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Radio Gets A Policeman

May 2024
9min read

When former President Hoover was secretary of commerce under Harding and Coolidge, he was called upon to cope with a new and perplexing activity.

In the years immediately following the First World War, I had a boy who, like all boys of that period, had gone daft on wireless; and the house was cluttered with the apparatus which he had assembled. It was demanded of me that I listen in on his crystal set, which I did, so I had some interest in wireless before I became secretary of commerce.

On January 15, 1921, some six weeks prior to my taking that office, I delivered an address from the Duquesne Club of Pittsburgh. That speech was broadcast. It was probably one of the earliest broadcast speeches.

Before I became secretary of commerce, I was very much aware that I would control broadcasting as a part of my administrative work. I had examined the functions of that department before I went into it.

Wire and wireless transmission had been put under the department by the law of August 13, 1912. At that time the use of wireless was in the international telegraph area to some extent, but was mainly used for ship-to-shore communications. The law at that time provided for the licensing of operators; punishment for unlicensed operators; and the regulation of wave lengths—although it was a pretty vaguely phrased law. It was not, of course, adapted to the general broadcasting. That had not yet been heard of.

When I came into the department no special policies had been determined by my predecessors. They were administering the law through, I think, the Bureau of Navigation. As I said, it was mostly confined to ship-to-shore use.

I soon became aware of the importance of broadcasting. Two stations had been erected, one by the Westinghouse Company of Pittsburgh and one by the General Electric Company of Schenectady. There were probably at the time that I came into the Department of Commerce less than fifty thousand full-sized receiving sets. They were not too good.

The American boy, however, had enthusiastically taken up radio and his crystal sets and earphones were spreading interest all over the country.

Suddenly a great public interest awoke in radio and my recollection is that in six months after I came into office there were three hundred and twenty broadcasting stations. Fortunately, in view of interference difficulties, most of them were of low power and short range.

The law proved a very weak rudder with which to steer the development of so powerful a phenomenon as this, especially as it so rapidly developed over the next few years.

I was, of course, at this moment—when we had three hundred and twenty stations—greatly impressed with the immense importance of its contribution to the spoken word and the vital necessity of seeing that new channels of communication should be under public control. We in the department realized the difficulties of devising such control in a new art and in some phases of vital importance.

The radio world was anxious for regulation to prevent interference with each other’s wave lengths. A good many of those then broadcasting were insisting on the right to a title to the channels through the air as private property. I concluded that it would be a monopoly of enormous financial value and that we had to do something about it.

In order to do something, I called a conference of the representatives of all of the radio people—the broadcasters, the manufacturing industry, the representatives of the Army and Navy, the amateurs—in general, all of the interested groups. This conference was called for February 27, 1922. About a year after I became secretary of commerce I stated in my address to that conference, “We have witnessed in the last four or five months one of the most astonishing things that has come under my observation in American life. The department estimates today that there are over six hundred thousand persons—one estimate being a million—who possess wireless telephone receiving sets, whereas there were less than fifty thousand of them a year ago.*

* The fantastic development of radio cited by Mr. Hoover in 1922 had barely begun. By 1954, 50 million American homes were radio-equipped; in all, 127 million radio sets were in use.

“The comparative cheapness of receiving sets bids fair to make them almost universal in the American home.” I went on to say, “I think it will be agreed at the outset that the use of the radio-telephone for communication between single individuals, as in the case of the ordinary telephones, is perfectly hopeless. Obviously if ten million telephone subscribers are crying through the air for their mates, they’ll never make a junction. So that wireless telephone between individuals must be suppressed, or, limited to very narrow use.

“We are here primarily interested in broadcasting. It becomes a primary public interest to say who is to do the broadcasting and under what circumstances and with what type of material. It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service and for news, for entertainment and education and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter.”

I continued in that address, saying: “The problem is one of the most intensely technical character, and even if we use all the ingenuity possible, I do not believe there are enough permutations to allow an unlimited number of sending stations. So this is a problem of regulation. Regulations will need to be policed, and thus the celestial system, or at least the ether part of it [we always referred to the medium as “ether” in those days] comes under the province of a policeman. Fortunately the art permits such a policeman, by licensing it, to detect those who either hog or endanger the traffic.

“There is in all of this the necessity to establish public right over the radio bands. There must be no national regret that we have parted with so great a national asset.”

The conference agreed to a voluntary system of regulations and between conferences to abide by my decisions as an umpire, no matter what the legal right may have been, until we could devise the needed legislation. The first conference agreed that certain parts of the wave bands be set aside for public broadcasting, certain parts for the Army and Navy, the public services, and we gave a wave band to the boys, or more properly, the amateurs. We agreed to forbid the use of person-to-person telephoning.

As far as the art had developed, there were sufficient wave lengths for all the purposes then known. Then the department set itself to solve the picture puzzle of allotting the wave lengths to the broadcasting stations, so that they would not interfere with each other.

Very fortunately, at that time, owing to the weak sending, the same wave lengths could be used in different cities situated at only a little distance from each other. So we were able to accommodate everybody that came along for a while.

Subsequently in March, 1923, a year later, I called a second conference. I called a third one a year later in November, 1924, and a fourth in November, 1925, where we expanded the voluntary system.

Perhaps a little later than 1922, but certainly before 1924, the British had established governmental broadcasting. My statements made at that time bear out the fact that I objected to such a system for the United States. I thought that free speech and general communication would be safer in private hands. While that system would be most advantageous to free speech, obviously the only method of support would be advertising. But I found it necessary to constantly object to the amount of time devoted to commercials.

As to advertising, I announced what proved a foolish thought. That idea was that the advertiser should at the opening of a broadcast confine himself to the announcement that he was contributing his program to public service. I thought he could then omit interference with the program until the end. At that moment he could again make a simple statement as to what kind of business he had and what goods for sale. I felt that such a practice would commend itself to more customers than annoying the public with the immediate and the long commercials we were receiving.

I have often felt when I listen to present-day commercials that I will never buy that product. I have thought the receiver would have a more favorable reaction to the advertiser if he said simply: “We are now presenting you with the following program which we hope that you will enjoy, but remember that we are a commercial concern in business and if our products commend themselves to you, we would be glad to have your custom.” I believe something of that kind would attract far more purchasers of goods than this hideous repetition. But it was a futile idea and received little attention.


In this whole period of conferences from 1921 to 1924, I held that we should have more experience before we attempted to draft legislation. At the 1924 conference I proposed a draft bill which had in the main met the approval of that conference. I found, however, that Congress was overburdened with more urgent work and that they did not rush to take up such a complex subject, especially as they would have to resist pressure from various interests.

One of our difficulties in securing legislation was the very success of the voluntary system. Members of congressional committees kept telling me, “It’s working all right; why do you bother us?” Thus there was a long period of delay.

One bill died between the House and the Senate in 1925. But finally a Chicago station broke away from our voluntary system. They preempted a wave length for themselves and established in the courts their contention against our weak legal authority. Then Congress woke up, and finally in February, 1927, it passed the law which was recommended by the Department of Commerce with the advice of our conferences.

The law which Congress passed firmly established the public ownership and regulation of wave channels.

One of my most vivid experiences in the early days of radio was with the evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, of Los Angeles. She was one of the first to appreciate the possibilities of radio and she established a small broadcasting station in her temple. That station, however, roamed all over the wave band and caused interference and bitter complaints from all the other stations in southern California. We repeatedly warned her to stick to her assigned wave length. But the warnings did no good. Finally our inspector sealed up her station with the great seal of the United States and this fearsome act stopped it.

At any event the next day I received this telegram from Miss McPherson. She said, “Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone. You cannot expect the Almighty to abide by your wave length nonsense. When I offer my prayers to Him, I must fit in with His wave reception. Open this station at once.”

Our tactful inspector finally persuaded her to employ a capable manager for her station to keep her on the proper wave length.

Another case with a little humor in it was when the representatives of a religious sect in southern Illinois came to Washington to secure a wave length. They were ushered in to see the head of our radio division and myself. They said that they were going to build a broadcasting station. They explained that the world was coming to an end in about six months and they felt that to broadcast the news would be the way to notify as large a number of people as possible to get ready.

I inquired if they had the money to build such a station and they said that they had. Most of them had sold their property and they had about $200,000. We suggested to them that they use the $200,000 to buy time on existing stations instead of building a single station for themselves. Thus they could get a lot wider audience and a station would be of little use to them after the world came to an end.

About this time, in 1926, it became evident that much interference was coming in from abroad and that there had to be some kind of international regulation. Through the State Department, I secured the calling of an international conference which assembled in Washington on October 4, 1927. It was attended by delegates from 76 nations and I was elected to preside. The task proved so difficult that the sessions extended over five months.

We finally signed the treaties which established world order in radio by the assignment of wave bands and of certain principles of conduct. The curious thing is that most of these treaties have lasted to this day, in spite of all the wars and turmoil.

The small boys in radio were a constant interest to me. Having their own wave band they had established an association of radio amateurs with whom we dealt constantly.

One day I asked them how they were going to deal with enforcing the assignments of their wave band to prevent interference.

The president of the association said, “Well, I don’t think you’d like to know what we do.”

“Oh, yes,” I said, “I would.”

He said, “Well, we just take the fellow out and beat him up.”

The American system of radio has worked out pretty much as I envisaged its possibilities in my addresses to the conferences from 1922 to 1925. It has made, of course, a fabulous contribution to American life. But it has developed certain liabilities that have always distressed me. Aside from the abuses in advertising which I have already mentioned, the question of truth is far less safeguarded in the radio than in the press. Too often broadcasters disseminate mendacity, malice and defamation of character that no newspaper would ever countenance. To make things worse, there is no adequate answer to a lying microphone because the audience is never the same on any two days, or hours, whereas the newspaper can make a correction the following day reaching the same people. Thus there are great injustices perpetrated over the radio and in any event the privilege of answer to misrepresentation is practically limited to people of importance. Persons who do not have the influence to secure time for refutation do not have a chance to answer.

But remedy in the courts to libel and slander is very feeble. The common law on this subject has been attenuated by court rulings over the last fifty years to the point where the remedy does not amount to much. At the present moment, most plaintiffs must show actual financial damage. Whereas in Great Britain, which has almost the same libel laws, people can secure moral damage. Often enough the British courts award great sums for moral damage. If our libel and slander laws were restored on the British basis, we would have less of such rotten statements poured out over the radio.

The radio itself also lends itself to propaganda much more easily than the press or the platform. Officials currently in office have the preponderant time before the microphones. Theirs becomes the dominant voice. Propaganda, even when it sticks to facts, can be slanted by the magic of the human voice. All of which can be accomplished by emotion and emphasis on words and phrases.

Often enough nobody is interested in providing counter-propaganda. In any event few people can get access to radio to answer propaganda.

Another difficulty in radio is its instantaneous character. There is no time to check up on the reliability of information.

But despite these minor faults, the radio has been an enormous contributor to the advancement of the human race.

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