The Silencing of a Democratic Medium: Early Public Policy on Radio and the Regulation of the Internet

John Stevenson
Department of Communications Studies, Concordia University, Montreal
+1 514 481 9912;


The radio of the 1920s bears many similarities to the Internet of today: it was a decentralized technology which allowed amateur broadcasters to present content of interest to themselves and their community. A wide range of institutions and individuals, representing all sectors of society, operated radio stations. Radio equipment was plentiful and inexpensive; radio expertise was easily accessible. In 1920, there were over 125,000 radio amateurs in the United States alone. By the mid-1930s, however, the North American radio spectrum had become dominated by commercial and, in Canada, public broadcasting. In Great Britain, amateur and non-public broadcasting were all but made illegal. This paper examines the policy environment which led to the regulation of broadcasting in North America, with some mention being made of parallel developments in Great Britain. This is contrasted with recent challenges in the creation of the "information highway" in Canada with the objective of drawing historic parallels between recent events and those of the 1920s and early-1930s.

We have now become used to a situation in which broadcasting is a major social institution, about which there is always controversy but which, in its familiar form, seems to have been predestined by the technology. This predestination, however, when closely examined, proves to be no more than a set of particular social decisions, in particular circumstances, which were then so widely if imperfectly ratified that it is now difficult to see them as decisions rather than as (retrospectively) inevitable results.
--Raymond Williams, Television: Technology and Cultural Form, p. 23.

When I originally wrote the abstract for this presentation in January of this year, my intention was to present a cautionary tale about the process of communication regulation. Since then, events have overtaken me to some extent, particularly in the US. The passing of the Communications Decency provisions of the new Telecommunications Act was perhaps the most pivotal moment in the short history of Internet regulation; I believe that even if its provisions are overturned or modified that the way we look at the Internet and what it means has gone through something of a water change.

You may me ask yourself what the Internet has to do with the history of radio. My principle objective is to draw some comparisons between the recent growth of the Internet and the rise of radio in North America. I make this comparison knowing full well that it may be overly general, but my aim is to sound a note of caution to anyone who believes that the technology of the Internet is so radically different from anything which has come before that it, and it alone, has the potential to change the world, and that such change is inevitable and unstoppable.

These days, we tend not to think of radio as being a transformative, "cutting edge" communications technology. Radio has become something which we listen to in our cars, a medium which, these days, is not even all that important in setting musical tastes, let alone acting as a primary medium for entertainment and information. But this has not always been the case. From a period starting in late 1920s and lasting into the early-1950s, radio was what we might call today as "hot medium." We call this era "The Golden Age of Radio," the period which saw the creation of many of the genres of programming which we see on televisions today.

Yet the radio which North America listened to in the 1930s--at the height of this "Golden Age"--was quite different from what had been available during radio's formative years in the late-teens and early 1920s. The American commercial networks--NBC and CBS--which we associate most strongly with radio programming styles during that period, only came into existence in the late-1920s. In fact, the radio spectrum during most of the decade was controlled by a mix of commercial, non-commercial, and amateur radio broadcasters (McChesney and others).

Today, it's hard to think of American media as anything except nearly uniformly commercial. Advertising is the economic engine which drives programming decisions and sustains the efforts of broadcasters, whether on radio, television, or, now, cable. This was not the case during most of the 1920s. In fact, the great challenge of broadcasting in the 1920s seems to have been finding a model of operation which was economically sustainable; McChesney writes that the 1920s were a period of experimentation in an attempt to find financially sustainable models for radio broadcasting (14).

One of the primary reasons for the acceptance of radio in the 1920s was the enthusiasm and energy of radio hobbyists: the amateurs. In the early 1920s, amateurs were radio's primary programming producers and audience. Rosen reports that the American Radio Relay League, an American association if amateurs, had more than 6000 members in 1920 (32). Within a few years, the number had increased to 125,000 in the United States alone (Lewis and Pearlman 57). World War I had trained many of them in the rudiments of radio engineering and operation; the war also created a surplus of radio equipment which could be purchased easily.

The initial use of radio was for wireless telephony, identical to activities which we would today identify with HAM radio operators. But the medium began to be used for other, more complex means of broadcasting as well: various types of live performance and more structured news and information. What evolved was not what we would today recognize as commercial broadcasting, but rather a kind of "promotional" broadcasting. Businesses, such a department stores, and other types of media, such as newspapers, started radio stations as a means of promotion. These stations were run at a loss, with no advertising save for the promotion of the owner or institution. At the same time, and in a somewhat similar vein, non-profit broadcasting began. Like the promotional broadcasters, the non-profit broadcasters, including churches and unions, were promoting themselves and providing entertainment and news.

These types of broadcasting were by no means isolated or marginal: in 1926, one-third of radio stations were owned and operated by a nonprofit organization, and one-third were run for publicity purposes by area businesses (McChesney 14). Only 4.3% of radios described themselves as "commercial" (Ibid.). Broadcast advertising as we have come to know was, at this point, an uncommon means of supporting a radio station.

Although I am leery of drawing too much of a comparison between the early radio period and the present day, the similarities at least bear discussion. In the 1920s, amateur broadcasting thrived. Individuals took it upon themselves to learn the technical side of the radio medium, and used this knowledge to facilitate communication among themselves. This type of activity has always been a strong element in North American "computer culture," taking various forms over the years from the "hackers" who created the first personal computers to the current users of the Internet (Levy and others).

From a commercial perspective, the 1920s was dominated by a search for a business model for broadcasting. Advertising and sponsorship, developed in the latter part of the decade, were hotly debated and generally derided as methods of achieving sustainability. That is precisely the situation we seem to be in at the moment with the Internet: attempting to create business models which will support the provision of content.

There were a wide variety of "content providers" broadcasting in the 1920s, just as there are now on the Internet. And just as in the 1920s, the Internet presence is, for most non-computer businesses, an extension of there existing marketing efforts, provided with little immediate prospect of cost recovery.

We have heard often enough that the Internet is a decentralized and democratic medium; that has been a theme in much of writing about the Internet, especially in the early-1990s. Yet in many ways, radio is the ultimate decentralized medium; although to become a broadcaster does require a significant investment in both technical knowledge and equipment, neither is prohibitive from a hobbyist point of view. And unlike the Internet, radio is not dependent on a physical connection to a network; if you have a transmitter, you can broadcast. To receive radio requires an investment of less than $100, with even a fully-featured short-wave receiver only a few hundred dollars at most.

Yet the diversity and, some would argue, many of the democratic elements of radio did not survive the 1920s. First, amateur frequencies were restricted. Then, the very form and ownership of radio were legislated. Although the approaches were somewhat different in the United States, Great Britain, and Canada, the result--a limiting of meaningful choice--was the same.

The early 1920s saw the first significant limits on frequency use by radio amateurs. Amateurs in the United States had their frequencies restricted in 1922 in a general effort to open up bandwidth for institutional broadcasters (Rosen 36). In Great Britain, however, the regulations were even broader: in 1921, the British Imperial Communication Committee enforced a two year moratorium on all broadcasting (Lewis and Perlman 64). It was only after a petition from 63 wireless societies was handed to the Post Office that domestic broadcasting was reconsidered--and then, only under the auspices of the state-run British Broadcasting Company (66). All types of broadcasting--non-profit, commercial, institutional and amateur--were severely limited.

In the United States, the legislation was significantly different, but no less transformative. Robert McChesney has done much to document the forgotten struggle of non-profit broadcasters in the early-1930s to preserve bandwidth in the face of the increasing commercialization of radio, and it is impossible to reproduce his work here. Suffice to say that the 1930s was the last period in American broadcasting history when the form and ownership of a medium was discussed to any meaningful extent (McChesney 29). There was clear and significant opposition to the network-dominated, advertiser-supported broadcasting system which emerged in the late-1920s; non-commercial broadcasters attempted to lobby congress to preserve part of the broadcast spectrum for their stations, and to promote other models. But in the Radio Act of 1932, American legislators decided on a broadcasting system which was almost purely commercial; the non-profit and independent private broadcasters, so important to the development of radio in the 1920s, soon faded from the scene.

By 1934, American commercial radio had already established a firm foothold, not just on the airwaves, but within the minds of Canadian legislators and the listeners. The situation in Canada was, of course, unique, but again, the early 1930s were pivotal years. It is difficult to even speak convincingly of Canadian radio as one might speak of British or American broadcasting. Although the history of broadcasting around the world has always seen the encounter between perceived national needs and American programming and practices, this has been particularly acute in Canada. The defining narrative of Canadian broadcasting is one of reaction to, and acceptance of, American genres and programming content, and compromise in terms of content and ownership. While we might identify the British broadcasting tradition, for instance, as overwhelming public, and the American as overwhelmingly commercial, the best we can say about the Canadian system is that it is mixed. While the comparison is sometimes made between a commercial approach in the United States and a public approach in Canada, it is a false dichotomy. Broadcasting in Canada has always contained commercial elements, starting with the carrier stations of the Canadian National Railway (Vipond 258). However, there has been an emphasis on public elements and control of broadcasting which have never existed in the United States.

The broadcasting system created in the 1932 Radio Broadcasting Act did not create a purely public, British-style system, however. Instead, Bennett's government created a mixed system of broadcasting by allowing commercial broadcasters to continue operating, and creating a public broadcaster as well, the Canadian Radio Broadcasting Commission (CRBC), which would also oversee all broadcasting. Although there was the potential that the CRBC would nationalize Canadian broadcasting, there was a clear emphasis on regulation which would also strengthen commercial interests (Vipond 274).

There are many reasons for the difference in approach. Canada is an order of magnitude smaller than the United States in terms of population, though larger in geographic size. This means that while market forces will bring broadcasting services to much of the Canadian population, many will be left out. Both Vipond and Hardin agree that Canada has too few people spread over too large an area to make large-scale, American-style commercial broadcast networks presenting exclusively Canadian programming viable (Vipond 265; Hardin 43).

Perhaps most important is the fact that Canada had an effective public lobby group which promoted non-commercial broadcasting: the Canadian Radio League (CRL) (Vipond 257). While Vipond writes that this organization was not as effective as some have claimed, it did have a significant impact on the creation of legislation, appearing before royal commissions and government committees. There was no American voice of similar strength.

In our decades-long journey from the 1934 Radio Broadcasting Act to the present day, it is inviting to believe that we have arrived at a point where the principles supporting a diverse system of broadcasting--one which includes public, commercial, and community elements--were so firmly entrenched in Canadian broadcasting policy that they would continue to be part of any public discourse around new media forms such as the Internet. Unfortunately, that would not appear to be the case. Instead, we are once more at a moment where the seeming transformative powers of a new communications technology has dazzled our regulators to such an extent that they are willing to allow the decades-old traditions of broadcasting policy to be transformed with as well. It is telling, and somewhat disturbing, that despite the interventions of many so-called "public interest" groups during the CRTC's Information Highway hearing in 1995, there was virtually no mention of using existing community media models--beyond corporate-controlled community television--in the Commission's final report.

I think that we are sometimes so dazzled by the newness of the Internet that we forget that it is a medium which, like any other, develops within a social and political environment. So much of the Internet discourse, both popular and technical, tends to "abstract technology from society," as Raymond Williams would say, placing the development of telemetrics in a sphere isolated from the surrounding culture (13). To repeat this mistake with the Internet, or to allow regulators to repeat this mistake, will lead inevitably to a limiting of choice within the new media. To be more specific, the danger we face in the 1990s is not that we will have little choice in our media selections, but that the choices themselves will be meaningless. After all, how many of us have more than forty or fifty channel choices thanks to cable television, and how many of these choices do we consider good ones? The commercialization of the Internet is not in and of itself bad; what is problematic is the possibility that commercial interests will come to dominate the Internet in such a way that there are fewer meaningful choices. The choice is not simply in terms of individual programs or in types of programming, but also in methods of ownership, decision-making and financing. The radio of the 1920s tells us that we can go from a state of having greater diversity to one of having lesser diversity, and that this is not a matter of the marketplace at work and consumer choice, but rather a matter of effective commercial lobbying of lawmakers.

To say that the "Internet regards censorship as a hardware problem and just works around it," an oft-repeated sentence over the past few months, ignores the reality of the Scientology harassment and lawsuits, the investigation of CompuServe by the FBI, and the general chilling effect of the Communications Decency Act. We cannot assume that either the technology or the culture of the Internet--both of which are changing rapidly--can "protect" it from government regulation or commercialization, whatever form it may take. It is dependent on us--as developers, sysadmins, and, most importantly, as users--to intervene politically in a consistent and effective manner in order to create an Internet medium which reflects our need for choice and the free flow of information and opinion. We must do what the members of the Canadian Radio League did in the 1930s: intervene on behalf of the public interest, lest that interest be swept away by a tide of commercial or governmental objectives.


Canadian Radio-television Telecommunications Commission. Competition and Culture on Canada's Information Highway: Managing the Realities of Transition. Ottawa: Public Works and Government Services Canada, 19 May 1995.

Douglas, George H. The Early Days of Radio Broadcasting. Jefferson: McFarland and Company Inc., 1987.

Hardin, Herschel. Closed Circuits: The Sellout of Canadian Television. Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1985.

Hardy, Henry Edward. The History of the Net. Unpublished Master's thesis. Allendale: Grand Valley State University, 1993. Electronically distributed, gopher://

Lewis, Peter, and Corinne Pearlman. Media and Power: A Graphic Guide. London: Camden Press, 1986.

Levy, Steven. Hackers: Heroes of the Computer Revolution. New York: Dell Publishing, 1984.

McChesney, Robert W. Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rosen, Philip T. The Modern Stentors: Radio Broadcasting and the Federal Government. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 1980.

Vipond, Mary. Listening In: The First Decade of Canadian Broadcasting, 1922-1932. Montreal: Queen's University Press, 1992.

Williams, Raymond. Television: Technology and Cultural Form. Fontana/Collins, 1973.