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Reinventing Universal Broadcasting: Parallels Between Radio's Early Years and the Internet's Emergence

Princeton University


This paper draws parallels between the radio's early years and the emergence of the Internet in the United States. Although the two media are different in many respects, the origins and early evolution of the two communication tools share numerous similarities. The emergence of the Internet as a mass communication medium has prompted endless questions about government regulation, privacy concerns, breach in national security, children's unsupervised use of technology, advertising, information reliability, monopolistic tendencies, etc. All of these same questions had to be addressed in the beginning of the century by the nation and, in fact, the world, in relation to the dissemination of wireless communication.

This paper is concerned with the question of what factors influence the overarching change of a communication medium. The paper argues that three main forces determine the evolution of a communication medium: government intervention, the business sector, and user agency. To understand the different ways in which various media are affected by these components, it is essential to analyze the difference in timing and intensity of these factors concerning the respective media. The paper presents some serious concerns facing the Internet in its current form. A historical approach lends itself to a clearer understanding of the processes involved in shaping the current media landscape. Lessons learned from the past may allow us to ask fewer but more focused questions about new technologies, thereby allowing us to concentrate on the most pressing and immediate concerns.



"It was not at all clear how, or even if, corporations could own or manage [it]. It seemed that [this medium] might be the truly democratic, decentralized communication technology people had yearned for, a device each individual would control and use whenever he or she wanted, without tolls." [1] A quotation from a recent article describing the Internet, right? Wrong. The above sentence is used by historian Susan Douglas to describe the status of the radio in 1899, about one century before a similar enthusiasm was to break out about yet another medium, the Internet. This paper is concerned with the question of what factors influence the overarching change of a communication medium. The paper argues that three main forces determine the evolution of a communication medium: government intervention, the business sector, and user agency. Government intervention, for the purposes of this paper, encompasses all government actions related to a medium, including the government's use of the medium, its financial support of the medium's enhancement, and any regulations related to the functions, ownership, distribution, usage, etc. of the medium. The business sector is considered in terms of private entities' profit-maximizing decisions and actions as related to the development and ownership of a medium. User agency refers to the influence of what people want to use a medium for.

Susan Douglas argues that the events of radio's early development must be considered from three angles to clearly understand how this new phenomenon was legitimated and how it was assimilated into American life. The three aspects that Douglas considers crucial are the technology's development, the business strategy taken by the developers, and the coverage of the phenomenon by the press. The differences in approaches -- Douglas' three factors contrasted with the three points emphasized in this paper -- may have to do with the definition of the various concepts concerning what they encompass. This paper assumes that little technological development can happen without some type of support, whether that comes from governmental or private sources. Business strategy is considered under the wider notion of private enterprise. The effect of the press can be accounted for to some degree in user agency. Both are shaped by the other, and both then shape business strategy. Moreover, the press is also considered as a business enterprise itself with concerns of its own that may be reflected in its coverage of news reflecting development in technological innovations.

The paper draws parallels between the emergence of the radio and the emergence of the Internet. Although the two media are different in many respects, the origins and early evolution of the two communication tools share numerous similarities. The emergence of the Internet as a mass communication medium has prompted endless questions about government regulation, privacy concerns, breach in national security, children's unsupervised use of technology, advertising, information reliability, monopolistic tendencies, etc. All of these same questions had to be addressed in the beginning of the century by the nation and, in fact, the world, in relation to the dissemination of wireless communication.

The early years

In its first years, the radio was considered an alternative to the telephone; it was the nonmonopolized wireless alternative to the Bell telephone. Although wireless was quickly embraced by the press and public opinion, it was also clear that certain details about it were far from obvious. The ether, an intangible, invisible entity, seemed to belong to all and it was difficult to grasp at first how it could be partitioned, owned, regulated, controlled, or perhaps even monopolized. Soon, many middle-class boys and young men started using it for their pure amusement. However, after several intervening events -- such as the Titanic disaster and the outbreak of World War I -- the medium suddenly lost its innocence and charm. Government stepped in and amateur use was curtailed. Eventually, the medium was institutionalized and few opportunities were left for individual users. By then, the press had receded in popularizing the medium, and so the change in control and rights was not met by public outcry. Not all amateurs gave up on use, though, and soon, small broadcasting stations began to mushroom all across the country. Before long, corporations picked up on this new profit-making method and adapted its format for radio usage. The major function of the radio switched to broadcasting, and a new communication medium was born.

The predecessor of the Internet was created to serve as a tool in sharing computer resources across geographical distances. Although the idea of adding a human component to networks was thought up by Joseph C.R. Licklider as early as the 1950s, common point-to-point communication was not reached until the 1970s, and even then it was limited to scientists. [2] Only in the 1990s did the Internet become a widespread medium for communication. By the second half of the decade it had also become a broadcasting medium. The uses of its current form encompass just about every existing communication medium. Although the network may seem to have reached a final form, given the large scale of its usership, it is still considered in this discussion as a medium in a beginning stage. This is justified by the fact that the World Wide Web -- the key aspect of the Net concerning its wide popularity -- was only invented in 1990 and the graphical interface that made its use accessible to the layperson was only created in 1993. The fact that the system may have as many as 110 million users worldwide does not mean that it has reached a final form. [3] The system is especially in its early stages with respect to any overarching intervention by the government through some type of regulation or by any clear understanding by either the corporate world or even individual users as to what the new medium is really for and how its use will be financed in the future. Note that in the early broadcasting years of the radio, programming was seen as a means to selling more receivers, not as an end in itself. Moreover, the consequences of the Internet's current form are a big unknown. This paper is concerned with the question of what factors may lead to an overarching change in the network's current form and argues that government, business, and user choices all have to be considered in approaching this question.

Government involvement

The government can act as a consumer of new technologies, as a subsidizer of their development, and/or as a regulator of their distribution and use. These factors are often intertwined and a consideration of their temporal sequence is essential in understanding why government intervention has different effects on different emerging communication media.

The radio was developed as a private enterprise by entrepreneurs who had strong scientific backgrounds but who were not scientists in the institutional sense of the word. Guglielmo Marconi was a man of practice as opposed to a man of science. He was interested in creating apparatuses that would work and could be shown to the public; he was not concerned with the publication of his work in academic circles. He was not affiliated with an academic institution, nor a government, in his quest to disseminate use of his new technological tool. He formed a company which subsidized further development of his invention and also served as an umbrella for business strategies involved in spreading information about the product and distributing it.

In contrast, the initial steps that led up to the creation of ARPANET, the Internet's original military network computer, were entirely subsidized by the American government. Private corporations were involved to the extent that some of the work was contracted out to a private company, and some of the material components of the network were ordered from companies in the business of manufacturing computer machinery. The development of the network was in government hands for several decades of the process. The people working on it were either hired by the Pentagon or were researchers and graduate students at various universities across the country.

In the case of radio, the government was not at all involved in the technology's development. Even after its continuing dissemination across the population, the state did not see any importance in it and thus did not become a major consumer of it or subsidize its technological improvement. Similarly, regulations were not considered seriously, given that the government did not see any potential issues arising. Not only did it not see its usefulness for its own purposes, it was skeptical of whether it could ever be developed to a degree that would make it a useful and widely distributed tool for anyone.

The fact that all initial steps in the development of the Internet's predecessors were performed by one overarching entity allowed the eventual outgrowth of a universal protocol to be used by all network computers. The government did not consider giving up control over the project until it had all its components in place and believed that it would flourish even without its overseeing of the operation. In stark contrast to the radio's early years, the private sector was not at all interested in the network project. Businessmen representing AT&T had been shown the network at a demonstration in 1972, but because something went wrong with one specific project, they laughed it off as perhaps a toy, but nothing more serious. [2] Later, when AT&T was contacted by ARPANET researchers to see if it was interested in taking over the system, it provided a similarly negative response.

Market forces

While the radio was struggling to gain acceptance among government officials, the network was having trouble proving itself to the corporate world. Although eventually both media broke into the other sphere, the different timing of government and business entry into the realms of these media had varying effects on their course of development. Because the Internet was government funded -- and quite nicely at that, having made a good argument for its importance in national security issues -- it was able to realize the full potential of its initial goals. Groups of talented people worked on its development without the pressures of market forces. Before the project left the Pentagon, it already had a protocol that was common to its users across continents. Moreover, it was fairly organized thanks to the introduction of domain names in 1985 due to a foresight on the part of researchers concerning the confusion that was quickly emerging with the increasing spread of the system. The radio did not meet such regulating forces in its early development because it was being developed by several privately owned companies simultaneously. Some were focused on business strategies, while others were interested in technical developments but did not have the financial means to pursue their ideas. There was no generic protocol to follow and so intercommunication was not always guaranteed. Regulation of individuals' use of the airwaves was also lacking, which increased the sense of chaos surrounding the medium.


Government involvement

In the teens of the century, several events led to the sudden transformation of radio from a free-for-all industry to a government-regulated medium. The disaster of the Titanic -- partly due to inadequate radio communication on a nearby ship, partly to interference from amateur users -- turned the press and public opinion against amateur users of radio. The events of World War I led the Navy to acquire all rights to the airwaves, and most radio manufacturing during the war years was centered on fulfilling the Navy's needs. After the war, the question of radio ownership remained. On the one hand, the public and the privately owned press was against government monopoly; on the other hand, in light of the war, no one wanted to see a foreign-owned company -- that of Marconi -- regain most of the access to American airwaves. With the creation of the Radio Corporation of America in 1919, all rights were transferred over to an American company. [1] The event -- although largely undocumented by the popular press of the time -- was significant for other reasons, too; it meant the institutionalization of radio and an end to widespread individual usership in its "traditional" form of the times.

In the mid-1980s, the Internet started to spread beyond research institutions, and corporate interests were now involved in its development and expansion. During the 1990s, the network has spread far beyond the academy and technical enterprises. Corporate interests have grown from year to year. Today, billions of dollars are being spent annually on various resources related to Internet technology. The considerable boom in network usage has raised many questions that were faced by both the private and the public sector during radio's chaotic years. The Internet is currently still in the process of much change and therefore it is not possible to analyze a possible upcoming major transitional phase.

Market forces

Market forces can influence the spread of communication tools quite directly. During the early years of the radio, some inventors had to deal with business issues to the detriment of their research. In its second phase, the radio was able to spread quickly across households because the apparatus became very easy to acquire due to its low price. Although at first manufacturers saw broadcasting as a means to achieving increased profits through selling more machines, soon they realized that the programming was an end in itself by generating profits through advertising. It is yet unclear how similar approaches are relevant to the Net. In the infancy stage of the network, while it was still under the auspices of the American government, market forces did not influence its development at all. In the beginning of the Net's widespread use through the World Wide Web, Microsoft Corporation was not involved in most phases of the Internet market, except to the extent that people were using its machines and interface to access the Net. However, with the increasing popularity of the Net, and the near-monopoly of Netscape Communications in the browser market, Microsoft reevaluated its position and entered several areas of the Internet market with full force (e.g., with its own browser; Internet Explorer). This change in strategy resembles the move from broadcasting-for-machine-sales'-sake to broadcasting-for-the-sake-of-the-content in the radio industry. The latter, in particular, is mirrored by a recent comment from Netscape CEO James Barksdale in which he states that within a year the company will be giving away machines to customers at no cost. Barksdale specifically refers to another communication medium's spread in his explanation of this strategy: "We learned early on, give them a phone, they might use it," where he is reminded of his days at AT&T Wireless Services. [4]

User agency

Both the radio and the Internet at one point in their progressions possessed aspects that gave considerable autonomy to the user. In the early years of the radio, amateur operators communicated with numerous other "unknown" radio hobbyists from faraway locations. The broadcasting nature of the radio was introduced by an individual user without corporate interests. These examples show that the radio's use was shaped by its users. However, in an ideal case, individual operators would have remained widespread across the country. This was not possible because of government intervention in the use of the airwaves.

After the Internet was opened up to private use by individuals outside the military and academic domains, people were able to experience its services firsthand. Electronic mail spread quickly, and so did other functions, especially with the advent of the World Wide Web. The spread beyond the scientific realm required greater accessibility to the system, and thus more and more user-friendly programs were introduced. The ever-increasing complexity of information on the Web required ways to find relevant resources, and thus directories and search engines were developed. These services all responded to the needs of the users. At first, they were often voluntary services offered by private individuals, but soon many of them (e.g., Yahoo!) grew into business enterprises. The widespread interest in e-mail prompted companies to form Web-based e-mail services that provide free e-mail accounts to individuals. The increasing popularity of e-mail is an example of the "I can't be left out" approach of people in terms of new technologies and media.

Perhaps one of the most striking similarities between the emergence of the two media is the public's response to them. A good amount of the public's perception of the new media had to do, in both cases, with other existing media's accounts of the new phenomenon. In the case of the radio, newspapers were quick to point out the positive nature of radio communication. It was a medium that they were hoping to profit from themselves. Given AT&T's monopoly on telephone communication and newspaper companies' heavy reliance on the artificially high rates of telephone communication for up-to-date news information, the written press was quick to embrace the radio as a positive addition to communication technologies. However, they saw it as a wireless telegraph system, not as a broadcasting medium. They saw it as a means to conduct their own business better; it was not an end in itself. The positive portrayal of the radio influenced the public's perception of the medium. People were excited about the new possibilities offered by the emerging technology.

In contrast, the Net was initially perceived in a more ambiguous way by other communication media. In one of the earliest public reports about the network, DARPA was being charged with having served as a tool for the Army in saving (by derouting) information about civilians that it was not supposed to have had in the first place. [2] At this stage the public's perception of the medium was negative, but little of the new medium was well understood, and since it had not yet penetrated into the life of laypeople, this negative perception was not of much importance in the long run. It was not until the network affected the lives of ordinary citizens on a daily basis that the press started devoting increasing amounts of coverage to the topic.

One-to-one communication companies, such as those in the telephone industry, saw it as a rival. However, this in itself did not necessarily have an effect on the public perception of the Net because telephone companies are not broadcasting media and so they have less leverage in influencing public opinion. However, as the broadcasting and information supplier side of the Net grew, other media, especially print and television, may have perceived it as a rival, seeing it not as an addition to their existing medium and thus a means to increasing their own productivity, but as a rival broadcasting medium. Perhaps the radio of the 1990s was the least affected in this sense since spending time online is less likely to deter one from listening to the radio than from reading a newspaper or watching television. The radio requires audio skills, while both newspaper and television require visual skills. While the latter is taken up by most features of the Net, however, the former is left free; it is physically possible to listen to the radio while one is using the Net, whereas it is more unlikely that a person will read a newspaper/magazine or watch television while using the Net.

It was only later that both telephone companies and existing broadcasting media realized the Net's potentials for their own uses and started to embrace the medium. Telephone companies could act as Internet service providers and thereby collect monthly fees from people. Television, radio, newspaper, and magazine companies could use the Net as yet one more outlet for the dissemination of their information. Of course, the medium works better for some than for others. A news channel on TV or a daily print publication can take advantage of the time saved in getting news out to the public. Other media, such as radio stations, have tried to embrace the Net to their advantage in other ways. Some offer online contests, an alternative method for communicating with their personnel, information that is additional to that presented through the traditional medium, and so forth. But this only happened by the time that it became obvious that a considerable amount of people were using the Net. These people were excited about the medium, although many concerns are being raised in relation to children's free access to the medium, pornography online, dangerous materials being freely disseminated, etc. Many of these concerns were counterattacked by proponents of free speech when the Communication Decency Act limiting free speech online was being considered by lawmakers.

Once the Net reached large audiences, market factors were increasingly influencing its development. Much more quickly than in radio's history, profit-making schemes were thought up and implemented within months. Advertising spread quickly (although the various methods are still being debated and much experimentation is involved); the possibility of online shopping was introduced; and the idea of direct marketing to very specific consumer interests was heralded as an important aspect of the Internet's business potential. These examples show the degree to which the presence of private enterprise can form and alter the existing format of a communication medium. With increasing information online -- an effect of the above-mentioned services being introduced -- the capacity of machines is heavily challenged. This prompts continuing upgrades of the system and of the machines being used, which spurs more business for hardware manufacturers. Software producers benefit from creating ever-improving programs.

Presenting the future

So far, this paper has been concerned with the effect of government intervention, business presence, and user agency with respect to the radio's evolution and the Internet's first years up until the present. Following are some specific examples of what spheres of the Internet may be affected to a certain degree in the future due to a change in the degree of presence of any of the three factors.

Initially, as the quotation in the beginning of this paper demonstrates, the radio was considered to be a democratizing force in that it offered individuals the opportunity to freely communicate with other individuals. The radio lost most of this characteristic largely due to government intervention resulting from numerous unwelcome incidents (the disaster of the Titanic being one example). A central feature of the Internet is the power it lends to individuals in open communication. Is it going to be capable of maintaining this vital attribute?

The question is whether it is only a question of time before a disaster similar to that of the Titanic happens due to actions performed via the Internet. It is essential that the public and public policy officials be aware of the powers (whether positive or negative) and consequences of this newly emerging technology. In the beginning of the century, the government did not take certain aspects of radio communication seriously and did not realize the potential negative impact of the misuse of radio communications. This changed the face of radio forever. How soon before incorrect information is widely spread on the Net only to cause a disaster of perhaps similar or even greater multitude than that of the Titanic? That disaster resulted from unregulated uses of airwaves. Similar open use of audio technologies is now being made possible by the Internet. Small radio shows now exist on the network and can be heard by anyone through RealAudio software. [5] The Federal Communications Commission's guidelines concerning which airwaves radio operators have to abide by do not pertain to radio stations operated through the use of telephone lines. Everyone with an e-mail account (and they can be obtained quite anonymously through the already mentioned free Web-based e-mail providers) can send out a message to an unlimited number of recipients. Perhaps more serious is the threat of hackers (also referred to as crackers) who invade Web sites and alter the content, as has been done before with government Web sites. The Titanic disaster was due to amateur operators "hacking" the airwaves, in addition to a lack of personnel on the neighboring ships. Is an Internet disaster going to be due to crackers' hacking of online information?

There are also concerns about information regulation and monopoly. As Joshua Marshall points out, government regulation -- heavily fought by a coalition of public and private organizations -- is not necessarily the biggest threat to free speech [6]. With content censorship resting in the hands of the private sector and becoming more hidden and quiet than ever before, free speech is just as vulnerable than it would have been with government regulation, except worse, because most people will not know about the restrictions being imposed on them. This example shows that solely concentrating on government intervention as the negative player in the fight pro or contra free speech ignores a significant part of the picture. It is important to recognize the potential problems arising from too much hidden power in the hands of private monopolies. As the Titanic incident proved for radio, once a tragedy happens, both the people and the government are more likely to introduce serious limitations and do so quickly.

Content-filtering platforms hide information without the user knowing that this information is hidden. Less severe but nearly as ambiguous is certain popular search sites' categorization of Web pages. Tom Watson calls attention to Yahoo!'s near-monopoly in the directory-structure search-site market [7] (Watson, 1997). In contrast to most search engines, Yahoo!'s list is compiled by people looking through the Web individually deciding what is worthy of including in their lists. One can submit a site for consideration, but inclusion is not guaranteed. Because Yahoo! is one of the most popular search sites, Yahoo!'s arbitrary decisions in deciding what to list in its directory and where it lists a site give it considerable power in deciding what counts as legitimate content on the Web and what does not.

Similarly, on a smaller level but still keeping with monopolistic tendencies, the free home page provider company, GeoCities, uses arbitrary rules in deciding which home pages to feature on its mailing lists and special pages. This company, which is mainly concerned with individual Web pages, has a membership of more than 1.6 million. The decisions made by GeoCities staff concerning worthy personal home pages can easily have an effect on a high number of users. [8] Although the Web is heralded as a truly democratic medium, one wonders to what degree such corporate powers influence the nature of its equality. Yes, communication media such as radio, television, and print media also have gatekeepers that screen what information is available and noticed by the public. The question is, can the Internet continue to live up to expectations considering its democratic and egalitarian treatment of information with an increase in gatekeeper activity on the network?

A sudden unprecedented negative event may push the public and the government toward a situation where quick regulatory solutions are urged without much deliberation of their consequences. The medium could see a tightening up through government regulation. However, a sudden disaster is not necessary to tighten up certain aspects of the medium. The market may do that through the emergence of a few censoring software giants. This would be nothing new in the media and technology industries. Media giants already exist, and so do near-monopolies in other realms of related technologies. The question remains: how much effect will this have on the Internet's current form? And how will have users shaped the Internet by then to possibly retain some of its deemed-to-be-essential characteristics?


Although the discussion in this paper was limited to the radio and the Internet, the three factors detailed above are considered to be key elements in the development and diffusion of other communication media as well.  Government intervention, business strategies, and user agency also influenced the evolution of printing and the telephone, just to name two examples.  To understand the different ways in which various media were affected by these components, it is essential to analyze the difference in timing and intensity of these factors concerning the respective media. Such an approach lends itself to a clearer understanding of the processes involved in shaping the current media landscape. And lessons learned from the past may allow us to ask fewer but more focused questions about new technologies, thereby allowing us to concentrate on the most pressing and immediate concerns.


Thanks to Paul Starr of the Sociology Department of Princeton University for his helpful comments on this paper.


  1. Douglas, Susan. 1987. Inventing American Broadcasting 1899-1922. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press.
  2. Hafner, Katie and Matthew Lyon. 1996. Where Wizards Stay Up Late: The Origins of the Internet. New York: Simon and Schuster.
  3. NUA Internet Surveys. April 1998. "How Many On-line."
  4. Edupage. "Netscape Chief Predicts PC Give-Away" September 19, 1997. Computer News Daily as quoted in Edupage, September 21, 1997,
  5. Chervokas, Jason and Tom Watson. November 7, 1997. "Tiny Web Broadcasters Return to Radio Days." CyberTimes, The New York Times.
  6. Marshall, Joshua Micah. "Will Free Speech Get Tangled in the Net?" The American Prospect no. 36 (January-February 1998): 46-50,
  7. Watson, Tom. October 10, 1997. "Have You Been Yahoo'd?  Power and Problems." Silicon Alley News @Viewpoints.
  8. GeoCities. April 1998.

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