Encyclopedia of Politics, the Media, and Popular Culture. Editor: Brian Cogan & Tony Kelso. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood Press, 2009.
Until recently, radio has not received the academic attention it deserves. Instead, scholars have immersed themselves in television, the nation’s most dominant and sophisticated form of mass media throughout the latter half of the twentieth century. Yet understanding the impact of radio is crucial to comprehending the role of mass media in U.S. society because it represents the country’s first broadcast medium and greatly established the basic political economic structure that television would later adopt. A close examination of the medium reveals that political implications enter into the very origins of radio because of the controversy associated with who actually “invented” it. Similar to other new developments, radio did not emerge through the efforts of one person but resulted from the work of many innovators, including Nikola Tesla, Alexander Popov, and Jagdish Bose. Still, the person most often cited as the “founder” of radio is Guglielmo Marconi, who secured the initial patent for the technology, awarded by England in 1896, and later received numerous U.S. patents. Yet in 1943 the U.S. Supreme Court essentially undermined the case for Marconi as the inventor of radio and attributed its creation to Tesla. What distinguishes Marconi from the other developers, however, is that, financially backed by influential figures in the United States, he was the first person to significantly commercialize a practical system. Clearly, then, he was interested in profiting from the new form of communication. But Marconi—or any of the other inventors—could have never envisioned the path that radio would eventually take.
Indeed, in a sense, for Marconi, radio was simply an extension of the telegraph, an improved method for instant point-to-point communication across distances. Unlike its predecessor, the “wireless” required no cables and would ultimately replace the reliance on Morse Code with the transmission of the human voice. After Marconi helped establish the British Marconi Company at the turn of the century, the radio was primarily used to link communication between stations on land and ships at sea. Yet, for years, radio remained a largely unregulated industry, which triggered a chaotic environment in the ether and finally led to the Radio Act of 1912 as a way to minimize the confusion. Thus began a long battle between powerful institutions and common citizens over who owns the airwaves and should have control over them.
The Function of Radio: Serving Commercialism or Democracy?
From Ham Operators to Commercial Radio
In the early days of radio, the greatest number of operators consisted not of naval or commercial personnel, but of amateurs who would come to be known as “hams.” Immeasurable hobbyists, mostly male, took pleasure in building homemade sets, often in sheds and attics, with whatever materials were available. Given the limited radio frequency spectrum, though, as more and more enthusiasts entered the arena, the airwaves became congested and interference among competing users threatened to turn radio into an unruly realm. To bring the situation under control, the U.S. Congress stepped in and passed the Radio Act of 1912, which stipulated that the airwaves were public property yet could be temporarily licensed to individual or corporate applicants by the Department of Commerce and Labor. In addition, while government and commercial operators were assigned large portions of the spectrum, amateurs were granted only undesirable short wavelengths of 200 meters and less and limited to just one kilowatt of power.
Yet once the United States changed its stance from neutrality to dynamic participation in World War I, the government banned amateur activity altogether and closed down ham stations to prevent any interference with naval transmissions. But despite this brief respite during the country’s engagement in the Great War, amateur operators proliferated in the early 1920s, far outnumbering their corporate and government counterparts.
So for more than 20 years after its invention, radio served primarily as a point-to-point means of communication. Broadcasting in the United States did not actually begin in earnest until 1920, when KDKA in Pittsburgh transmitted updates of the Harding-Cox presidential election results, foreshadowing a link between politics and popular culture right from the start. Although other stations have staked their claim to being the first professional radio broadcaster, KDKA is generally credited with the achievement. Yet in its infancy, broadcasting was not primarily commercially sponsored. Much of the motivation behind broadcasting to a mass audience was to simply expand radio sales by offering content that people would want to tune in to, thereby creating a profitable consumer market. Indeed, for years, the idea of transmitting selling messages into the homes of everyday citizens was a controversial issue, which some critics viewed as especially crass and as a practice that listeners would thoroughly reject.
The breakthrough for commercial broadcasting came in 1922, when AT&T, which, along with RCA (a company that had been formed, in part, by buying out American Marconi’s stations and patents) and other corporations, represented one of radio’s major corporate participants, set up a small studio and extended the opportunity for any interested party to broadcast self-selected material for a fee. Following the pattern it had established with the pay telephone, AT&T thus put in motion a form of transmission that was dubbed “toll broadcasting.” Once companies discovered that people in their homes not only tolerated sales pitches but sometimes even responded to them and became customers, the commercial model of radio was quickly established, a paradigm that has been perpetuated ever since.
Eventually radio shows—such as dramas, comedies, “soap operas,” and variety formats—flourished. Yet unlike the current practice typically followed by both radio and television, wherein brief commercials are inserted into the programming established by the networks or stations, advertisers generally purchased full blocks of time and sponsored entire shows. Moreover, they were actually responsible for producing them. Thus a company was empowered not only to deliver direct sales messages at the beginning of a program or in-between segments but also to include its brand in the very name of the show (for example, the Eveready Hour) and even create content conducive to promoting its products, sometimes prefiguring the convention today known as product placement.
Commercial Radio and the Threat to Democracy
As radio evolved into a medium mainly financially supported by selling audiences to advertisers, intellectuals, critics, and business practitioners debated the merits of such a system and its possible impact on democracy itself. Some critics mounted a vigorous critique, one that continues to circulate today and challenges the distribution of power within the modern media and the ideology they allegedly disseminate. Early commentators, such as the journalist and poet James Rorty, who, early in his career, had held positions in advertising, contended that the centralization of radio stations into the hands of very few companies and the role of advertising enabled corporations to exercise too much control over the population through their mostly covert diffusion of programming that bolstered the standing of big business, subverting democratic ideals along the way. In essence, these critics, usually identified with the political left, were questioning the very nature of America’s capitalist economy. Once the roaring 1920s were supplanted by the Great Depression, their account gained even greater energy. Yet rather than confront an economic apparatus that yielded hardship for many, radio encouraged its audience to maintain its confidence in the status quo. Rorty and his cohorts argued that business was defining the public interest and indirectly—or sometimes even directly— censoring what citizens could hear. Promoting their own interests, corporations, these opponents believed, reinforced a media structure that narrowed the range of voices allowed on the air, especially those radical ones that were numerous during the country’s economic plunge. In this sense, commercial radio spread a type of propaganda. The corporate monopoly of radio signified the capacity to unduly shape the audience’s ethical standards and worldviews. Content was limited to what was acceptable to advertisers and their need to sell goods and services within a suitable symbolic climate. Feeling threatened by a type of commercial fascism, critics worried that radio would only intensify the undemocratic impulses capitalism had already unleashed on the nation for decades, diminishing the vigorous flow of free speech and thought. They were not against the medium of radio per se. Instead, for them, radio had the potential to educate and enlighten if placed in the right hands, yet it had been reduced to a sales device for big business. Moreover, because access to radio required large financial resources, the “voice of the people” could not compete.
The commercial critique of radio was sounded by many critics and was typified by a consumer movement in the 1930s that preceded the one that would become well known in the 1960s. The activists involved in this pressure group wished to transform the nature of radio. By 1935, however, their strivings had largely failed and commercialism in radio had mostly won the day.
Commercial Radio as a Vehicle for Democracy
On the other side of the debate were those who asserted that commercially funded radio was democratic. Unlike a media system owned by the state and in the service of government, American radio, thanks to private control, let the people decide for themselves what they wanted to hear by listening to the shows they liked best. Only a laissez-faire, free-market economy could provide common citizens with their right to receive the programming they demanded. Radio producers merely acted on behalf of the people who “voted” with their tuning dials. Consequently, business did not mold public opinion; rather, quite the opposite was in effect: popular opinion determined which shows would survive and which ones would fail. The privatization of radio, accordingly, guaranteed protection against state tyranny and ensured a democratic approach to the airwaves. The disputation that these two sides generated would not go away. In truth, it would carry on through the advent and maturation of television and proceed until the present day.
Commercial Radio Reigns Supreme
But the perspectives represented by the two camps have not only manifested themselves through verbal debate. For in one way, the history of radio can be seen as a never-ending contestation between top-down, corporate interests and bottom-up, individualistic rebels, between the forces of conformity and the renegades who desired to flout convention. During the 1920s, as more and more stations were licensed, just as it had before the Radio Act of 1912, the ether became mired due to constant interference. In response, Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927, which gave birth to the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), the forebear to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which came into being in 1934. The year after the Act was established, the FRC developed a spectrum reallocation plan that privileged “general public service” stations over ones with narrower interests. The ruling, in practice, translated into a regulatory framework that was more sympathetic to networks than smaller stations, including community, educational, and nonprofit outlets. Starting in the late 1920s, then, the networks dominated the airwaves. NBC, CBS, and later, ABC reigned into the 1950s, until television exploded onto the cultural landscape. Moreover, local programming was generally superseded by network feeds, especially during prime time hours. Still, though the commercial environment of radio has generally biased the needs of business, countercurrents have always found ways of slipping through the cracks. Even today, for instance, independent ham operators (those without licenses are now commonly referred to as “pirate” broadcasters—see “Pirate Radio” below) continue to express themselves through the airwaves (although the Internet has quickly established an alternate mode for such individualistic transmission).
The 1950s and Musical Rebellion
In the 1950s, many observers felt that the birth of television would sound the death knell of radio. Instead, radio adapted to the new medium and changed its emphasis. Far less attention was devoted to dramas, comedies, and variety shows, all of which translated well on television and took up residence there. Music, which had always filled a considerable portion of the radio schedule, now became the mainstay. At the same time, in adjusting to television’s challenge, radio began to segment its markets, yielding more individualistic, fragmented patterns of listenership. In essence, radio traveled on the path toward decentralization. Listening in the 1950s was, in general, less communal and more personal than it had been throughout the 1930s and 1940s. The networks, in turn, channeled the bulk of their energy toward television, which, from its infancy, largely followed the model that radio had already established. National advertisers funneled most of their dollars to television as well. In this sense, radio shifted from what could be called a network era to a format era; accordingly, local rather than national advertising provided much of the funding.
Into this atmosphere emerged disk jockeys (DJs) who especially appealed to young people by promoting a unique generational identity and thereby offering them the opportunity to rebel against their elders, which incited a kind of moral panic. Their prominence had been foreshadowed by DJs who had focused on airing recorded music on some of the relatively small number of independent stations that were still in existence even after radio became largely commercial. In the 1950s, orchestra and other traditional forms of music were feeling the threat of popular music, particularly rock and roll. Teenagers embraced the new sounds, while their parents railed against them and worried that popular music was somehow leading their kids astray. By the end of the decade, wishing to acquire the music they heard on the radio, teenagers were purchasing more records than their parents. Although many advertisers were at first loathe to sponsor “pop” music because they did not want to associate their goods with its supposed decadent values, they had difficulty resisting for long because they recognized its profitability. Yet while station managers endeavored to enforce the standardized playlists of the “Top 40,” a format that advertisers favored because it smoothed the edges of what they perceived as somewhat dangerous fare, numerous DJs fought back and won the battle to choose their own records for air. Simultaneously appropriating and adding to their young audience’s language, some of these DJs, including such notables as Wolfman Jack, Dewey Phillips, and Alan Freed, achieved huge popularity. As rock and roll gained a greater hold on the airwaves, adults feared that it was somehow contributing to juvenile delinquency and antisocial behavior. Conversely, the fresh songs peppering the radio dial resonated with young people hoping to both stand out and fit in with their peers. In 1959, a trauma struck the radio industry, one that dramatically reduced rock and roll DJs’ autonomy and even ruined many of their careers. Known as the payola scandal, the practice of record companies supplying incentives to DJs in return for playing certain releases came to public attention, producing a general outcry and a congressional probe. Various scholars contend, however, that the attack on payola was nothing more than a war on rock and roll itself. After all, quid pro quo arrangements were hardly unique to the music industry. To a significant degree, some researchers argue, the backlash against rock and roll conveyed substantial racial overtones. (See “The Threat of Rock and Roll” below.) Moreover, the conflict had serious political implications because the music provided the potential for its audience to oppose the current state of race relations. Ultimately, commercial forces regrouped and, through the help of marketing research, the Top 40 format became a fixture, which minimized DJ autonomy, reduced programming uncertainty, and, once more, promoted standardization. Radio was again mostly under corporate control.
Revolting Against the Status Quo in the 1970s
As much impact as the payola scandal had on the radio industry, however, it by no means brought cultural politics or resistance to commercial dominance in the ether to an end. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, a new brand of renegade surfaced. Renouncing the AM band for the relatively undiscovered terrain of the FM spectrum, countercultural entrepreneurs and DJs produced highly original programming far removed from the repetitive style of Top 40 radio.
The FM spectrum was nothing new. Howard Armstrong was the key figure behind its development and introduction in the late 1920s and early 1930s. Yet its potential lay dormant for decades. Finally, though, in the early 1960s, the FCC recognized that the AM band was, once more, becoming too crowded. Consequently, the regulatory agency promoted the use of the FM spectrum. Eventually, a 1967 ruling opened the door for FM radio to acquire greater prominence.
FM’s friendlier regulatory environment coincided with the rise of the youth counterculture movement of the 1960s. In reaction to AM radio’s homogeneity and incessant, crass commercialism, many young people turned to FM broadcasts for programming that revolted against the status quo. And for a brief window of time, they were not disappointed. On the one hand, there arose numerous community radio stations (see Pacifica and Community Radio), which were commercial-free and relied on listeners for financial support. These broadcasters targeted an audience that cut across age categories. But more importantly for the younger crowd, “free form” radio reawakened the rebellious attitude that had held sway in the 1950s. Its audience consisted of many people aligned with the counterculture that grew out of the social upheaval of the 1960s. Free form DJs played an eccentric array of music, as well as aired conversations that challenged the political status quo, sometimes inviting voices that were rarely heard in media. But as FM gained greater popularity, station executives again stepped in to promote a rock format that appealed to young audiences, without the left-wing political leanings that might alienate advertisers.
Throughout the decades, though, ham operators continued to broadcast, albeit to far smaller and specialized audiences. Many of them, in an expression of rebellion, deliberately defied the law by transmitting their programming without licenses, a form of broadcasting that has come to be known as pirate radio (sometimes referred to by its proponents as “micro-radio”). An offshoot of this practice actually started soon after radio began to be regulated by government agencies in 1912. To get around legal requirements, some independent operators would set up their stations south of the U.S. border yet aim their material to the states above. Although the U.S. government did not approve of these stations and sometimes worked to prohibit them, it did not seriously hinder their operation until well into the 1980s. Yet like the amateur hobbyists who experimented in the airwaves at the very dawn of radio, while far fewer in number, ham operators challenged authority from rooftops, garages, or surreptitious locations by tapping into frequencies within the United States. Some of these renegades carried on the hobbyist tradition, while others aimed to further larger goals and establish community support and participation. For example, beginning in 1969, Allan Weiner and several of his friends launched a handful of stations throughout the New York City area and maintained their broadcasts until federal government agencies finally discovered them and closed them down two years later. Weiner and one of his colleagues were arrested and sentenced to one year’s probation. Hundreds of other pirate stations, some barely noticed and others that actually attracted loyal audiences, came and went throughout the years. Then, in the mid-1980s, probably at least partially in reaction to community radio’s dwindling impact, commercial radio’s increasing corporate consolidation, and the now prohibitive costs of starting up an independent, licensed station, an especially low-powered type of local broadcasting, a spin-off of its predecessors, made its entrance. Known as micro-broadcasting (or low-power FM radio), it would lead to a controversy that involved the commercial radio industry, citizen groups, and government, over the very nature of the airwaves and who should have access.
Two of the early leading proponents of microbroadcasting were Walter Dunn and DeWayne Readus (who later named himself M’banna Kantako). Both black men, they recognized its potential to reach underserved audiences of color (for a full discussion of the tendency to marginalize African Americans in particular, see “African Americans and Radio” below). Kantako used his outlet, launched in 1987, to expose what he perceived as abusive police practices within his local community. Despite efforts by the government to silence him, Kantako has continued to operate, in one way or another, into the twenty-first century. Moreover, largely due to Kantako’s and other similar-minded people’s influence, by the late 1990s, hundreds of additional microfacilities had sprouted up all over the country, sometimes moving from place to place to avoid detection by the FCC. One station in particular that gained considerable attention was Free Radio Berkeley, the creation of Stephen Dunifer, another person who became an important advocate of low-power FM.
Thus the battle began between opponents, usually from the realm of business, who insisted that micro-radio posed a threat to established radio because it would create interference, and proponents who countered that with improved technologies that had greatly enhanced a more efficient use of the spectrum (as evidenced by the intense expansion of cell phone usage, for instance), micro-radio’s low-powered signals could easily coexist with its commercial neighbors. Some legally run low-power FM stations had actually existed from 1948, when an FCC ruling helped give rise to them, until the late 1970s, after the FCC, notably influenced by public radio broadcasters, issued another order that essentially banned them. Over 20 years later, the push was on to resurrect low-power FM. Advocates of micro-radio believe that it better serves the interests of local communities and groups, including ethnic and racial minorities and working-class populations such as farmers, that are often marginalized by its corporate-controlled counterparts (for related discussion, see “Race, Class, and Gender in Radio” below). Many of the pirate, microstations that proliferated during the 1980s and 1990s had a decidedly, often radical, political bent, with identifying labels such as Black Liberation Radio and Mutiny Radio. Proponents of micro-radio argue that they are more “public” than the public radio stations (especially National Public Radio [NPR]) that actually go by that name because low-power FM outlets, unlike current public radio, encourage everyday people to fully participate in generating the content of the programming.
After a prolonged series of conflicts both within the micro-radio movement and between it and outside adversaries, during which time many stations were forced to either temporarily or permanently close shop, the situation finally came to a head. Microbroadcasters ultimately lobbied representatives in Washington to pass legislation that legalized low-power, independent stations. Their activism was vehemently opposed by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The FCC actually gave serious consideration to granting microbroadcasters the right to operate. It was probably motivated, in part, by the wish to bring illegal pirate radio under control. In 1999, it issued a ruling that showed a considerable degree of sympathy toward the micro-radio community’s cause. But the commercial radio industry, led by the NAB, quickly responded and was able to hold up implementation of the new proposal. Yet in 2000, the FCC announced a plan that was even more favorable to noncommercial microbroadcasters. The NAB followed with a lawsuit. Throughout the process, NPR also fought to prevent the licensing of low-power FM stations. In the end, Congress stepped in and approved legislation that mostly catered to the interests of the NAB. The FCC, however, still approved licenses for a limited number of stations, but under the significantly restrictive guidelines that had been imposed by Congress. Most of the stations could start up only in sparsely populated territories, away from many of the urban areas that, micro-radio supporters contend, also need them. About half of the originally granted licenses went to religious groups. Although micro-radio was not entirely killed, it was dealt a serious blow, while commercial owners secured a nearly complete victory.
The Future of Radio and Its Relationship to Democracy
Since the dust dissipated in the clash between microbroadcasters and commercial stations (although, even now, it has not totally settled), the established radio industry has witnessed ever increasing consolidation. But instead of operating within the network dominance of yesteryear, today’s radio is profoundly managed by chain ownership. Not long after the Telecommunications Act of 1996 allowed companies to own as many as eight stations in some markets and an unlimited number of them nationwide, only three companies dominated much of the radio landscape. Critics have charged that the concentration of radio has produced increasing homogeneity and nearly eliminated local control. Through the use of ever-refined marketing techniques and new technologies, large radio conglomerates are able to centralize their operations and offer standardized fare for their dozens of stations without the need for local DJs. The radio industry answers that it has simply perfected the system of giving listeners, fragmented into various audiences, exactly what they want.
Although it appears that the forces of commercialism now reign, the political tension between them and those who resist them is likely to continue. And as other vehicles enter the mix, scholars can only speculate as to how the nature of audio transmission will develop. Recently, satellite radio leapt into the arena and became a threat to the broadcasting industry. Rather than financing its services by selling audiences to advertisers, this direct form of radio drew on the model of raising revenue through listener subscriptions. But in just a few years since its full 2001 launch, more and more advertising is creeping into its programming. Meanwhile, the Internet represents yet another stiff challenge. Although the Internet offers the potential for every participant to serve as both a producer and a consumer of media, including exclusively aural content, conflicting powers and institutions are busy working to advance their own interests and help shape the Internet’s structure. What form the Internet eventually takes, scholars reason, will have large implications for democracy. If the Internet retains open access and treats all content providers equally, then, it appears, it will foster a democratic spirit. But if advertisers and established media companies can push for a system that best meets their needs, then the Internet, it seems, will simply replicate the mostly top-down structure that most forms of media in the United States have exhibited since their origins.
Race, Class, and Gender in Radio
The political friction between commercial and noncorporate influences has not been radio’s only notable instance of power struggle during its over 100 year history. Another major issue involves decades of the medium’s expression of gender, racial, and class biases. In other words, radio privileged certain groups, while marginalizing others. Because, for a sizable window of time before the advent of television, radio was the nation’s most prominent medium for cultural dissemination, its impact on individual and group identity indirectly yielded political consequences. For example, broadcasting only rarely offered specialized programming to recent immigrants in their own languages. On the other hand, they were not entirely dismissed. Radio content usually conveyed assimilationist values to immigrants, functioning to affirm Anglo-American ideas and principles. Radio’s approach to the working-class population had political implications as well. While everyday workers were welcomed as consumers, any labor activists within their midst were almost completely disregarded. Unlike programming that supported a friendly business climate, voices in the workforce did not play well with advertisers. Though corporate spokespersons frequently received airtime, union leaders, for instance, were perceived as too “controversial.”
African Americans and Radio
An understanding of the nation’s racial politics can be more fully grasped through an examination of the history of the relationship between African Americans and radio. From the birth of radio broadcasting in the 1920s until the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s, African Americans were significantly barred from and often belittled through radio. During the 1920s through the 1940s, blacks represented a relatively small percentage of the population in the northern states, where most of radio’s institutions of power resided. Moreover, nationwide, not only were blacks disproportionately poor and isolated, but their rates of radio ownership were low as well. Consequently, advertisers, radio’s primary financial supporters, did not view them as important consumers and felt no need to appeal to their interests. At the same time, given the degree of racism that existed in the United States, especially in the South, the industry feared alienating its core white audience by featuring programming that might appeal to African Americans. Although some radio targeted toward blacks did slip through the cracks, for the most part they were marginalized in a number of ways. For instance, very few radio stations were owned by African Americans in the 1920s or 1930s. In fact, in 1939, none of the country’s 778 radio stations were owned and operated by black Americans. Yet blacks did find work as performers. Many of the African Americans who played in the bands and orchestras whose music was broadcast actually participated anonymously. Moreover, when they did receive recognition, it was often in vehicles labeled as “coon acts.” Black roles in radio comedies and dramas were often filled by white actors. The most notorious example of this incongruity was heard on Amos and Andy, which, for years, was by far the most popular show on radio. On other programs, African American characters usually reflected the prevalent stereotypes of the day. Mammies, butlers, petty thieves, and various buffoons composed much of the standard list of black representations. Words that were offensive to African American ears, such as “nigger” and “darkie,” often crept into broadcasts as well.
Of course, as is generally true with all forms of media, some chinks in the armor did appear, permitting voices of black resistance to sometimes prick the consciences of those who were uneasy with the prevailing racist social structures. For instance, in the 1930s and 1940s, before McCarthyism would sweep aside most liberal political critique, radio writers associated with the Cultural Front (a group interested in inserting a politically radical perspective into the radio environment) conveyed left-wing perspectives that included the portrayal of African Americans and the children of immigrants as quintessential U.S. citizens, and espoused racial justice. In addition, prior to what would become another surge of consumer culture after World War II, to fulfill one of its mandates before the FCC, networks would often produce shows with public interest themes, although they would often broadcast them during the periods in their schedules that received low ratings, a practice that led to these offerings being known as “sustaining programs.” One 1939 drama, The Pursuit of Happiness, sometimes put multiethnic exchange and interracial relationships in the workplace in a positive light. Another, New World A-Coming, produced in the mid-1940s, depicted African American experiences and politics in Harlem, and protested race-based discrimination. America’s Town Meeting of the Air, which was designed to bring the spirit of the traditional town-hall political meeting to radio, sometimes directly addressed racial themes for a general audience.
With an emphasis on public affairs, sustaining programs that focused on race actually served a government function during World War II. Political officials wished to promote national unity in support of the conflict. In this environment, it would not be efficacious to symbolically exclude the people of color who comprised a small yet significant portion of the population and supplied a disproportionate number of troops. Still, the programs that celebrated its black citizens generally emphasized their “positive achievements” and nondivisive black heroes such as George Washington Carver. On the other hand, they seldom covered contentious matters on the order of Jim Crow or segregation in the military.America’s Town Meeting of the Air, though, stood out in this respect. Once African American soldiers returned from the war only to face the same segregation that they had experienced before the conflict, the push for equal status would only intensify.
The Threat of Jazz. Yet the overall historical hesitancy to allow black Americans entrance into mainstream radio transmission was exemplified through the rise of popular music in the twentieth century and how some forms were more readily embraced by industry executives than others. When jazz music, for instance, gained popularity in the 1920s, it sparked considerable debate. Presaging similar arguments about certain types of music today, opponents contended that jazz represented a kind of “low” culture that would only debase traditional values. Yet some scholars maintain that resistance to jazz, which was mostly the product of African American artists, revealed racial undertones. Many people feared a certain cultural miscegenation, perceiving that Anglo conventions could be infiltrated and degraded by black expression. Critics of jazz felt the music contained lewd lyrics and promoted dancing that smacked of indecency. They associated it with “the jungle” and “savage” impulses. That more and more white audiences were finding enjoyment through the music only heightened their antagonism. Largely because of the controversy surrounding jazz, many talented black singers and musicians were initially kept off of the airwaves, and scores of songs were blacklisted (this word itself, some would say, carries racial implications). Eventually, though, jazz secured a degree of legitimacy when white artists began to incorporate its rhythms into their compositions, thus transforming what some referred to as “race music” into a more acceptable offshoot often labeled as “sweet jazz.” As jazz continued to build a following, then, radio could no longer deny the potential its popularity signified and more African Americans were invited to the microphone. By the late 1920s, artists such as Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway were building their legacies with the help of radio. The floodgates were not opened, however. Radio networks refused to hire black studio musicians until the late 1930s, and they continued to monitor and censor black jazz music, influencing blacks, at the risk of diminishing a sense of authenticity, to often accommodate network gatekeepers by softening any edges that could be interpreted as rough. The net result, according to some researchers, is that black jazz music was significantly restrained by radio.
The Threat of Rock and Roll. Similar tendencies were on display during the dawn and growth of rock and roll in the 1940s and 1950s. Once again, black artists were the chief creators and innovators of the new genre. The teen audience was becoming an important target segment, and was increasingly turning to rock and roll as a badge of identity and means of rebellion. Recognizing the trend, in an atmosphere that still mostly excluded black announcers, a number of white DJs attempted to sound “black.” The backlash against rock and roll, many academics assert, was, at least in part, yet another reaction to the threat of cultural miscegenation. The music indirectly challenged the unofficial segregation in the North and its Jim Crow counterpart in the South. While television, at first, mainly perpetuated the proclivity to exclude and trivialize African Americans, the multiplying number of small, independent radio stations offered a parcel of space for black culture to tenuously occupy, especially since television was not serving the needs of people of color. Through market segmentation, not only did some black performers have the opportunity to connect with primarily white audiences but more radio stations were dedicated to African American listeners as well. By 1955, for example, more than 600 stations were programming either part or all of their schedules for black audiences, although few were actually owned by nonwhites. WDIA in Memphis, Tennessee, which went on the air in 1947, was the first station devoted exclusively to black programming. Concurrently, curious white listeners were turning their dials and discovering more black music and points of view. At least one scholar has even argued that the cultural hybridity that radio inadvertently fostered provided some small measure of symbolic inspiration for the incipient Civil Rights Movement. Although advertisers were originally tentative about supporting rock and roll (sometimes seen as another form of “race music”), just as they did with jazz, they eventually recognized a threshold of popularity had been reached and could no longer ignore coming on board. Once advertisers funneled their dollars toward broadcasters of rock and roll, however, the forces of commercialism inevitably worked to mutate the music into a form that was safer and more palatable to radio executives as well as to the older generation that feared its influence. In this sense, critics argue, “Top 40” represents one of the industry’s efforts to commercialize and pacify the music, and rein in the DJs’ autonomy. Following this line of thinking, 1960s Motown could also be viewed as a less threatening version of black music. Along the way, reproducing the acts of incorporation by the white jazz musicians of the past, white artists such as Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis integrated the rock and roll style into their performances, which likely helped trigger the eventual toleration of the music by a larger portion of the population. Entering the 1960s, radio had become the most integrated mass medium in the nation.
Recently, many writings have pointed out that the pattern has been repeated with rap music and radio’s initial reluctance to give it airtime. A number of critics have— sometimes derisively, sometimes as a mere observation—called attention to the penchant for many young white people to present themselves as “wiggers,” i.e., white “niggers,” a word that has been repositioned by the hip-hop community to denote not a racist designation but a term of endearment. But the history of radio demonstrates that the appropriation of black culture into white identity is nothing new. In the 1920s, jazz music enabled white listeners, like the minstrel show participants before them, to symbolically assume “blackface” and thus experiment with an emotional release that existed outside the constraints of traditional white codes. Rock and roll afforded the same possibilities. Many a white teenage fan of black performers eagerly poached “black” slang and played out a renegade role in opposition to the perceived social conformity of the 1950s, an inclination captured by Norman Mailer in his 1957piece “The White Negro.” A significant agent of cross-cultural flow, radio allowed black performers to enter white homes even as it enabled white fans to try out black jargon and customs as a way of implementing what they viewed as freer expression. Some scholars argue that the medium thus functioned to promote racial integration. Others counter that by granting esteem to the African American as an entertainer, one of the few roles that, throughout U.S. history, has given blacks an opening to economic success, radio unwittingly perpetuated stereotypes and unknowingly advanced a subtle form of the minstrel show tradition. In recent years, blacks have achieved standing as an important market segment, albeit within the context of commercialized radio. Yet the number of stations owned or run by black Americans remains small. At the same time, however, radio renegades such as M’banna Kantako and his Black Liberation Radio have (often illegally) provided a space of resistance for black voices that do not cohere to the standards of discourse advertisers find acceptable.
Women and Radio
Women, too, although not as severely as African Americans, have been marginalized in comparison to (white) men through radio for much of its history. Early ham operators were almost exclusively male. Furthermore, the ideology that relegated women to subordinate status in the culture at large was, unsurprisingly, rarely challenged by radio broadcasts.
It was not as though women were not valued. But their worth was assessed within the context of their power as consumers. During radio’s first decades, the dominant cultural ethos strongly suggested that women should be consigned to the home. Accordingly, married women, far more than their husbands, were recognized as the primary purchasers of domestic goods. As the advertising model of radio took hold, broadcasters wished to transfer the instrument from the garages of amateurs to the living rooms of families. Moreover, the industry marketed radio as a means of reducing the drudgery of women’s day-to-day chores, providing them with a comforting companion. Daytime radio, then, especially catered to women, although in ways that did not empower them as much as reinforce their stereotypical roles as mothers and wives. Shows often focused on issues such as home decoration, making clothes, and raising children. Among these programs appeared the quintessential domestic genre aimed at women—the radio “soap opera.” Its very name indicates the fusion of drama and commercial sponsorship (soap companies often funded the shows and even frequently participated in their production). Soap operas, which proliferated during the 1930s and 1940s, generally buttressed traditionally feminine and domestic values and helped to make certain brands household names.
Nor did women make up much of the ranks within the radio industry itself. They commonly worked as receptionists and secretaries, but rarely as executives. On the other hand, dramas and comedies required female actors if programming were not to reflect an all-male world. Yet women seldom gained positions as announcers, a bias that, while not as pronounced, continues to this very day. The decision makers in radio held the notion (also supported by some audience surveys of the time) that a woman’s voice did not sound as authoritative as a man’s. Consequently, women were also greatly underrepresented as anchors and reporters, even as news eventually took up an increasing part of the radio schedule.
Today, in spite of the increasing fragmentation of the audience, there is very little in the way of “women’s programming” on radio in the order of that which is found on television cable stations such as Lifetime, We, and Oxygen. Although more female voices and performers are on the air than in previous decades, male performers still represent far more than their share of roles based on the composition of the U.S. population at large.
Other Marginalized Groups
One more example can clarify the tendency that radio had to bestow higher social standing to some groups over others. During the medium’s commercial development, people living in rural areas—especially farmers—were underserved. Only a small amount of programming was specifically targeted at this demographic. Most of the broadcasts that reached people outside the cities, some scholars argue, did not generally emphasize the issues that mattered most to this audience, such as agricultural reports or announcements of local community events. Instead, radio addressed rural citizens in a manner that encouraged them to give up the “backward” ideas of the country and embrace the urban cultural values reflected by the networks centered in New York. Programming tended to endorse integration into a city sensibility rather than acknowledge the distinct needs of rural dwellers, an approach that helped to define people in the country as consumers and thus better served radio’s corporate sponsors. When rural characters were presented on shows, more often than not, they took on the roles of “hillbillies” and “hicks.”
Radio as a Government Tool of Propaganda
Most scholars would affirm that propaganda is a fact of modern life. And as various academics have noted, during times of war, managing the messages the public receives is especially crucial—democracies, in particular, require the consent of the people. Since the dawn of the twentieth century, government and military officials have gained access to an increasing array of media to convey the ideas and positions they wish the citizenry to embrace. Radio has been one of the tools in the propaganda arsenal.
During World War I, the United States launched what was arguably the most comprehensive propaganda campaign the world had ever known. The prevailing attitude among the populace before American involvement was isolationist. Once the decision was made to send U.S. troops to the front, the government needed to shape public opinion to support its military mission. George Creel was appointed to head up the Committee on Public Information (CPI), which became known as the “Creel Commission.” Creel drew from all of the forms of communication at his disposal to transform resistance to U.S. entry into the war into fervid backing of American intervention. At the time, though, radio had not evolved into a mass medium and thus did not play a key role in the CPI’s tactics.
Propaganda and Franklin Delano Roosevelt
By World War II (WWII), though, radio was central to the lives of Americans. Consequently, the government has employed radio—sometimes directly, sometimes indirectly—throughout every major conflict to encourage patriotism and propagate messages in line with military goals. Yet since the rise of television, it has merely served as a supplementary medium. During WWII, however, radio stood as the nation’s most popular mass medium. Thus the use of radio for the objective of disseminating propaganda in support of World War II provides an exemplary case study. The government broadcast propaganda to people abroad to help advance the American point of view on the existing state of affairs. At the same time, some expatriates, in acts of betrayal, were employed by the Nazis to convey anti-Ally messages to populations outside Germany, including U.S. soldiers. But the Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR) government’s creation of propaganda for domestic consumption perhaps sheds the most light on how the interplay of politics and popular culture came together for the purpose of buttressing internal support for American involvement in the war.
Even outside the realm of direct government intercession, however, radio in the 1930s and 1940s subtly but fundamentally accomplished a tendency that national leaders could use to their advantage: allowing for tensions on the margins, it helped create a national community, at least an imagined one. Given that only three national networks supplied the lion’s share of programming throughout the country, at any moment in time, listeners from coast to coast were brought together to simultaneously share the same event. The feeling of unity that radio could sometimes foster not only benefited the government but also worked to meet the interests of the corporate world; as radio became increasingly privatized into the hands of big business, it consistently offered content that depicted consumerism as part and parcel of the “American Way of Life.”
More overt government efforts during the run up and execution of the war were commonly channeled through radio news. Although slow to occupy much space on the radio dial in the 1920s, news content enjoyed a greater and greater foothold— and secured the backing of sponsors—over the course of the next two decades. Partly because it tended to use more accessible language than its print-based counterpart, by the early 1940s, radio had become citizens’ primary and most trusted source for news. FDR had already used radio to convey propaganda well before the United States joined forces with the Allies. Assaying to lead the population in a dramatically new economic direction during the Great Depression, the president vigorously employed the medium—as well as other communication vehicles—to explain and promote his New Deal policies. His work was cut out for him, however, because the public was apprehensive about anything that had the scent of propaganda. Many people came to realize that they had been misled in the buildup to World War I through false atrocity stories and other misrepresentations, and did not wish to be fooled again. Academics and other intellectuals, too, had been warning for years that radio was a powerful mass medium with the capacity to be especially exploited for propagandistic purposes. Moreover, people were becoming increasingly aware of how the Nazis were utilizing radio to instill their perverse doctrines. Still, with the establishment of the National Recovery Administration (NRA), Roosevelt launched his campaign. The radio networks, knowing that they were dependent on the government for their very right to exist and for the rules they must follow, donated considerable noncommercial time to the NRA to make its case, despite the resulting loss of advertising revenue. One of the largest NRA productions was hosted by the popular singer Kate Smith and featured other notable entertainers. With the assistance of commercial writers and actors, a number of federal agencies produced and broadcast hundreds of advertising-free programs in support of the president’s domestic agenda. Other shows pulled from the domain of entertainment as well, merging politics and elements of popular culture along the way. In addition, FDR initiated his series of “Fireside Chats.” In these discussions, creating the impression that he was an invited guest into living rooms across the country, Roosevelt presented himself in a conversational and avuncular manner that was appealing to many citizens; a sizable portion of the population tuned in to the chats.
Resistance to FDR
The FDR administration’s messages did not go unopposed, however. Big business developed its own counterpropaganda campaign in opposition to Roosevelt’s New Deal plans, which were hugely unpopular with the corporate world. The Great Depression planted a seed of doubt about the very nature of capitalism in people’s minds because so many of them were experiencing hardship. The New Deal, to the business set, signified socialist reforms and a threat to capitalism itself. Most newspapers at the time were also not sympathetic to the policies, which is another reason why Roosevelt relied so strongly on radio. Scores of corporate-backed, entertainment programs included voices of resistance to the New Deal. For example, both General Motors and Ford sponsored symphony music shows that featured “intermission talks” on the benefits of the free enterprise system. The National Association of Manufacturers producedThe American Family Robinson, a serial that portrayed the businessman as a societal hero. Besides corporations battling FDR on the airwaves, popular radio personalities such as Huey Long and Father Charles Coughlin also fueled the fire. In the end, it is debatable as to whom achieved the upper hand. Perhaps the safest view would suggest that FDR reached a compromise with his detractors. Recognizing he could never deeply undermine capitalism (it is doubtful that he ever intended this to begin with), he softened his New Deal measures over time and, based on the ways in which the unfolding war propaganda campaign eventually grew more privatized, seemed to partner with business in affirming the U.S. system of free enterprise.
Propaganda and World War II
But the outbreak of World War II represented a turning point for government-run propaganda. The focus shifted from acceptance or rejection of the New Deal to the role of the United States in the conflict. Business, though skeptical of FDR’s political intentions, worrying that he might utilize war messages to distract the public from his underlying domestic goals, was willing to cut a wartime president more latitude. While the radio networks advocated impartiality in their news coverage, journalists, although with some exceptions, were mostly favorable toward Roosevelt’s stance on intervention even before the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor; once the United States was attacked, the posture was still more pronounced. Based in Britain for CBS news, the legendary Edward R. Murrow, for instance, implicitly sounded the theme that England needed the help of the United States. Straightforward reporters spawned news commentators, some of whom became very popular. Two such notables, H. V. Kaltenborn and Raymond Gram Swing, both appeared to endorse the cause of U.S. involvement. At the same time, many powerful spokesmen of FDR’s foreign policy were granted access to the airwaves. It appears that radio news, overall, facilitated in building a climate suitable to the nation’s entry into World War II. Furthermore, once the United States went to battle, government and military officials attempted to manage the flow of news through various techniques designed to discreetly censor news reports.
Direct government-produced propaganda programming related to the war, however, probably did not achieve the same level of success as less overt forms. Unlike news, which the public generally perceives as information emanating from a third-party, government-created shows of the time risked coming across as blatantly biased. Moreover, citizens were more liable to have their guard up after enduring not only the propaganda campaign of World War I but also the bold persuasive tactics behind FDR’s New Deal communication. In addition, the government shows were often slated in poor time slots or had to compete head-to-head with more amusing commercial fare. Meanwhile, though, FDR’s Fireside Chats continued and received thousands of letters from everyday people commending the president on his talks and approach to the war.
One of the early examples of government-produced, noncommercial war propaganda occurred before direct U.S. participation. Drawing upon the services of well-known writers and actors, including Bette Davis and Robert Montgomery, The Treasury Star Parade brought politics and popular culture together to promote the purchase of defense bonds and stamps. Soon, the government founded the Office of Facts and Figures, which was charged with overseeing all information and propaganda initiatives on behalf of defense. Later, the agency was renamed the Office of War Information (OWI). A chief goal of the OWI was to simply explain to the populace the reasons for the nation’s intervention in the war. People were well aware that the United States had been attacked at Pearl Harbor, yet, given the messy complexity of the multicountry confrontation, they were not exactly sure who the United States was (and was not) fighting and why.
A number of both news- and entertainment-based, noncommercial dramas and documentaries were devoted to the mission. Just eight days after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, James Stewart, Orson Welles, and other celebrities starred in the show, We Hold These Truths, which celebrated the Bill of Rights and made it clear that its survival was worth fighting for. President Roosevelt supplemented the broadcast with a brief public address. For 13 weeks, another propaganda vehicle, This Is War!, was carried on all the major networks and garnered high ratings. The show and other similar offerings sought to personalize the conflict by depicting everyday life for the soldiers and bringing the sounds and imagined images of war directly into people’s living rooms, sometimes even symbolically placing listeners in the middle of the action.
The government also created programming targeted toward ethnic and immigrant groups whose first language was not English. A central objective of this subpropaganda campaign was to encourage a sense of national unity among the country’s diverse audiences, especially the Italian- and German-speaking populations who might be torn by whether they should be loyal to their land of residence or ancestral home. Shows aimed at these segments of the population included Uncle Sam Speaks, which tried to recruit foreign-language volunteers and drum up feelings of American patriotism, and We Fight Back, which used vignettes from German culture in an attempt to resonate with German-speaking people. Sometimes the government sidestepped the use of propaganda altogether and simply closed down non-English speaking radio stations.
Several shows intended to stir up pro-war passion in the audience by demonizing U.S. enemies. Because the Roosevelt administration had decided it would be wise to fight in Europe before Asia, one major challenge involved convincing Americans that Germany should be the primary target and not Japan. After Pearl Harbor, citizens were already predisposed to feelings of hatred toward the Japanese; the Germans, on the other hand, although dangerous abroad, had not directly harmed the nation. (Some scholars argue that racism also entered the picture—while Japan signified the yellow-skinned “other,” Germany affirmed the white skin, European ancestry of the U.S. majority.) The drama You Can’t Do Business with Hitler, which portrayed the German people as suffering under Nazi rule, scored well in the ratings. This Is Your Enemy followed some of the same conventions and also evoked positive responses from many listeners. At the other end of the spectrum, the OWI developed programming meant to trigger sentiment toward American allies, which was often a harder sell, in part because the population did not necessarily trust its partners. For instance, Russia’s system of government was already held in suspicion; at the same time, many people felt that Great Britain was not doing enough on its own to protect itself. An American in England, for example, consequently appeared to fall flat. Though it was produced for a U.S. audience, it actually had more British listeners.
Once the U.S. war effort had been established for a while, business and conservative politicians were less willing to let government propaganda go unchecked. In 1943, Congress cut the domestic division of the OWI’s budget by two-thirds, fearing that it was functioning as FDR’s personal vehicle for advancing other elements of his political agenda (after the war, it was eliminated altogether). The move seriously undercut Roosevelt’s ability to run an effective noncommercial, government radio propaganda campaign, which came to a crawl.
Corporate Propaganda During World War II. Advertising and corporate-sponsored programming, on the other hand, also served propagandistic functions and thrived throughout the war years. Just after the United States had entered the storm, the advertising industry changed the name of its Advertising Council to the War Advertising Council (WAC). The government turned to advertising agencies to develop campaigns on government positions. Many businesses, conversely, shifted their attention from direct sales pitches for their products and services, which had the potential to come off as overly crass in a time of war, to advancing patriotic, “public service” messages of support for the cause (sometimes claiming that their companies were in some way actually enhancing the nation’s ability to fight) and themes regarding the need for all citizens to do their part to ensure victory (sometimes explaining techniques for rationing and ways in which company products could help by, for example, making it easier to conserve) and, in a more directly self-serving manner, announcing that the system of free enterprise would once again flourish once the conflict was settled. Advertisers also occasionally used the more subtle tactic of inserting pro-war messages into their sponsored entertainment shows to evoke advantageous associations for their brands in the minds of consumers. These implicit intersections between advertising and propaganda somewhat worked to turn the antagonism between the corporate world and the FDR administration into a collaborative enterprise.
Radio Entertainment Propaganda During World War II. Concurrently, in a practice that explicitly brought together politics and popular culture, the government both circuitously and overtly inserted propagandistic motifs into commercial radio shows themselves. Through the OWI’s Network Allocation Plan (NAP), the radio industry was instructed to regularly integrate war messages into its programming. In practice, the Radio Advisory Committee (RAC) asked government agencies to provide every major advertiser with a schedule of war messages they wished to address. These points were in turn passed along to writers and producers to effectively insert (generally seamlessly) into the entertainment shows. Despite the lack of legal enforcement, radio executives were generally willing to comply, given that, among other circumstances, their licenses were granted by a government agency and were based, in part, on serving the public interest. Consequently, radio during the war years still centered on advertising-sponsored, crowd-pleasing entertainment even as it disseminated government propaganda. Popular comedy programs such as The Jack Benny Show, Bob Hope, and Fibber McGee and Molly, at one time or another, covered various issues that were of importance to the government, including why the public should accept gas and sugar rationing, an understanding of various war organizations, and the sacrifices everyday people were being asked to make. Whether it was an endorsement of the scrap metal drive or a call for everyone to unite behind the country’s military mission, various radio comedy shows did their part to serve the nation at a critical juncture. In 1942, Bob Hope began the tradition of broadcasting his shows from army and naval bases, a practice he would later bring with him to television. By going right to the field, Hope went beyond OWI expectations by representing the voices of the actual soldiers called for battle.
Radio soap operas, which were endemic when the United States crossed the threshold into war, were also implicated in the OWI master propaganda plan. Appealing to a largely female audience, these shows were in a position to assist in furthering goals related to gender, including enticing women to seek wartime employment and ideologically shifting the role of women from domestic worker to wage-earning laborer. Even before the NAP was announced, soap opera writers, who generally tap into current events and were perhaps feeling the pull of patriotism as well, were already incorporating war-based themes into their serials. The trend was further solidified once the NAP went into effect. Pepper Young’s Family, for instance, featured the main character’s sister joining him in the factory. The association between the male-dominated OWI, which sometimes engaged in preapproving scripts, and soap opera producers was not always a harmonious one, however. Although they did slot war plots into their scenarios, soap opera creators sometimes resisted going too far for fear of alienating their stay-at-home, female base of fans. Many listeners, in fact, despite the tenor of the times, did not look kindly on women who left behind their child-rearing and wifely duties for gainful employment in the marketplace. Overcoming years of domestic socialization was no easy accomplishment. Thus writers often balanced meeting the wishes of the OWI with satisfying the demands of their audiences, showing, for example, that housewives were also central to the war effort. Moreover, not every woman who entered the workforce was portrayed in a positive manner. For example, her absence might be presented as the chief reason for her children falling into delinquency, or she could be shown as unhappy and lonely because of her choice to work. In other genres as well, the wage-earning female was sometimes depicted as less than feminine, even perhaps mannish and crude. This ideological tension was eventually resolved when, after the war, women were again mainly expected to return to their homes and hand their jobs back over to the soldiers returning from battle. Some soap opera plots featured women once more assuming traditional roles, not only reclaiming their household chores but also nurturing physically or emotionally damaged men who had suffered in the war. The backlash against stereotypical representations of womanhood was still at least a decade away.
The Impact of World War II Radio Propaganda. Overall, though, these less obvious propaganda techniques involving the placement of propagandistic messages into regularly scheduled shows were probably more successful than the direct federal, noncommercial programming because much of the audience likely interpreted the comedies, soap operas, and related fare as mere entertainment and was not fully aware of the embedded messages on behalf of government. For example, the OWI once requested that the producers of Fibber McGee and Molly plant a recruitment message for merchant seamen into one of its episodes; on the day after its airing, the number of people who signed up was twice as high as usual. To a significant extent, as U.S. involvement in WWII continued, the OWI’s NAP supplanted government produced shows in disseminating propaganda. Through the mutual and coordinated efforts of the OWI, the radio industry (via the NAB’s Victory Council and the networks’ Network Relations Committee), and radio advertisers (via the WAC and its RAC), therefore, the propaganda mission was essentially privatized, which benefited both the Roosevelt administration and the corporate world. Although there is not sufficient data to know how they responded to the material, millions of citizens were unwittingly exposed to government propaganda every day.
The Use of Radio in Political Election Campaigns
A more easily recognized form of political propaganda is that associated with messages aimed to promote candidates during election seasons. Moreover, this type of persuasion is generally significantly more contradictory because the two major parties, as well as other minor parties and special interest groups, disseminate widely divergent claims and arguments. Since the birth of the United States, political candidates and their supporters have drawn upon every available media resource in their attempts to sway the vote their way. Yet before the twentieth century, the only influential mass medium in existence was print, through newspapers, books, flyers, posters, and similar materials. As the nation’s first broadcast medium, radio came to represent, at least in its capacity to efficiently reach thousands or even millions of voters simultaneously, a sea change in how political campaigns would be waged.
Instituting Guidelines for Political Coverage
As radio gained prominence in the 1920s, many politicians and social critics hoped that it would help engender a more informed electorate, build a sense of national unity, and counteract the hostile partisanship that had been typical of newspapers. Yet at first, broadcasters had little guidance as to how they should participate in the political arena. The Radio Act of 1927 began to lay out their responsibilities in relationship to politicians. In an effort to cultivate fairness, the Act specified that if a station agreed to air paid advertising from a candidate, it was then required to accept advertising from all of his or her rivals. The Communications Act of 1934, however, made it clear that licensees were not obliged to accept any political advertising to begin with, although they were encouraged to do so. At the same time, stations were not mandated to provide free air time. Thus, in practice, better funded candidates had an advantage in accessing the airwaves with their advertising in comparison to opponents with smaller financial bases, making it more difficult for the latter to compete.
Most stations were willing to broadcast political advertising and other political programming as one means of demonstrating they were not reluctant to devote at least some of their schedules to the public interest. Furthermore, even before the federal government issued its 1927 and 1934 regulatory framework, the major networks had already informally established their own common policies. They agreed to mostly work with only national candidates from the two major parties and limit political programming to just one hour per day. Consequently, parties besides the Democratic and Republican, including the Socialist and Communist Parties, received far less access to broadcast facilities, partly because, perceiving them as too far removed from the mainstream, networks did not wish to risk alienating listeners, and partially due to these parties not having the financial resources to buy substantial chunks of time.
Yet special occasions called for more than 60 minutes of political broadcasting per day. For example, in 1924, over 300 stations broadcast the federal election results on election night, many of them dedicating the entire evening to the event or interspersing coverage with their regular programming. Just four years earlier, only a single station had done the same, as KDKA in Pittsburgh inaugurated its service—and broadcasting in general—on the night of the federal election. Overall, though, stations usually enjoyed greater profits when allocating time to commercial clients and so preferred to minimize the portion of its schedule assigned to political broadcasts. As radio evolved, broadcasters needed to weigh their desire to secure as much revenue as possible with their obligation to serve the public interest. This balancing act was especially difficult during campaign seasons. In 1928, both NBC and CBS agreed to broadcast, free of charge, the Republican and Democratic conventions. The coverage helped the networks gain favor from the parties that had the authority to influence regulations and radio licensing, but at considerable financial sacrifice. Networks also donated airtime for speeches, inaugurations, and other noteworthy political events to demonstrate devotion to public affairs and ward off unfriendly regulations. Election night reporting became increasingly sophisticated; building on the inherent drama of the evening, the networks tried to outdo one another in demonstrations of technical wizardry, which probably made the broadcasts more entertaining for a substantial slice of the audience.
Incumbency had its advantages. Networks often allowed the president and members of Congress the microphone without charge during nonelection periods. A Roosevelt Fireside Chat, positioned as a presidential address to the people, for instance, could nonetheless function as a reelection campaign tool. At the same time, though, networks at least tried to remain nonpartisan.
Campaigning through Entertainment
Initially, networks were also averse to granting time to politicians who wished to campaign through forms generally linked with entertainment, such as drama, rather than through straightforward speeches or announcements. Yet some staged scenarios, indeed, slipped through the cracks, especially on stations not owned and operated by the major networks. In many cases, programming was presented as mere entertainment but was actually designed to politically proselytize. Over time, candidates became more adept at getting around network restrictions and exploiting the medium for their political purposes. Networks, for their part, were inconsistent in enforcing their ban on dramatized political campaign content. For instance, in 1944, celebrities, including Lucille Ball and Irving Berlin, endorsed their favorite presidential candidate during the radio broadcast, the “Roosevelt Special.” Four years later, a series of comedie shows targeting women in the home was produced for the Democrats and their choice for president, Harry Truman. The programs featured songs, pointed jokes, and contests aimed at involving the listener.
Early Political Radio Campaigns
Although radio, in its early years, tended to focus on national politicians, the first candidate to use the medium to campaign was then incumbent New York City mayor John F. Hylan in 1921. His opponent, Henry F. Curran, quickly followed suit. Still, such incipient political programming was relatively primitive—the technology was not always dependable, scheduling had not yet become standardized, and, as mentioned above, guidelines had not been established—and politicians themselves did not at first fully understand how to best use radio to meet their goals. It did not take long, however, for politicians to realize that they could save much energy by replacing some of the grind of day-to-day campaigning with the efficiency of reaching a mass audience through radio. Some early advocates of radio argued that the medium could reduce political stress in general because politicians would no longer have to engage in lengthy speaking tours. Furthermore, radio was able to deliver a feeling of intimacy seldom achieved on the campaign trail. Before radio, few voters ever got to see a candidate live, and even fewer actually got to shake hands with a politician. Yet, for many people, radio gave the impression that a candidate was speaking to an audience member one-on-one in his or her own home. Politicians soon discovered that they needed to add radio to their arsenal. Conversely, for reasons already noted, the radio industry also realized that it needed the support of politicians. This quid pro quo arrangement, in part, helped radio rapidly develop into an effective campaign instrument. And the medium could also be put to use to advance an agenda by politicians already in office.
Although he was not the first one to deliver a speech via radio, Calvin Coolidge is usually identified as the earliest president to significantly exploit radio’s potential. In 1923, he delivered the first State of the Union address ever transmitted through the airwaves. Before then, just a proportionately small number of people had ever had access to the words of a president as the utterances were actually unfolding—they could only hear them within earshot at a live event. People enthusiastically gathered around radio sets in homes and offices; stores selling radios even projected the speech to passersby. Although it was not designed as entertainment, the speech generated the kind of stir that could be associated with popular culture. Yet Coolidge did not so much speak from a studio directly to an audience as orate before a live audience, which was then simultaneously carried on radio. Later, Herbert Hoover turned to radio often but he, too, situated his broadcasts within an impersonal context. Franklin Delano Roosevelt would be the president to perfect the utilization of radio in a way that realized much of its potential for conveying a feeling of audience intimacy. By the time he approached the end of his initial year in office, he had given 24 speeches over the radio networks, with four of them billed as Fireside Chats.
At the same time as broadcast presidential speeches were becoming more common, radio usage for political campaigning continued to rise as well. The 1924 season probably marks the first one in which radio played a consistent role in both parties’ efforts. The broadcast of the Democratic convention proved to be a media sensation. Unfortunately for the party, however, much of the stir was evoked by the highly contentious and protracted proceedings, which likely contributed to its 1924 presidential defeat. In general, probably neither party, still accustomed to the traditional campaigning methods they had employed for years and inexperienced with the new medium, realized radio’s potential. By 1928, though, politicians were growing increasingly savvy in their application of broadcasting. For both parties, radio costs represented the largest line item of their total campaign expenditures. The Democrats provided an early instance of fusing campaign politics with popular culture, producing 30-minute shows that allocated 10 minutes to speeches and the remaining time to musicians and actors from stage and screen. Radio plays and five-minute advertising spots also emerged during the 1928 campaign season. Voter turnout exceeded the previous election’s by over 5 percent. To what extent radio was responsible for the bump, however, is a topic for debate.
The Impact of Radio on Politics
Radio outlays for presidential campaigns continued to increase throughout the 1930s. Yet the fact that the losing party in four straight elections (1928, 1932, 1936, and 1940) invested more money in radio than its opponent attests to the dubious impact the medium had on results—it was an important campaign tool but could not single-handedly determine outcomes when so many other factors were at work. Still, radio had altered the campaign landscape. For example, candidates could sometimes be held more accountable for contradictory positions: taking a particular stance in a stump speech in one U.S. region, then offering a conflicting perspective in another area could appear foolish if a nationally broadcast speech belied the messages spoken at one of the face-to-face encounters. What is more, even if determining what effect radio had on voter turnout is problematic, some scholars contend that radio at least in some measure helped popularize politics and make it more interesting and accessible to everyday people. Before the medium, it would have taken a politician hundreds of speeches over the course of weeks to reach the number of people that he or she could now accomplish with just one radio speech. In a sense, radio created a massive town square, bringing together individuals and small groups of people gathered in living rooms or even cars. FDR, an obvious advocate of radio, contended that the medium actually raised the level of campaign communication because it removed citizens from noisy crowds and the heightened emotions they inspired, and, instead, allowed them to arrive at opinions in a rational manner in the quiet of their own homes. Some observers claimed at the time that, unlike the days of the partisan press when constituents would gravitate toward their favorite biased newspapers, radio enabled people to hear a range of speeches and, consequently, attain a more neutral state of mind.
In one of the most legendary research projects conducted on media campaigns and voting behavior, entitled in its printed form as The People’s Choice, Paul Lazarsfeld concluded that the media—and radio in particular—had little impact on how people actually voted. In the great majority of cases, he reported, the media either activated internalized positions or reinforced already existing views—only infrequently did media campaigns yield conversion, that is, sway voters to change their minds regarding which candidate would receive their votes.
The Impact on Presentation Style. At the same time, politicians had to adjust their styles to accommodate the new medium. Many of the conventions followed in speeches before large crowds did not translate well on radio. Screaming into a microphone could overwhelm listeners, while dramatic gestures could not be seen. Moreover, the traditional stump speech was generally attended by many partisans; the mass radio audience was more diverse and required different skills to reach. Listeners could simply turn the dial if they did not like the sound of a politician—or not tune in at all. Thus, speakers needed to consider making their speeches more entertaining to hold an audience, especially given that they were competing with comedies, dramas, sports, and variety shows for the listeners’ attention. Newspapers even began to critique performances and comment not only on the content of a speech but the style of the candidate uttering the words as well. Some politicians were more adept than others in modifying their communication approaches, which, consequently, in some cases, probably had an influence on who was elected. Because they could not assess crowd response as they could at live encounters, candidates began to increasingly rely on audience measurement and polls to better gauge how effective their speeches had been. All of these factors suggest, as many observers did at the time and as some researchers maintain today, that radio actually revolutionized the political campaign process. Yet others counter that radio did not simply replace earlier electioneering techniques as much as supplement and amplify them. Pamphleteering, mailed materials, and personal appearances, for example, continued unabated and still constituted major parts of the campaign war chest. Yet radio—through speeches and other political programming—and mass advertising probably intensified the merging of information and entertainment, and blended a personal approach with mass dissemination. In addition, there is evidence that demonstrates some citizens were directly touched by politicians’ personal appeals. Herbert Hoover, for example, received thousands of letters after each radio address. Later, FDR received even more feedback (see Fireside Chats).
Radio’s Diminishing Impact. After World War II, when the age of networks and national audiences gave way to the dawn of more local broadcasting and fragmented listenership, radio took on less and less importance as a crucial campaign instrument. By adding visuals to the aural dimension, television, in the 1950s, supplanted radio’s dominance as a means of persuasion during election seasons. While the medium is still a part of the campaign media mix, it has mostly been consigned to use as a supplementary tool.
Talk Radio: Participatory Political Conversation
Another way in which radio has functioned as a political medium, beyond its role in the dissemination of messages by political candidates, governments, corporations, and other interest groups hoping to achieve particular goals, is through its use as a forum for political dialogue and debate, a phenomenon that has come to be known as political talk radio. Since the 1980s, the genre has gained the kind of high ratings that observers would say signifies it has established a place within the rubric of popular culture. Even more so than the early broadcasts of political speeches, conventions, and related political material, political talk radio, some scholars argue, represents a type of town square, or perhaps better still, the coffeehouses and similar outlets of the past, which were places where the citizenry could engage in lively political conversation on what it perceived as the most pressing topics of the day. Whereas the political programming during radio’s initial decades mostly involved one-way transmission from the source of the broadcast to people symbolically congregated into an imaginary, unified populace, political talk radio allows listeners to actually participate—in real time—in the discussion of timely issues and thus contribute to the creation of the shows’ very content. It enables people who feel there are few vehicles through which everyday citizens can make their voices heard an opportunity to call in and express their perspectives on current affairs. Moreover, numerous adherents claim, political talk radio has the potential to present a more diverse set of viewpoints than is typically offered in the contemporary, hard-to-access, consolidated media environment. Others would add, however, that the format is not as egalitarian as the town meetings of the past: program producers screen callers and decide who will have the chance to talk with the shows’ hosts, and the on-air personalities themselves directly control the flow of conversation.
Today’s political talk radio was foreshadowed by several figures who gained notoriety by animatedly and heatedly advancing (often controversial) political viewpoints on the shows they hosted. Father Charles E. Coughlin and Senator Huey Long, who both achieved large followings in the 1930s, are two notable examples. Yet these men’s programs and others like them did not (partly due to limited technological capacity) make the airwaves available for listeners to join in the live discussion. Later, in the 1960s, shows such as Rambling with Gambling featured more talk than music, yet they, too, did not generally accept live phone calls from the audience, nor take on controversial matters. The contemporary version of talk radio surfaced in the late 1970s; from the early part of the 1980s to the mid-1990s, the number of stations with an all-talk or combined news and talk format had increased fourfold, becoming one of the most popular genres on the air. The growing cell phone market facilitated talk radio’s expansion—people could now call in while driving in their motor vehicles. At the same time, media deregulation and satellite technology gave the radio industry the capability to syndicate shows and build a national audience, somewhat reversing the trend toward fragmentation that had been going on for decades. Talk radio provided a major boost to AM in particular. Over the years, more and more people had abandoned its frequencies for the better clarity of the FM signals. Talk radio supplied one significant solution to reenergizing AM’s cultural relevance. Part of what distinguished talk radio was that, unlike most commercial programming of the past, it actually encouraged controversy. The style of vocal delivery is, by design, often decidedly impassioned. Despite its contentious tone, many advertisers were quick to support the format because they perceived that the talk radio audience consisted of a greater percentage of active listeners than those who tuned into music stations as a form of background atmosphere. Because of its political bent and argumentative character, notwithstanding its populist aura, it has sparked several critiques by scholars, journalists, and other commentators. One point of attack by critics of talk radio centers on its supposed uncivil nature. Show hosts often shout, insult public figures or even listeners, and convey sentiments that opponents regard as hostile toward women, people of color, and other minority groups.
Talk Radio’s Present Personalities
“Dr. Laura” (Laura Schlessinger) is one of the prominent radio talk show personalities who has generated controversy. Yet most of the other notable stars in the field are male. Widely regarded as a host who embodies the abrasive conventions associated with the genre, Howard Stern was among the first personalities to achieve considerable attention for his work in talk radio and is considered one of the preeminent “shock jocks,” a label commonly used in connection with this inflammatory form.
Don Imus, who first went on the air in 1968, is also generally included in the pantheon of famous shock jocks, although his work has been qualitatively different from Stern’s. Although Stern’s comments have often had indirect political implications, he has not devoted most of his attention to major political issues and government officials. Imus, on the other hand, though held as generally crude as well, became much more explicitly political beginning in the late 1980s.
Another allegation persistently raised by adversaries of political talk radio is that it is overly right wing in its ideological slant. The most notorious personality in this regard is Rush Limbaugh, whose manner and popularity have inspired numerous spin-offs. Limbaugh’s relentless political tirades were a chief factor in bringing political talk radio into the national consciousness. By 1992, he commanded the format’s largest audience.
The Impact of Talk Radio
Political talk show celebrities have commonly maintained that they have a major influence on public opinion. There is some evidence to support their position, although to what extent they have shaped outcomes is a contestable point. To shed light on the issue of right-wing bias in political talk radio and what impact it had actually had on events, the Times Mirror Center for People in the Press conducted an investigation in 1993. Based on a survey of 1,500 listeners and 112 talk show personalities, it concluded that most listeners were male and twice as likely to be politically conservative than liberal. Two years later, the audience consisted of nearly three times as many conservatives as liberals, and a follow-up study revealed that regular listeners paid more attention to news in general and were more politically active than the public at large. The fans who were interviewed divulged several reasons why they regularly tuned into political talk radio, including that it furnished views that were typically regarded as especially risky and therefore excluded from other media venues. A 2007 study co-conducted by the Center for American Progress and Free Press indicated that an imbalance had grown over time. The institutions’ report stated that out of 257 news/talk stations owned by the top five commercial companies, 91 percent of the discussion was conservative. Ninety-two percent of the stations did not air any liberal talk, as defined by the researchers, at all.
Talk Radio as a Backlash against Women and Other Marginalized Groups. Another major criticism of political talk radio, although not articulated as often, relates to the manner in which it has ostensibly operated as a backlash against the Women’s Movement and attempted to define what the nature of masculinity should be. Some historians contend that, following the second-wave feminism of the 1960s and 1970s, general anxiety about manhood started to become prominent. Within this cultural environment, talk radio, these critics say, provided a safe haven for mostly white men who longed to reassert themselves and forego expressions of “political correctness” toward women and people of color. Talk radio’s brand of masculinity, however, rebelled against the rules of decorum supposedly typified by the corporate executive and, instead, emphasized the verbal aggression and course qualities that are purportedly emblematic of the working-class male, thus subtly perpetuating a breed of class politics as well. According to this critique, talk radio has offered men a feeling of empowerment and endeavored to reinforce a kind of patriarchal structure that positions a more primal man at the top of society’s hierarchy. During a period that has witnessed considerable business deregulation and, consequently, greater corporate consolidation and centralization of power, the format has tended to be populist in its attitude, critical of both government and big business, and hostile toward any version of social justice programs that might smack of a feminine touch. Howard Stern, Don Imus, and Rush Limbaugh have all been accused of perpetuating sexist and racist perspectives. For example, in 2007, Imus evoked a storm of criticism by labeling the players on the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, the runner-up in the 2007 NCAA basketball tournament, as “nappy-headed hoes” (Steinberg 2007). Soon afterward, he was fired from CBS radio and MSNBC, which had also carried his show on television. As a woman, Dr. Laura (Laura Schlessinger), on the other hand, would seem to offer a contradiction to the backlash perspective. Yet as a conservative radio host with traditional views on gender and an oppositional stance toward homosexuality, perhaps she is not as far removed from her male cohorts as it might appear at first glance.
There are two other notable versions of programming that fall under the umbrella of talk radio, both of which are mostly noncommercial. Community radio, best exemplified by the chain of Pacifica stations, features extensive news coverage and political discussion, generally from a left-wing or radical point of view. These offerings often invite listeners to call in and join in the dialogue. But the much more popular noncommercial talk programs are broadcast on public radio stations around the country. A large part of their content is supplied courtesy of NPR, founded in 1970. Few would argue that NPR mirrors the coarseness, male orientation, or far-right-wing leanings for which some of the most popular commercial political talk radio programs are frequently attacked. Yet for many listeners, NPR, like these shows, also provides an alternative to the kind of interpretations they usually associate with other forms of media, particularly TV network news.
Unlike commercial radio, public radio receives little financial support from advertisers, instead relying on government funding and donations from listeners. At the same time, as a nonprofit institution, its mission goes beyond maximizing ratings—more than its corporate-owned competition, public radio has traditionally placed an accent on serving the public interest. Consequently, through music and other formats, it has usually reached out to frequently marginalized groups to a much greater extent than commercial stations catering to general audiences.
It is clear that radio in the United States did not have to evolve into a commercial form of communication—similar to the medium’s development in other countries, it could have followed a public model. In the 1920s, many critics, especially those aligned with the Progressive Movement, which was a movement dedicated to further instituting a flourishing democracy, proclaimed that profit-driven media were incompatible with the maintenance of a dynamic marketplace of ideas and the health of democracy itself. Some noncommercial radio stations, many operated by universities, did indeed exist in the 1920s and 1930s. But commercial broadcasting eventually dominated the airwaves, as public service stations were not able to compete with the tantalizing fare and the corporate resources of their advertising-supported rivals. Proponents of commercial radio, moreover, argued that public radio was innately paternalistic, implying that broadcasters knew what was best for listeners rather than the audience itself. Throughout the initial decades of broadcast radio’s existence, most historians would agree, public service outlets, with their limited backing, never lived up to their promise. Offered frequencies on the virtually unknown FM dial and transmitting content throughout the 1940s and 1950s, public radio, with its elite, “high culture” programming principles, was not widely accessible and did not resonate with a sizable portion of the populace. The creation of the Corporation of Public Broadcasting (CPB), a result of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, was designed to revive the form. Although the Act was established primarily in relationship to television, as an almost afterthought, it was applied to radio as well and NPR was born. The intention of the legislators was that NPR should cater to underserved communities, yet also reach larger audiences than public radio had in the past. In 1971, NPR’s first major program was launched, entitled All Things Considered (ATC). The show’s original philosophy emphasized that ATC should not merely mimic the conventions of standard journalism, with its focus on simply reporting political events and government affairs. Instead, it should provide a much fuller discussion of the issues, as well as incorporate the perspectives of everyday people into its coverage. Yet it did not, at first, achieve the popularity for which its creators had wished. Over the years, therefore, according to some scholars, while still retaining its distinctiveness, to attract a larger audience, ATC somewhat modified its approach by no longer stressing multicultural egalitarianism as much as its authoritative voice.
In due course, similar to the predominantly AM political radio programs, ATC rose in prominence during the 1980s and became NPR’s most famous news and talk show. In 1979, Morning Edition (ME), a comparable offering for morning listeners, was added to the lineup and also achieved successful ratings. Yet unlike their commercial talk radio counterparts, ATC and ME are widely regarded as utterly civil in tone. Their announcers and commentators are generally held to be highly articulate, with smooth, evenhanded vocal deliveries. NPR’s group of listeners is customarily perceived as being more educated, financially sound, and politically liberal than the average audience, although studies have yielded contradictory findings about the degree to which this depiction is accurate (Douglas 2004, 320). Another point of departure from commercial talk radio is that, while both ATC and ME often converse with everyday people during their live discussions and in their taped reports, they do not regularly encourage audience members to call in and become part of the broadcasts.
By the mid-1970s, All Things Considered enjoyed the largest audience of any noncommercial radio program in U.S. history (Douglas 2004, 320-21). Both ATC and ME became recognized for their reporting that, like some of the dramatic World War II broadcasts of the 1940s, symbolically brought the audience into the scene through the use of natural sounds and conversations on location. In its early days, NPR demonstrated a willingness to take on or even dwell on events that other venues would not touch or fully address. For example, in 1978, it became the first network to air a Senate debate live. Soon afterward, instead of furnishing quick daily wrap-ups of the Iran-Contra Scandal, NPR supplied hours of live coverage of the hearings. Although this comprehensive approach continues to characterize NPR, some critics claim that its investigative reporting and proclivity for treating controversial issues has weakened over the years, largely due to decreased government funding and the subsequent growth of corporate sponsorship. (Although NPR does not allow full-length, traditional commercials, it has increasingly permitted advertisers to receive on-air mentions.) They state that NPR is no longer eager to take risks for fear of losing a major source of financial support or alienating conservative politicians who can squeeze its share of the federal budget. They also question whether the network’s broadly viewed left-of-center reputation still rings true and if it, in fact, represents a choice that is fundamentally different from commercial media. Others counter that, despite its limitations, NPR features a wider range of voices than those heard on privately owned radio stations.
The Future of Radio
Despite dramatic changes in the media environment since its inception, radio has adapted every time it was threatened and maintained its vitality. But the current array of emerging new media pose perhaps the greatest challenge traditional radio has ever faced. As digital broadcast radio, direct satellite radio, and the Internet continue to evolve, people will have hundreds or even a seemingly limitless number of channels and other options from which to choose. The capacity already exists—with MP3 files, on-demand programming, and other developing technologies—for audience members to listen to whatever they want, when they want. Media convergence through digitalization allows operations that have not been in the audio business, such as newspaper Web sites, to add to the fray. This also means, conversely, that standard radio broadcasters will have the ability to transmit text, pictures, and video to their listeners.
What impact the new media will have on public radio, which has customarily taken its responsibility to serve the public interest more seriously than its commercial competitors, is of special concern to academics. Some observers say that because public radio has built a significantly strong niche audience, it might hold onto its loyal base by simply doing more of what it does best through additional modes of delivery. They caution, though, that public radio must retain its commitment to public service and not parrot commercial stations if it hopes to survive. More broadly, scholars wonder what influence new media will have on the notion of the public interest in general. Optimistic critics contend that, however the aural landscape plays out, there will be more program diversity than ever before, which will be greatly beneficial to the nation’s state of democracy. In this proliferating media marketplace, people will be addressed not only as consumers but as citizens, thereby yielding a type of electronic public sphere. Perhaps the type of programming that advocates of micro-radio have called for will be realized on the Internet. More pessimistic scholars counter that, given radio’s history and the country’s deeply entrenched commercial media model, it is more likely that corporations will find methods for ensuring that the new forms of media remain friendly to the interests of advertisers and simply amplify the trends that have been in place for decades. In March 2007, for instance, a panel of judges raised the royalty charges that Internet stations playing music would have to pay. Immediately, hundreds of stations, many of which targeted small niche audiences interested in hearing material rarely heard on commercial outlets and were run by private citizens with their own money, closed down. In addition, the cost of satellite and Internet services, based on this school of thought, could prevent many people from fully enjoying the expanding selection of vehicles. The issue of “net neutrality” could become a factor as well. Presently, the Internet is democratic in its nature, regarding every source—whether individual or corporate—more or less equally. If net neutrality were to be undermined, however, some content providers would be treated more favorably than others through a fee arrangement. Those able to pay higher premiums would gain quicker and easier access to Internet users than those incapable of handling the costs. This development, skeptical critics contend, would render an Internet that to a large extent merely reflects the commercial arrangement that has prevailed throughout the country’s media history, contributing little to a revitalized democracy. Moreover, satellite radio and the Internet are regulated differently than broadcast media and, at least for now, are under no obligation to satisfy the public interest. Consequently, so this argument goes, transmissions that reach out to marginalized groups and promote social justice causes will likely see little time of day. Many advocates of the current broadcasting system, on the other hand, declare that a reformed approach to new media is unnecessary because the traditional media structure has more than adequately addressed public interest concerns through free market forces. Ultimately, they say, the audience votes for what it wants by listening to material that meets its needs and disregarding the rest. In a democracy, the majority should rule and the industry should not be required to appeal to unprofitable segments of the population.
One development that almost all analysts would agree on, however, is that digitization will ensure radio will be more interactive and conform less to the one-way transmission model that has characterized broadcast radio since its infancy. This in itself, some would state, is good for democracy. Today, there are already Internet radio operators supplying content meant to cultivate civic participation. What forms radio takes in the future and to what degree they democratically serve the citizenry remain questions for vigorous speculation.