Learn about Life in the 1920s


A DAY OF RECKONING for radio "pirates" and "program smearers," and of hope for some twenty million "listeners-in," is said to have dawned when President Coolidge signed the new Radio Control Bill.


For ever since a Supreme Court decision deprived Secretary Hoover of his job as aerial traffic cop in charge of wave-lengths, the radio has run wild, new broadcasting stations springing up like mushrooms and filling the ether with so many conflicting and overlapping vibrations that the result to the listener was becoming something very like chaos. Because one of the main purposes of the new law is to reduce this chaos to order, Senator Dill, who helped write it, calls it "the Magna Carta of the radio listeners"; and the press generally welcomes it with great expectations. "To the man in the street, it constitutes the most important legislation of the session," says the Washington Post, which predicts that "millions of listeners-in will remember the Sixty-ninth Congress as the one which "cleared the air." In this law "Congress has heeded the wishes of a united nation," remarks the Washington Star; and this unanimity of demand it explains by the statement that "radio fans the country over have had their sets rendered practically useless by the uncontrolled and unregulated broadcasting stations." "There will be joy in the heart and music in the soul of the radio fan, for whom the present winter has been one of much suffering," says the Toledo Blade. For the "ladies and gentlemen of the radio audience" it means escape from the bedlam caused by competitive "jumping" of wave-lengths, remarks the Philadelphia Evening Public Ledger; and the New York Times rejoices at the promise that "the great unseen audiences" are soon to be rescued from "aerial chaos."

There are pessimistic commentators, of course, who think the law bristles with serious defects, but in the main it is regarded by the press as a long step in the right direction. The chief complaints of its critics are that it fails to proclaim the nation's "ownership of the air," thereby leaving the door open for private interests to claim vested rights in certain wave-lengths; and that it makes no provision against charging for listening-in, or against patented devices for this purpose.

The new law supersedes the radio law of 1912, which was enacted before the development of broadcasting had brought the present problems into existence. It is a compromise measure, combining certain features of a House bill fathered by Representative W. H. White (Rep.), of Maine, with other features of a Senate bill sponsored by Senator C. C. Dill (Dem.), of Washington. This Dill-White bill, which was enacted by Congress on February 18, and signed by President Coolidge five days later, is summarized as follows by the Washington correspondent of the New York Tines

"Under its terms the measure shall take effect and be in force upon its passage and approval, except that for a period of sixty days after Presidential approval no holder of a license issued by the Secretary of Commerce shall be subject to the penalties provided in the bill for operating a station without license.' This sixty-day period will expire on April 24.

"President Coolidge will appoint a Radio Commission of five members—one from each of the five zones into which the country is to be divided.

"Not more than three members of the commission may be of the same political party and no member may be 'financially interested in the manufacture or sale of radio apparatus or in the transmission or operation of radiotelegraphy, radio-telephony, or radio broad-casting.

"This commission will classify all radio stations, assign bands of frequencies or wave-lengths to the various classes of stations, determine the location of classes of stations, or of individual stations, make regulations deemed necessary to prevent interference between stations, and make special regulations applicable to stations engaged in chain broadcasting.

"The commission is also vested with authority to make general rules and regulations requiring stations to keep such records of programs, transmissions of energy, communications or signals as it may deem proper. Under the new law 'pirating of waves' will be unlawful. Changes in wave-lengths, authorized power, character of emitted signals or times of operation of any station can not be made unless in the judgment of the commission such changes will 'promote public convenience or interest or will serve public necessity' or more fully comply with the provisions of the new law.

"This is the situation that will exist under the Congressional compromise until one year after the first meeting of the Federal Radio Commission. After that all the powers and authority vested in the commission under the new law, except as to revocation of licenses, will be vested in the Secretary of Commerce. But the commission after the lapse of a year is to have power to act upon and determine any and all matters brought before it on appeal from the decisions of the Secretary of Commerce."

The purpose of the new Dill-White Radio Control Law is defined as follows in its opening paragraph:

"This act is intended to regulate all forms of interstate and foreign radio transmissions and communications within the United States, its territories and possessions; to maintain the control of the United States over all the channels of interstate and foreign radio transmission, and to provide for the use of such channels, but not the ownership thereof, by individuals, firms or corporations, for limited periods of time, under licenses granted by Federal authority, and no such licenses shall be construed to create any right beyond the terms, conditions and periods of the license."

The law puts a time limit on radio licenses, provides for their revocation for cause, makes the licensee sign "a waiver of any claim to the use of any particular frequency or wave-length as against the regulatory power of the United States," compels broadcast advertising matter to be announced as such, and provides against a partizan political use of broadcasting stations:

"If any licensee shall permit any person who is a legally qualified candidate for any public office to use a broadcasting station, he shall afford equal opportunities to all other such candidates for that office in the use of such-broadcasting station, and the licensing authority shall make rules and regulations to carry this provision into effect: Provided, That such licensee shall have no power of censorship over the material broadcast under the provisions of this paragraph. No obligation is hereby imposed upon any licensee to allow the use of its station by any such candidates."

Senatorial opposition to the radio bill, as already stated, is chiefly born of two fears—fear of private monopoly in the radio field and fear of a charge on listening. Senators Pittman and Hefflin think the new law gives "big business" leeway toward monopolistic control of radio broadcasting. Senator Howell thinks the measure should contain a stronger affirmation of absolute government right to the ether arid its wave channels; and argues for the same absolute ownership and control of the air that the Government has over interstate waterways. Senator Dill's response, according to Robert Mack in a Consolidated Press dispatch from Washington, "is that the ether, unlike water, is limitless, permeating everywhere, and that it can not be said the Government owns the air. The only way the problem can be approached by the Government is through the regulation of apparatus which emits radio energy into the ether, and this the law does." In the House, Representative Bloom insists that the new law permits a charge on listening-in by the introduction of "a new broadcasting apparatus, already available, which will make it impossible to listen-in except over a receiving-set equipped with a certain attachment, to be offered to the public as soon as a system of exacting payments from radio patrons is put in effect." The case against the radio law is stated at greater length by Representative Davis of Tennessee, the only member of the conference committee who refused to indorse it. Says Mr. Davis in a New York Herald Tribune article:

"The purchasers of receiving sets are already sustaining a heavy burden. The sales of radio apparatus last year amounted to the enormous sum of $550,000,000.

"However, this burden is probably small compared to that which can and will be imposed upon the people. The radio monopoly already has complete control of broadcasting apparatus and can consequently prevent anybody from broadcasting by simply refusing to sell them broadcasting apparatus, or by canceling or refusing to renew the agreement permitting the operation thereof. ;.

"As soon as there is more money in broadcasting than there is in selling broadcasting sets, which time will soon arrive under the provisions of this bill, the monopoly will proceed to put all the independent broadcasting stations out of business; they have practically done that already with their high-powered stations.

"When the monopoly gets matters arranged just as it wants them, so that it will completely dominate the broadcasting field, and then so construct its broadcasting apparatus that the programs therefrom can be received only by apparatus manufactured by it, the listeners will be completely at its mercy, and can be made to pay a royalty or rental or a charge, under whatever name it may be called.

"In the first place, the bill protects instead of dissolves the radio monopoly. In the second place, there is nothing in the bill which forbids a charge to listeners, which authorizes the commission or the Secretary of Commerce to regulate rates, or prevents exorbitant rates or charges of any kinds, or prevents discrimination.

"The only provision in this bill in regard to this is one which provides that the commission may revoke a license when it has been found and certified to it in proper proceeding, that somebody is charging an unreasonable rate or engaged in discrimination.

This legislation is very far-reaching, very dangerous, and very vicious, and surrenders some of the very important and fundamental rights of the American people."

Then the New York Journal of Commerce remarks: "Whatever prohibitions or reservations are embodied in the radio-control law, it is safe to conclude that if private interests think they can establish the ownership of vested rights to the use of the ether in some particular way, they will test their claims in court; and the test can not come too soon, for a monopoly of radio broadcasting would be a grave misfortune."

But as already stated, the friends of the new law, in the press as well as in Congress, far outnumber its critics. As the Chicago Daily News sees it, "every branch of the great and expanding radio industry should feel the invigorating effects of this legislation, and the forward march of broadcasting—seriously slowed down by past hesitation and uncertainty—will be resumed." "This bill may fall far short of what it should be, but it is at least a step in the right direction," declared Representative W.H. White, Jr., one of the authors of the bill, just before its passage. Mr. White is quoted in the New York Herald Tribune as saying:

"First and foremost, it asserts unequivocally the power and authority of the United States over this means of communication and gives to the Federal Government power over the vital factors of radio communication.

"Back in 1912 we passed a radio law. Since that time the whole industry has been revolutionized, and that law is wholly inadequate and inapplicable to the conditions that now confront us. Some of us who have been giving our time to this subject have long realized that under that law there was no authority in the Federal Government to allocate wave-lengths, to determine the power which the stations should use, to fix the location of those stations, to require the division of time—all in the interest of efficiency of communication—and some of us have also believed that in the absence of legislation by Congress it was inevitable that the courts of the country sooner or later would determine, as they have determined, that priority in point of time in the use of a wave-length established a priority of right.

"This is the situation that confronted us, and the necessity of dealing with this situation and of conferring an authority of regulation to minimize interference which now sadly impairs broadcasting has been the compulsion back of the effort to get legislation.

"This bill gives to the commission, and thereafter to the Secretary of Commerce, subject to appeal to the commission, the power to issue licenses if the public interest or the public convenience or public necessity will be served thereby.

"This is a rule asserted for the first time, and it is offered as an advance over the present right of the individual to demand a license whether he will render service to the public thereunder or not. It is one of the great advantages of the legislation. The bill gives to the Federal Government the power to determine the wave-length which every station shall use. Under existing conditions licensees use the wave-length they want, and it matters not the consequences therefrom.

"We have given this, and we have done many other things. We give to the Federal Government the power to fix the time in which the stations shall operate and the power which they shall use in the transmission of radio signals. We have heard a good deal about some of the great interests using 5,000 and 50,000 watts. And it is true; and why? Because there is no authority in the Federal Government under present law to control the power, and here for the first time we have a bill which proposes to give the Federal Government the power to regulate the number of watts these stations shall use.

"This bill also deals with the question of monopoly. It starts out by asserting, in the first place, that the right to broadcast is to be based not upon the right of the individual, not upon the selfish desire of the individual, but upon a public interest to be served by the granting of these licenses. It places a limitation upon the right of the licensee to transfer his license at will; he may transfer that license only upon the express consent of the regulatory power of the United States. That is not all. We have provided that all laws of the United States relating to monopoly and agreements in restraint of trade shall be specifically applicable to the radio industry and to radio communication."

And immediately after the bill's enactment, its other author, Senator Dill, was quoted as follows in The United States Daily, of Washington:

"The Magna Carta of the radio listeners, in the new radio bill just passed by Congress, is to be found in the provisions which make public service the basis for the granting, refusing, and revoking of radio-broadcasting licenses and the further provision directing that licenses shall be so distributed as to give each community fair, efficient and equitable radio service.

"The provisions enable the radio commission to end the chaos of the air and at the same time guarantee to the listeners-in of all sections of the country good radio service, provided there are applicants for licenses in each of the various communities.

"There has been much discussion of the ownership of the air for purposes of radio transmission during the consideration of this legislation. Such discussion is both inaccurate and misleading. It is not who owns the air that is so important in connection with radio as it is who controls the right to use radio apparatus which operates the frequencies or wave-lengths which can be received by radio apparatus.

"The right of Congress to regulate radio transmission is based on the constitutional provisions that authorize Congress to regulate interstate and foreign commerce. Since no license can be issued for more than three years, and any license may be revoked, it is safe to say that we have fully protected the public interests."

Source: Literary Digest - March 5, 1927