The Rise & Fall of Broadcast Reform

Against the Current, No. 52, September/October 1994

Richard Campbell

Telecommunications, Mass Media, & Democracy:
The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935
By Robert W. McChesney
Oxford University Press, 1993, $45 cloth.

THE CENTRAL STORY of Robert McChesney’s remarkable and ambitious history, subtitled “The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935,” depicts how commercial and corporate interests wrested control of radio away from noncommercial interests (labor, education, religions, etc.) and effectively limited the shape of mass media for the rest of the century.

McChesney’s study of a 1930s reform movement “provides a revisionist interpretation of American broadcasting history, one that regards the emerging status quo as the product of an intense and multifaceted political fight with obvious winners and losers, not as the `natural’ American system or as the product of consensus.”

In a number of ways, the broadcast reform movement that McChesney documents was doomed from the outset. The framework for U.S. corporate-commercial broadcast system had been set in place between 1919 and 1921 through a series of cross-licensing agreements that formed the radio monopoly, RCA.(1)

Sanctioned by the government in order to thrust the United States into an international leadership position, RCA with its major corporate partners, General Electric, AT&T and Westinghouse, was authorized to pool radio patents, standardize receivers and transmission, and control amateur and noncommercial interference.

The development of RCA is partly a story of xenophobia aimed at the Italian inventor-entreprenuer Guglielmo Marconi, whose American company was the most powerful in early radio until the United States seized all radio operations during World War I. After the war RCA was established, at least in part, to restore radio communication to American hands. Since foreigners were prohibited from controlling major interests in U.S. broadcasting, Marconi had to sell his U.S. holdings.

Although the RCA monopoly was broken up by the Justice Department in 1932 and forced to compete against Westinghouse, AT&T and GE (which would buy back the declining company with the government’s blessing during the deregulatory mid-1980s), the power of a corporate ethos in broadcasting was in place. And unlike virtually every other democratic country in the world, the United States ended up with a corporate media system rather than a government-sponsored system set up to allocate scarce radio frequencies among competing constituencies.

Entrenched Commercial Interests

In the context of this earlier history, the broadcast reform failed because of the advantages the government had already given to commercial interests. A strong “radio lobby” headed by RCA’s subsidiary network NBC and William Paley’s CBS, the lack of a sustained systematic organization among the reformers, and the government’s preferential treatment of commercial interests all contributed to the defeat of the reform movement. In McChesney’s telling, what is alarming and compelling are the subtle ways in which commercial interests and sympathetic politicians managed to cast capitalism as a synonym for democracy.

Before any substantial federal broadcast regulation, the Department of Commerce had defined broadcasting as interstate commerce and as a scarce natural resource. The government suggested that broadcasters must operate, using language culled for utility regulation, “in the public interest, convenience or necessity.”

The corporate radio lobby, which asked for federal regulation in order to control frequency interference, claimed that their interests represented the “public interest,” while the nonprofit interests of education, religion, and labor were mere “propaganda” that served “special interest” constituencies. Based on this “logic,” the first broadcast regulatory body, the Federal Radio Commission (the FRC — which became the FCC in 1934) established in 1927, began making frequency allocations, giving preference to “general public service” stations and disempowering nonprofit “propaganda” or “special interest” stations.

In 1928, through General Order 40, which until McChesney’s account has been downplayed or ignored in broadcast history, the FRC enacted a rule that determined the future of broadcasting. The FRC assigned 40 high-power clear channels, 34 regional channels, and the remaining frequencies to low power local channels that would accommodate 30 broadcasters in regional markets.

Numerous nonprofit stations were forced to share their frequencies with commercial stations. Every three months broadcasters could also challenge each other for air space, with network-affiliated stations with superior technical power given preference. What happened, of course, was that commercial stations slowly picked off the nonprofits, which not only had been forced to share frequencies, but had been given limited broadcast time and virtually no access to evening hours.

By 1931, in terms of hours on air and level of power, NBC and CBS stations accounted for seventy percent of all broadcasting — even though the networks owned or were affiliated with only thirty percent of all broadcasters.

According to McChesney, the decline of the nonprofits actually had started earlier in the twenties. For example, the number of stations affiliated with colleges and universities dropped from 128 in 1925 to 95 in 1927 to fewer than 50 that by 1930. Overall nonprofits (including labor and religious stations) declined from over 200 in 1927 to 65 by 1934 (when they made up only two percent of total US broadcasting).

The Struggle for Access

Yet in the face of this government-sanctioned corporate power, a spirited debate developed. As McChesney argues, this battle between the commercial and nonprofit interests “would be the sole instance in modern U.S. history in which the structure and control of an established mass medium would be a legitimate issue for public debate.”

Of the many different factions of the reform movement which McChesney carefully details, including the conservative Payne Fund, the ACLU’s Radio Committee, and the National Committee on Education by Radio (NCER), two examples stand out. One is the Paulist Fathers (93 priests strong) and WLWL, under the direction of Father John Harney.

Based in New York, the Paulists were an order dedicated to education and democracy, and in 1925 began operating WLWL, a 5,000-watt station — one of the twenty largest in the United States at the time. With programming aimed primarily at the working class, WLWL ran cultural entertainment fare as well as “instructive talks on religion, ethical, educational, economic and social questions.”

But in 1926 WLWL was forced by the Department of Commerce to share its frequency with a Bronx amusement park. And after General Order 40, the station had to share time with WPG, an Atlantic City station soon bought by CBS. Because WPG was designated a “general interest” and WLWL a “special interest,” by 1929 WPG operated 110 hours during the week and WLWL had been reduced to less than 16 hours, including no time in the evening hours when most working people were at home.

In this battle with the FRC and commercial radio, Father Harney noted at the time that WLWL was “not special interest, unless you want to say that those who are working for public welfare are pursuing special interests and that the gentlemen who are working for their own pockets are not.”

In 1930, CBS tried to buy WLWL. And in 1931 the Hearst chain offered $500,000 for the station. The Paulists turned down both deals.

The second story involves the “voice of labor,” WCFL, which operated from Chicago under the direction of Edward Nockels. Probably the most radical arm of the broadcast reform movement, the Chicago Federation of Labor and Nockels chartered WCFL in 1926 to “influence or educate the public mind upon the meaning and objects of Trade Unions and of the Federation of Labor, correct wrong impressions by broadcasting the truth, and advance progressive economic ideas which when put into operation will benefit the masses of the nation.”

In 1928 WCFL entered into agreement with the Farmer’s Educational and Cooperative Movement and began tagging itself as the “Voice of Farmer-Labor.” That same year, however, the FRC forced WCFL to share its 620 frequency with several other stations and reduced its power to 1000 watts. After General Order 40, FRC shifted WCFL to the 970 frequency, which it shared with a Seattle NBC affiliate; WCFL could no longer broadcast during the evening in order to keep the frequency clear for the Seattle station.

For the next several years WCFL and Nockels fought hard to get a 50,000-watt clear channel, even earning a license to build such a station. WCFL would eventually lose, however, and was continually singled out as type of “propaganda” station that did not merit a clear channel. For example, a Midwest employers’ bulletin had warned of the “wild and radical speeches listened to by thousands” on WCFL that “may reach the ear … of your influential and trusted employee, who may be distracted from paths favorable to his employer’s success.”

Nockels countered in 1929: “Is it in the public interest, convenience and necessity that all the 90 channels for radio broadcasting be given to capital and its friends and not even one channel to the millions that toil?”

The Turning Point

During the last major reform battle in 1934, Harney and Nockels teamed up to support of the Wagner-Hatfield Amendment to the Communication Act of 1934. That amendment would have set aside twenty-five percent of all broadcast frequencies for a wide range of nonprofit groups. The radio lobby worked furiously to defeat the measure.

In exchange for support from the networks for more power and for solvency during the Depression, NBC cut a deal with WCFL which granted labor exclusive rights to the 970 frequency. In exchange, Nockels stopped lobbying for reform legislation. And by 1936, WCFL carried five hours of NBC programming daily.

(Postscript: WCFL continued to identify itself as the “voice of labor” into the 1960s. In 1994, numerous format changes and several corporate transfers later, it is WMVP, devoted to twenty-four-hour sports talk –ed.)

The Paulists and WLWL rebuffed the same kind of deal from CBS, which promised five hours a day more broadcast time but on condition that WLWL would drop its support for the amendment. The Paulists resisted, the amendment went down anyway, and by 1937, WLWL was so marginalized and weakened by the Depression that they sold the station to the Bulova watch company for $275,000.

In the end, in spite of their arguments, the reformers could not offer politicians enough incentives to counter what the commercial broadcasters could offer: promises of free air time and large audiences.

As McChesney demonstrates, many reformers were certain that Franklin
Roosevelt was sympathetic but in trying to advance New Deal legislation, he was reluctant to alienate commercial radio and the networks, which were giving him all the broadcast time he wanted.

What WLWL’s Harney and WCFL’s Nockels shared in common, and what made them the most feared of the reformers, was the anti-elitist nature of their agendas and their understanding that nonprofit stations should be allowed to sell some commercial time to survive. In other words, they imagined ways for capitalism to work in the cause of nonprofit stations.

Both Harney and Nockels also understood that so-called “entertainment” programming was crucial in maintaining a large audience. As McChesney points out, almost all other aspects of the reform movement suffered from much more elitist affinities, which in trying to take a stand against the profit-driven networks and station owners, generally assumed that commercials and sponsored entertainment programming were evil and audiences were being duped by the networks through such “silly and trivial” programs.

What Lessons for Left Media?

One way to read McChesney’s book today, in fact, is as a historical primer as the left tries to figure out how to insure that the “electronic Superhighway” and other emerging forms of mass media technology serve democracy. As McChesney implies, reform movements need to build popular bases of support. However, since most intellectuals define themselves against the popular, they tend to alienate or ignore the very constituencies that they need to make social reforms work.

In McChesney’s narrative, it was the commercial broadcasters who trategically aligned themselves with popular entertainment fare and appeared as the standard bearers for a democracy of the marketplace. Only a handful of people, Nockels and Harney among them, seemed to understand the importance of this alignment — and ultimately they were not enough.

Within a long tradition of suggesting that “just because it’s popular doesn’t make it right,” the elite left forgot, and continues to forget, that the opposite may well be true: just because it’s popular doesn’t make it wrong. In fact, commercial interests were able to continually turn the essential elitism of the reform movement against itself by discrediting academic reformers as egghead “school men” with “little idea how to organize a good program.”

Two contemporary heirs of the Nockels and Harney tradition are journalist-filmmaker Michael Moore and actress Roseanne Arnold, both unconventional leftists who have managed to use popular media to advance positions that are critical of the status quo at the same time they support working and lower middle-class agendas. Both use humor as the device that connects them to popular audiences.

Moore, in creating “Roger and Me,” the most popular documentary in the history of film, offered a powerful pro-labor and capitalist critique and was not above signing on with Time Warner, the world’s largest media company, as a distributor to make sure the film reached more than the graduate students in a few sociology departments.

Roseanne (Barr) Arnold, a radical feminist with working-class roots (see Barbara Ehrenreich’s 1990 review of Barr-Arnold’s utobiography(2)), who refuses to use the term “blue collar” because it masks the issue of class, has managed to advance an anti-status quo, pro-working class agenda in one of the most popular television shows of the 1990s.

The bottom line: Because the narratives are popular, they are profitable, and if they are profitable, capitalism will take the bait. But as the Harney and Nockels stories demonstrate, most left intellectuals with their aversion to the popular generally ignored the reform movement in the 1930s and continue, for the most part, to dismiss the forces of popular media today.

At the outset of 1994 there exist 4948 U.S. commercial AM radio stations, 4945 commercial FM stations and 1650 educational stations (assigned to the 88-92 FM frequency). There are also 558 VHF commercial TV stations, 595 commercial UHF TV stations, and 363 total UHF and VHF noncommercial TV stations.(3)

While not at a twenty-five percent allotment of frequency space, nonprofit broadcasters have benefited from technical innovations such as FM and cable which have greatly increased channel capacity. And the major argument made for deregulation, especially during the 1980s, was that broadcasting need no longer be considered a scarce resource. Most cities now have access to 30-40 radio stations, 60-120 or so TV stations (via cable).

The actual scarcity is in newspapers, which have largely failed to meet the challenges of the emerging visual and electronic culture and have therefore been reduced to monopoly situations in most U.S. cities.

The great irony, as McChesney points out, is that during Reagan’s deregulation party, commercial broadcasters advocated a laissez faire ideology that would allow the marketplace to decide broadcasting’s fate rather than government regulatory practices. This logic scuttled the Fairness Doctrine (which demanded that local broadcasters engage and in multisided debates on issues of public importance) and loosened restrictions on ownership limits.

But as the newspaper industry drifts toward fewer and fewer owners concentrated in large chains, the logical argument (applied to roadcasting in the 1920s) should be that now government oversight is necessary to insure diversity in ownership and points of view. We do not hear, however, the newspaper industry asking for regulation, since the survivors are making substantial profits in monopoly situations.

The key question is why, in all probability, won’t there be a vigorous debate on the concentrated ownership in the newspaper business and over emerging media? McChesney argues convincingly in his conclusion that “U.S. political culture does not permit any discussion of fundamental weaknesses in capitalism.”

Nor are there ever significant public debates about imagining what other forms of capitalism might work given that, as McChesney notes, “contemporary capitalism is working effectively for only a minority of the citizenry, and moreover, that its core tendencies are frequently at odds with democratic ideals.”

As capitalism and democracy have become fused in political discourse in this century, left unexamined are the ways in which capitalism is hierarchically arranged and undemocratic. McChesney’s detailing of the ACLU’s role in radio reform demonstrates that the ACLU and others confused the marketplace of ideas with the commodity marketplace, and failed to distinguish free speech from commercial speech (and it is no accident that the major third-party candidate in this period is a man who could personaly buy a lot of commercial speech to advance his campaign).

500 Channels, One Voice?

McChesney’s account of the battle for U.S. airwaves is exactly the kind scholarship that we need if we want to understand current debates over media technology and ownership. By the end of the decade, a handful of multinational corporations — Time Warner, TCI, Viacom, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Saatchi & Saatchi, GE, Disney, Sony, Bertelsmann, Matsushita, among them — will control globally nearly ever aspect of mass media.

In spite of (and maybe because of) the growth in channels, it has become increasingly difficult to sustain a public debate on these issues. The promise of multi-channel cable systems which would potentially give “voices to the voiceless” is in jeopardy. While certainly 500-channel systems offer the possibility for everyone to have access, the fact is that these systems are increasingly being bought up by fewer and fewer corporations.

The top two cable entrepreneurs, TCI and Time Warner, already own hundreds of cable systems between them and call the shots in the cable industry. Whether these giant companies open up their systems to multiple and alternative points of view is entirely a decision that rests with those companies. There has been no vigorous public discussion on the democratic nature of these multi-channel systems.

The key paradox of the “postmodern condition” is that for this debate to be meaningful and democratic it has to be carried out in the popular media. Yet such a public debate about the fundamental structure and ownership of media is not in the best interest of those who now own the popular media.

It seems that the only hope for a current reform movement is that given the collapse of anti-capitalist Eastern European totalitarian states, U.S. capitalism is without a “natural” enemy and now open to a range of critiques impossible during the Cold War. For real social reform to take place, all that’s left for the left to do is imagine and fashion ways to make such critiques popular.

Robert McChesney’s contribution to our understanding of media history and reform movements is enormous. This reviewer’s criticisms of the book are minor and based almost solely on my interests in and bias for textual analysis. Although much of the programming has been lost from this period (as McChesney points out), some samples of what radio sounded and felt like would have greatly enhanced the narrative.

When the author and reformers occasionally referred to “silly and trivial” programming, I would have been grateful for some detailed program examples. In the absence of such detail, at times McChesney’s argument seems to replicate the taken-for-granted binary opposition between “information” and “entertainment” (and between noncommercial and commercial) programming as mutually exclusive categories.

As recent developments in popular media suggest, such an opposition does not adequately explain the impact of talk shows on the 1992 election, the role of MTV in voter registration drives, progressive rap music as a form of “street journalism,” or the ways in which fictional, commercial programs such as “The Simpsons” or “Roseanne” offer richer and more complicated political critiques than much so-called information and news programming.


  1. For an overview of early broadcasting prior to McChesney’s history, see Susan J. Douglas, Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922 (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1987).
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  2. Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Undainty Feminism of Roseanne Barr,” The New Republic (April 2, 1990), 28-31. For more evidence of Barr-Arnold’s radical feminism, see Roseanne Barr, My Life As a Woman (New York: Harper & Row, 1989), and Roseanne Arnold, My Lives (New York: Ballantine Books, 1994).
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  3. ”Summary of Numbers,” Broadcasting & Cable magazine, (December 20, 1993, 67).
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ATC 52, September-October 1994