American broadcasting 

9 July 2021


BBC Yearbook 1932 cover

From the BBC Yearbook 1932, covering 1 November 1930 to 31 October 1931

BROADCASTING in the United States suffers, like so many sides of American activity, from there being too much rather than too little information about it available. Facts and figures abound to beguile the mind with superficial comparisons and lead it away from the real question : what is the essential quality of American broadcasting? Only the conviction that the purpose of a Year-Book is informative and not interpretative encourages one to drive a way through the mass of miscellaneous material at one’s disposal, with the idea of presenting, at best, a skeleton outline of broadcasting as it appears across the Atlantic.

To begin then at the beginning, broadcasting in the now well-understood sense of the word came into being in the States in the autumn of 1920. If a single event can be taken as marking the moment of birth, it was the broadcast of the returns of President Harding’s election in November 1920. These were radiated by the Pittsburg station, KDKA, which claims it is entitled to be called “the pioneer broadcasting station of the world.” From that time onwards, radio, as it is most commonly called in America, grew by leaps and bounds. It was like the spread of fire, equally imperceptible in its beginnings and uncontrollable in its results.

It began naturally enough with electrical and communication interests (KDKA was operated by the Westinghouse Electric Company, and WEAF, another famous pioneer, by the American Telephone and Telegraph Company), but within two years it had spread to newspaper proprietors, department stores, manufacturers, churches, universities and even private individuals—to everyone indeed who had anything to tell the world. Everybody wanted to start a radio station, and at that time there was little to prevent them from doing so. The only form of control exercised by the Government in those early days was the necessity of obtaining a licence from the Department of Commerce before beginning to operate a station.

But as the qualifications were easy, this stood in nobody’s way. The consequence was that by the time the Government, the public and the trade realised the need for control, the situation was already out of hand and “chaos in the ether” a household phrase. By 1924 there were 1,105 stations in operation; fortunately, the mortality rate was high, and by 1926 the total had fallen to 560. During that year, however, a legal decision was given according to which the Department of Commerce had no power to refuse transmitting licences and “anyone desiring to go on the air had a legal right to do so.” Thus encouraged, the total rose again to 722 and commercial competition continued to tear the 89 wavelengths (all that were available) to shreds and pieces. One can only marvel at the comment on public endurance which the picture presents.

Warren G Harding

President Warren G Harding (2 November 1865 – 2 August 1923)

The first indication of approaching order came not from Government at all but from a combination of electrical interests, the American Telephone and Telegraph Company and the Radio Corporation of America, which conceived of the idea, peculiarly suited to American needs, of chain-broadcasting. This means simply the establishment of one or more powerful key stations transmitting full-time programmes and linked by telephone line to a number of smaller stations usually under other ownerships in different parts of the country.

The smaller stations are “fed” with programme matter prepared by the key station, and can relay as much or as little as they can adapt to their local needs. A.T.T. experimented with the idea, but it was not until late in 1926, when R.C.A. and associated interests purchased WEAF and formed the National Broadcasting Company to operate it, that its potential significance was realised. N.B.C. started with two key stations, WEAF and WJZ, both in New York, and seventeen associate stations; now, in the autumn of 1931, they have developed two networks, stretching from end to end of the States and including over eighty stations. The other big chain is the Columbia Broadcasting System, which began about a year later than N.B.C. and has developed a single network consisting of eighty odd stations.

In addition, there are many stations which work independently of either chain, some of them with romantic histories and distinct individualities. But these two, the N.B.C. and the C.B.S., are referred to as the “national” chains and correspond for all comparative purposes to the B.B.C. or to the Reichs-Rundfunk-Gesellschaft in Germany. Although highly competitive, as between themselves, they constitute America’s nearest approach to centralisation, for national service. The chains between them include news bulletins, weather reports, religious services, market reports, farmers’ bulletins, etc., and the fact that most of these services are sponsored by commercial bodies need not prejudice for us their intrinsic value.

Herbert Hoover

Herbert Hoover (10 August 1874 – 20 October 1964)

This brings us to the great question of radio advertising, a red flag in all such discussions. So much has been said both for and against a system that get its revenue not from licence money, as in most European countries, but from selling time on the air to commercial interests, that we may for once consider ourselves justified in giving it a miss, at least so far as its merits or demerits are concerned. The laments and righteous indignation of listeners have penetrated across the Atlantic often enough for us to feel that we know all about it. Obviously the subject lends itself endlessly both to humour and to exaggeration.

But the really striking feature of the system as adopted by America is its inevitability. Given the broadcasting situation as it had developed by 1926, with 528 stations already on the 89 available channels and 650 new applications filed, it was no longer (if indeed it ever had been) a question of choice. The selling of time was the obvious answer to two questions which had gradually come to the surface of the floating chaos. One, who shall pay for broadcasting? The other, how are all the people who want to use radio as a mouthpiece for telling the world to be satisfied? The two questions were, of course, interdependent. Not everyone who wanted to broadcast his wares, his religion, or his personality could afford to run a station, even if there had been room for him; and, on the other hand, no station, however well established, could continue unless its activities produced revenue, and at an increasing rate, for as novelty died out the public demanded ever higher standards of performance and transmission.

Whether, if the Government had made serious efforts to control radio while it was still controllable, the position by 1926 would have been very different is, of course, a debatable question. But American horror of anything approaching Government monopoly or supervision can be gauged by the note of opposition that appeared when, in the midst of chaos, the Radio Bill was introduced, which led later to the formation of the Federal Radio Commission. “Hoover will be Czar of the Air” is a typical headline from a newspaper of the day.

Architect's model

A photograph of the design for “Radio City,” New York

In spite of such alarms, however, the Federal Radio Commission came into existence at the beginning of 1927. It was created in the first place as an emergency measure and more or less as a compromise until the whole problem of broadcasting could receive further attention. It consisted of five members appointed by the President and representing the five zones into which for the purpose the country had been divided (a scheme which has since been modified), and had authority to classify radio stations, prescribe the nature of services to be rendered, assign wavelengths to various classes of stations, regulate kind of apparatus to be used, make regulations to prevent interference, etc., etc. It was created, in fact, as a grand tidying-up body, and its function was no less a one than to reduce chaos to order during the first year of office. The life history of the Commission would fill volumes; as was to be expected, it has been a very eventful one, full of almost insurmountable difficulties, and the end is not yet.

Finally, after this bird’s-eye view of the general structure of American broadcasting, we might perhaps narrow the
vision a little by concentrating on the actual programmes issued by the two chains. These offer certain similarities to British programmes and certain dissimilarities, which, if followed out, must lead to significant conclusions. Very little thought produces one conviction at least which grows stronger as one reads: that to understand a people’s broadcasting one must first understand the people. What our programmes have in common with American programmes, we, as a nation, have in common with America; for instance, music, both good and bad. The types of programme that seem most unfamiliar and that strike us as curious rather than attractive are probably those that spring from a side of American thought and character with which we have no real sympathy.



To take one instance, the great number of stunt broadcasts, often justified by their living and immediate interest, but sometimes seeming in their effort to attain novelty to lose all sense of the usefulness or otherwise of the achievement. As early as 1925, when plain studio broadcasting was still something of a miracle to British listeners, America was arranging a complicated O.B., or “Nemo” as they call it, from the bottom of the Atlantic: “Deep Sea Broadcasting” was the Press description. More recent efforts have included a running commentary on a prison fire given by one of the convicts, and an interview out at sea with a rum-runner!


KOIL advertisement


Quite another aspect of the essential difference between listeners, and therefore between programmes, is exemplified by a programme of the semi-religious, semi-sentimental type, of which “Sunday Night at Seth Parker’s,” a weekly N.B.C. feature, is the most popular and famous example. This strikes a note which, while perfectly sincere in origin and intention, is entirely alien to British minds.

We may carry the idea further and say that the whole system of American broadcasting where it appears to us strange is merely a reflection of American life still outside our comprehension; the public consciousness which, on the one hand, submits to what we in this country could only describe as the tyranny of commercial competition, and, on the other hand, solemnly declares that “the American sense of freedom would not permit of applying set licences and licence fees,” clearly springs from a specifically American conception of democracy.


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