Of all the major inventions of the twentieth century, few have had a more profound impact on people's lives than radio and television. By 1933, two-thirds of American homes had at least one radio, twice as many as those with telephones. Forty-five years later, 97 percent of all households had at least one television set. But the numbers cannot convey the contradictory roles that broadcasting has played in American society as it has reshaped the country's politics, economy, and culture.
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This Day in History
Joan Collins is born, 1933
On this day in 1933, Joan Collins, a classically trained actress who will become best known for her role on the 1980s prime-time soap opera Dynasty, is…
Developed in the 1830s and 1840s by Samuel Morse and other inventors, the telegraph revolutionized long-distance communication.
An international military conflict, World War II involved most countries around the world and lasted from 1939 to 1945.
A U.S. stock market crash in 1929 sparked the decade-long international economic downturn known as the Great Depression.
Did You Know?
According to the A.C. Nielsen Co., the average American watches more than 4 hours of TV each day. In a 65-year life, that person will have spent 9 years of their life watching television.
The broadcast media have allowed Americans to listen to and watch candidates for public office in order to decide for themselves who merits their support. But television has also trivialized politics, overemphasizing appearance and style while too often serving as gatekeeper for the flow of information about the political process. Radio and television have exposed Americans to an unprecedented amount of news and information. But they have also promoted anti-intellectualism and elevated mindless entertainment over the pursuit of knowledge. Broadcasting provides free entertainment in the home, which is often a godsend for the ill, the confined, parents of small children, and those simply exhausted after a day's work. But in exchange, the audience has become a commodity sold to advertisers, who in turn try to persuade everyone, including children, to buy their products. Radio and television, then, have both expanded and narrowed people's horizons. But as we review their enormous impact on American life, we should keep in mind that they are not a sort of hypodermic needle, injecting an unsuspecting culture with alien messages. They are the product of American history, having themselves been shaped by the trends and events of the twentieth century.
When Guglielmo Marconi, the Irish-Italian inventor, came to the United States in 1899 to demonstrate how his wireless telegraph might expedite press coverage of the America's Cup races, the concept of broadcasting had not entered his mind at all. He thought his device, which sent Morse code messages without connecting wires, would be useful for corporate clients who needed a rapid, mobile communications system. His American competitors, however, sought to expand the invention's applications and to use it to transmit music and voice. On Christmas Eve, 1906, Reginald Fessenden, who developed the first sophisticated radio transmitter, the high-frequency alternator, sent out a program of music and speech. Lee de Forest, inventor of the radio tube, attempted to broadcast synthesized music and opera in New York City between 1907 and 1909. By the next decade, amateur operators were broadcasting speech, music, and coded messages in dozens of cities. This activity, interrupted by World War I, resumed in the early 1920s, and the radio boom began. The number of broadcasting stations soared, from 30 in 1922 to 556 in 1923, and by the next year, the number of homes with radios had tripled. This explosion produced chaos in the airwaves, and broadcasters wrestled with how to avoid interference and how to pay for programming.
Golden Age of Radio
The solutions to these problems established commercial and regulatory precedents that determined how broadcasting would be managed. Owners of radio stations, seeking to reduce competition and maximize profits, organized stations into networks to broadcast the same show at the same time. And they began experimenting with on-air advertising as a way to finance programming. Radio advertising was, in the 1920s, only one of several proposals for financing radio, and it was controversial. Critics felt that sending ads over the airwaves constituted an invasion of privacy, sabotaging people's ability to keep the marketplace out of the home. So sponsors who wanted to sell their products over radio began with “indirect advertising.” The merits of a product, its price, or where it could be purchased were not mentioned. Instead, singing groups, comedians, or bands assumed the name of the sponsor, giving rise to such radio celebrities as the Cliquot Club Eskimos and the A&P Gypsies. Because corporate sponsorship provided money to increase the quality and variety of programming, companies found they generated goodwill with listeners, and resistance to advertising (although not resentment of it) gradually broke down. During the depression, as advertisers gained more financial clout, direct sales pitches became the norm.
What made radio so attractive to advertisers was the formation of networks: NBC (National Broadcasting Company, 1926), CBS (Columbia Broadcasting System, 1927), and MBS (Mutual Broadcasting System, 1934) offered advertisers instant access to a national audience. Thus, networks and advertisers helped accelerate and consolidate the emergence of a highly profitable national market for products.
Yet advertisers, in the early 1930s, knew almost nothing about this vast audience. Who listened to what, and when? Why might they buy one product over another? And which ads were the most effective? To answer such questions, audience research became an important component of the broadcasting industry. Ever since the mid-1930s, advertisers have relied on ratings of shows and demographic breakdowns of audiences to decide which programs to sponsor. Thus began the analysis and packaging of the public as audiences for sale to advertisers, who exerted increasing influence over the content and form of the shows they supported.
With radio relying on a limited natural resource, the electromagnetic spectrum, various interests pressed for government regulation. The Radio Act of 1912 had initiated the licensing of stations and introduced a crude allocation of wavelengths. The law was revised and expanded in 1927 and revamped again in 1934, when the Federal Communications Commission FCC was established. Fearing that a radio czar would have too much power, Congress established a commission of seven to consider license applications and renewals. Licensees had to demonstrate, every three years, that they were serving the “public interest, convenience and/or necessity.” The FCC periodically investigated charges of monopoly, and though it did not have censorship powers, it issued guidelines on obscenity, fraudulent and excessive advertising, and other controversial issues. To reduce interference and improve the quality of reception, the government allocated most of the spectrum, and certainly its preferred portions, to those with the most powerful and sophisticated transmitting equipment. This approach, begun in 1927, automatically gave preference to business interests and discriminated against the poorer educational stations, whose numbers dropped from ninety-eight in 1927 to forty-three in 1933, and continued to decline.
By the late 1930s, radio was woven into the fabric of American life. Public events, from political rallies to sporting events and vaudeville routines, were now enjoyed by millions in private. And, increasingly, Americans got their news from radio, especially news of the expanding war in Europe. The immediacy and drama of the war news tied people more intimately to unfolding events; it also, apparently, put some on edge. When Orson Welles broadcast his “War of the Worlds” on Halloween, 1938, he had no inkling that the mock terror of the play would resonate with a real terror of invasion among some listeners, prompting them to clog highways as they sought to flee the Martians.
The war also catapulted broadcast journalism into a powerful, and often superior, competitor to the newspaper. Edward R. Murrow, whose wartime broadcasts from London established a new level of eloquence and courage in radio newscasting, brought the war into people's living rooms. So did Eric Sevareid, Howard K. Smith, and Charles Collingwood, among others.
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