcasting systems of dictatorships like Nazi Germany. Commercial broadcasters argued that only they, and not the government, could be trusted with protecting “free radio.” But instead of preserving free speech, this attitude imposed a kind of censorship of the market by prizing ratings above the diversity of ideas. By the mid-1940s, the unsponsored shows that defined radio’s “golden age” had largely disappeared.

By reclassifying the Internet as a “public utility”—alongside telephones, electricity, and running water—the FCC affords it greater protection than the radio ever had. This will not alter the websites and services Americans enjoy; the Internet will remain full of all kinds of content, some of it brilliant and some of it inane. But ensuring free and open access to that content will protect the artists and innovators of tomorrow, just as the public interest ideal benefitted broadcasters and listeners in radio’s “golden age.” The fundamental idea that all Americans have a right to listen and be heard is as applicable in “the era of the steam locomotive and the telegraph” as it is in an age of driverless cars and smartphones.

A. Brad Schwartz is the author of Broadcast Hysteria: Orson Welles’s War of the Worlds and the Art of Fake News. He cowrote an episode of the award-winning PBS series American Experience on the War of the Worlds broadcast, based in part on research from his senior thesis at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. He lives in East Lansing, Michigan.

Broadcast Hysteria

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