Hoover and Public Service
Since the Radio Act of 1927 created the Federal Radio Commission (the
forerunner of the Federal Communications Commission), it has been
understood that broadcasters had an obligation to serve in "the public
interest, convenience, and necessity."1 While not as fundamental to the
American system of broadcasting as in Great Britain and many other Western
democracies — and while deregulation in recent years has considerably
diluted the standard — the public-service component has been a key
licensing requirement for U.S. broadcasters from the beginning. It has
also been a major point of disagreement because of its vagueness.2
In the embryonic years of American broadcasting, the Secretary of Commerce
under President Warren Harding and, later, Calvin Coolidge, Herbert Hoover
— of course, later president himself — profoundly affected the development
of American broadcasting. In particular, Hoover's decisions and leadership
strongly influenced the concept that broadcasters, receiving licenses to
use the public airwaves for commercial purposes, should in return provide a
measure of public service. In fact, Hoover was the first to articulate the
public-service requirement of U.S. broadcasting.3 This is especially
relevant in the context of the continuing trend of broadcast deregulation
and calls from public-advocacy groups for greater public-service demands to
be made on broadcasters.
The idea of Hoover as a supporter of strong public-service requirements
for broadcasters is at odds with his popular image today as a
conservative's conservative — a proponent of "what's good for business is
good for the country." But Hoover's papers reveal a strong advocate for
the notion that broadcasting — more than a profit-centered medium for
advertising and entertainment — should serve the general public
interest. The standard of "public interest, convenience and necessity,"
while vague and less demanding than some would wish, nevertheless helped to
provide at least a minimum level of public service in U.S. broadcasting for
more than 50 years, before deregulation began to chip away at its
To the third in a series of national radio conferences Hoover called to
organize the embryonic broadcasting industry, the commerce secretary asserted:
Radio has passed from the field of an adventure to that of a public
utility. Nor among the utilities is there one whose activities may yet
come more closely to the life of each and every one of our citizens, nor
which holds out great possibilities of future influence, nor which is of
more potential public concern. It must now be considered as a great agency
of public service.4
The meaning of the "public interest, convenience and necessity"
requirement has always been considered vague, and long-standing differences
in opinion of what it should mean exist. And so, it is useful to
understand as closely as possible what Hoover, the man whose influence was
largely responsible for the requirement, meant by public service in
broadcasting. This study uses archival material contained in the Herbert
Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, supplemented by other
historical sources, to explore Hoover's philosophy of public-service in
While Hoover pointed broadcasting in the direction of a public-service
standard, historian Erik Barnouw5 wrote that the Teapot Dome scandal — in
which Secretary of the Interior Albert B. Fall illegally sold oil leases
from national reserves — also influenced the idea of broadcasting as a
public service. Just as Congress saw oil reserves and rivers as public
resources requiring protection, so it came to see the airwaves as something
that should remain under the control of the federal government. The
scarcity of space in the broadcast spectrum compelled those granted a
license to broadcast, in return, to provide a measure of public service.6
In the Radio Act of 1927, Congress mandated that radio broadcasters would
be licensed to use channels for a limited period of time, and the licensees
would be those who could best serve in the "public interest, convenience
and necessity." In developing the public interest standard, Congress used
as its model the law that regulated the interstate railroad industry.7
The actual requirements of serving the public interest, convenience and
necessity have evolved over the years. The Federal Radio Commission
(created by the Radio Act of 1927) established loose criteria — including
program diversity, high-quality transmission and reception, and a character
evaluation of licensees — to determine whether each station was meeting its
The FCC attempted to define the public interest more clearly in 1946 with
the "Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees" statement, or
"Blue Book." The Blue Book addressed public service from the standpoint of
programming. It required a balanced "sustaining" (unsponsored) program
structure; live local talent programs; coverage of important public issues;
elimination of advertising excesses; and a "field for experiment in new
types of programs, free of concern for advertising." A few stations had to
answer questions related to the Blue Book in license renewal hearings, but
no station lost its license because of non-compliance, and the FCC allowed
the Blue Book to become obsolete after five years.9
The FCC created the Fairness Doctrine in 1949, mandating that both sides of
controversial issues be heard over the air. It became a major part of the
public-interest requirement for broadcasters until the courts ruled in 1987
that it violated the First Amendment.10 The equal opportunity, or "equal
time," provision, requiring stations to treat qualified political
candidates equally in the sale of air time, has existed from the beginning
and still remains.11
In 1960, mainly to "remind" television broadcasters how to meet the
public-interest requirements, the FCC issued a "Program Policy
Statement." Again, the FCC did not strictly enforce the policy, but it
did add the license ascertainment requirement, which required broadcasters
to survey their communities to determine local programming needs. The FCC
dropped the license ascertainment requirement in the 1980s.12 In
addition, the 1960 Program Policy Statement led to guidelines that set a
standard of at least 10% non-entertainment programming, including 5% news
and public-affairs programming. The guidelines were repealed in 1984.13
Apart from these few exceptions, views of exactly what the public-interest
standard means have widely varied, even among FCC chairmen. Newton Minow,
the FCC chairmen under the Kennedy administration, famously remarked that
television was a "vast wasteland" because of its mainly vapid programming,
and placed a high value on public service in broadcasting. "There were two
words I wanted to be remembered in that speech," Minow commented in recent
years. "The two words were not 'vast wasteland.' The two words were
'public interest.'"14 On the other hand, Mark Fowler, the FCC chairman
under the Reagan administration, asserted: "Why is there this national
obsession to tamper with this box of transistors and tubes when we don't do
the same for Time magazine? . . . The television is just another
appliance — it's a toaster with pictures."15
In recent years, various public-advocacy groups have criticized
broadcasters' commitment to public service and have proposed new
public-service requirements for broadcasting. A Media Access Project study
found that 70% of the 40 television stations they studied provided no
regularly scheduled local public-affairs programming. With digital
broadcasting on the horizon, and the debate raging over the allotment of
spectrum space for new digital-broadcasting channels, the group called for
the FCC to require stations devote 20% of the digital capacity or program
time to public-service programming, and to provide free time to political
candidates. Broadcasters respond that their commitment to public service
should be measured in other ways besides programming. A National
Association of Broadcasters study reported that broadcasters contributed
$6.85 billion to public-interest projects in 1997.16
Hoover on public service and broadcasting
As a means of sorting out the many questions relating to the development
of the fledgling radio broadcasting industry, Hoover, as secretary of
commerce, called a series of conferences, bringing together radio
manufacturers, broadcasters, and others. As he spoke to the First National
Radio Conference in Washington, D.C. on Feb. 27, 1922, the idea of public
service was very much on Hoover's mind. "We are indeed today on the
threshold of a new means of widespread communication of intelligence that
has the most profound importance from the point of view of public education
and public welfare," Hoover told the conference. A Department of Commerce
report following the conference stated: "It is the sense of the conference
that radio communication is a public utility and as such should be
regulated and controlled by the Federal government in the public interest."17
Hoover marveled that virtually no one opposed expanding federal regulation
of broadcasting. As he contemplated what form that regulation should take,
he was certain that some measure of public service should be part of the
proposition. "It is one of the few instances that I know of where the
whole industry and the country is earnestly praying for more regulation,"
he remarked. "It raises questions as to what extension in the power of the
[Commerce] department should be requested of Congress in order that the
maximum public good shall be secured from the development of this great
invention." Hoover resolutely told the conference that it must keep the
public's interest in broadcasting foremost in mind. "There is involved in
all of this regulation the necessity to so establish the public ['s] right
over the ether roads that there may be no national regret that we have
parted with a great national asset into uncontrolled hands."18
While Hoover made references to the public interest in broadcasting
starting with the First National Radio Conference in 1922, broadcasting
historian Erwin G. Krasnow and FCC member Susan Ness,19 among others, have
credited Hoover with establishing the principle that the "public interest,
convenience, and necessity" must be considered in the licensing of radio
broadcasters in his address to the Fourth National Radio Conference on Nov.
The ether is a public medium and its use must be for public benefit. The
use of a radio channel is justified only if there is public benefit. The
dominant element for consideration in the radio field is, and always will
be, the great body of the listening public, millions in number. . . . I
have no frozen views on radio, except that the public interest must
dominate. . . . The greatest public interest must be the deciding
factor. I presume that few will dissent as to the correctness of this
principle, for all will agree that public good must overbalance private
Significantly, however, Hoover added a qualifying comment, almost as an
after thought, that foreshadowed the indistinct nature that the
public-interest licensing requirement would ultimately take. "As many of
you know," he confided, "I am not one of those who seek to extend any sort
of government regulation into any quarter that is not vital, and in this
suggestion, I am even endeavoring to create enlarged local
responsibility."21 This concept has allowed local stations wide latitude
in determining what is in the public interest.
When in 1925 the Zenith Corporation successfully challenged Hoover's
authority as secretary of commerce to restrict its Chicago radio station
from moving to a more desirable frequency, Congress responded with the
Radio Act of 1927. It included many of the recommendations from the series
of radio conferences Hoover led, including the requirement for stations to
serve in the "public interest, convenience and necessity" in return for use
of the public airwaves.22
Congressman Wallace H. White, Jr., the co-author of the Radio Act of 1927 —
which became the framework for U.S. broadcasting regulation — in particular
acknowledged that the Fourth National Radio Conference influenced the
content of the legislation. "The recent radio conference . .
. recommended that licenses should be issued only to those stations whose
operation would render a benefit to the public. . . . The broadcasting
privilege will not be a right of selfishness. It will rest upon an
assurance of public interest to be served," White said.23
What did Hoover mean when he said that broadcasting should serve in "the
greatest public interest"? He did not specifically define the concept of
the public interest in broadcasting. But in a series of public comments
over the years, Hoover emphasized several key concepts in connection with
public service: That broadcasting should avoid control by monopoly; that it
should be free of direct government control, which he considered the
equivalent of censorship; that broadcasting should provide a high standard
of programming, which would be insured by the listeners, free to choose
among numerous stations; that the interest of amateur radio operators, many
of them children and adolescents, should be protected; and, finally, and
most fundamentally, that radio stations should transmit clear,
interference-free programming to the listeners.
Opposed to monopoly
As one aspect of insuring that the public interest would be served by
broadcasting, Hoover emphasized the importance of preventing radio from
being dominated by monopoly. He argued for a system of licensing that
required broadcasters to renew their licenses every few years. "I can see
no alternative to abandonment of the present system, which gives the
broadcasting privilege to everyone who can raise funds necessary to erect a
station, irrespective of his motive, [or] the service he proposes to
render," Hoover said at the Fourth National Radio Conference. He said
those who received broadcasting licenses should not hold them
indefinitely. "That would confer a monopoly of a channel on the air, and
deprive us of public control over it. It would destroy the public
assurance that it will be used for public benefit," Hoover said.24
RCA president David Sarnoff, the most powerful figure in the early years of
American broadcasting apart from Hoover, had proposed a system of "super
power" stations, having virtually unlimited power and operated by RCA, and
perhaps other major manufacturers, that would cover the entire country
(Smulyan, 1994). Hoover, normally sympathetic to business interests, saw
this as a dangerous step toward monopoly. Speaking at the Third National
Radio Conference, Hoover said: "The conference has been strongly urged to
recommend the abolition of all limits on power, but it refuses to do so. .
. . The conference is unalterably opposed to any monopoly in
broadcasting." The conference recommended setting a power limit of 50,000
watts, which remains the greatest power allowed for AM stations.25
Explicitly opposing a monopoly of the dominant radio manufacturers of the
day, Hoover opposed domination by any "corporation, individual or
combination. It would be in principle the same as though the entire press
of the country was so controlled. The effect would be identical whether
this control arose under a patent monopoly or under any form of
Hoover saw the avoidance of a broadcasting monopoly as a First Amendment
issue. "What we must safeguard is that there shall be no interference with
free speech, that no monopoly of broadcasting stations should grow up under
which any person or group could determine what material will be delivered
to the public."27
Opposed to government "censorship"
While Hoover staunchly held that broadcasting should be expected to serve
in the public interest, he just as strongly opposed government control of
broadcasting. Government control, Hoover felt, would hinder all aspects of
broadcasting's development. But also, Hoover saw the imposition of
programming requirements on radio as a form of censorship, and favored
allowing the stations to decide for themselves the content of their
programs. "Determining the priority of material to be broadcasted implies
indirect censorship. . . . I certainly am opposed to the Government
undertaking any censorship even with the present limited number of
stations. It is better that these questions should be determined by the
570 different broadcasting stations than by any government official."28
During the First National Radio Conference in 1922, Hoover actually mused
over the creation of a government-sanctioned service that would have
resembled the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, speaking of "permitting
one of the public service corporations to set up a broadcast system to be
used generally by all sections of the government."29 But Hoover always
felt uncomfortable with the idea of any form of government control of
broadcasting and never seriously pursued the notion.
Like many men of his day, Hoover took for granted that profanity and
indecency would be banned from the airwaves and did not consider this to be
censorship. "We can protect the home by preventing the entry of printed
matter destructive to its ideals, but we must doubleguard the radio," he
said. The 1934 Communications Act, the descendant of the Radio Act of
1927, renounced the "power of censorship" for the FCC, but adds, "No person
. . . shall utter any obscene, indecent or profane language by means of
Hoover also saw no contradiction in his belief that broadcasting should
serve the public interest but be as free of government control as
possible. He believed in the philosophy of "corporate liberalism," in
which government worked closely with business to create to bring about
desired effects promoting social good, avoiding coercive action. Under
this philosophy, the government could work cooperatively with the owners of
broadcasting stations to insure they served the public interest. Hoover
favored minimalist government, but was comfortable with using the power of
the government, through the Department of Commerce, to encourage industrial
For example, on the issue of whether "direct" advertising should be
permitted over the air, Hoover commented: "The problem of radio publicity
should be solved by the industry itself, and not by government compulsion
and legislation." In Hoover's mind, business could be trusted, ultimately,
to do the right thing, if only because the public would punish businesses
that did not. Barnouw observed of the radio conferences Hoover organized:
That Hoover should turn for counsel to the most successful elements in the
industry was taken for granted. This was cooperation – an administration
policy. That their initiative would, in the nature of things, produce
public benefit was an accepted article of faith. Another was that excesses
would create their own antidotes through public reaction. Where
enlightened business leaders were involved, all that would be needed would
be an executive word of caution.32
""This may be called an experiment in industrial self-government," Hoover
told the Third National Radio Conference. "The voluntary imposition of its
own rules and a high sense of service will go far to make further
legislation or administrative intervention unnecessary"33
High-standard of programming, assured by public demand
"It is our duty as public officials, it is our duty as men engaged in the
industry, and it is our duty as a great listening public to assure the
future conduct of this industry with the single view to public interest,"
Hoover said.34 The inclusion of the "listening public" in the equation is
An engineer by training, Hoover of necessity devoted much attention to the
vexing problems of channel allocation and interference. But he took an
interest in what the content of radio programming would be, and implicit in
his comments was the assumption that the public would demand high-quality
programming and would reject what it found offensive or, simply, not
entertaining. Therefore, in Hoover's view, it should not be necessary for
the government to impose programming limitations or requirements on
broadcasters. To a radio manufacturers exhibition in New York, Hoover said:
Every radio activity exists finally and lastly to serve the listening
public. The keystone of the industry is to maintain their interest by
service. . . . It is, therefore, the listener in whom we are primarily
interested, not only as an industry but as a public service. There is no
industry so dependent upon public good will and interest.35
Hoover presumed that the listening public would revolt against blatant
"direct" advertising, and by no means was he alone in this view. Hoover
had this discussion with E.P. Edwards, the General Electric radio
department manager, at the First National Radio Conference, as they
discussed how commercial broadcasting could be made compatible with
Hoover's public-service vision:
Hoover: Have you gone into the question as to whether commercial users
could monopolize the area of transmission as against the interest of public
education, news, etc.?
Edwards: I should think that one method, as I stated, would be to confine
such broadcasting to daylight hours, if you please. . . .
Hoover: How are such transmitting stations to be supported and at the same
time prevent the cluttering of the receiving stations with material they
[the listeners] would resent?
Edwards: A great deal of resentment has already been expressed, I
understand, because of personal advertising mixed with entertainment
Hoover believed that listeners acting in their own interest would insure
that the public interest was served. In 1924, he noted that radio
receivers allowed listeners their choice of stations. "This will, I
believe solve the problem by competitive programs. . . . These stations
naturally are endeavoring to please their listeners and thus there is an
indirect censorship by the public. This is the place where it belongs."37
However, Hoover, unlike latter day FCC commissioner Mark Fowler, saw that
the radio (or, later, television) receiver was something more than just
another household appliance. Clearly, Hoover believed that broadcasting
should strive to elevate the listener, to promote education and
citizenship, as well as provide entertainment. "For the first time in
human history, we have available to us the ability to communicate
simultaneously with millions of our fellow men, to furnish entertainment,
instruction, and a widening vision of national problems and national
events," Hoover told the Third National Radio Conference on Oct. 7,
1924. "An obligation rests on us to see that it is devoted to real service
and to develop the material that is transmitted which is really worthwhile."38
What seems obvious to us today after more than 80 years of experience with
broadcasting seemed wondrous to Hoover and others in its infancy. "So
great has it [radio] become in service that I believe it would be possible
in a great emergency for the President of the United States to address an
audience of 40 or 50 millions of our people," he marveled at a
manufacturers' exposition in New York on Sept. 12, 1925. Hoover's vision
of broadcasting seemed lofty in comparison with the reality of what it has
It is bringing a vast amount of educational and informative material into
the household; it is bringing about a better understanding amongst all of
our people of the many problems, which confront us; it is improving the
public taste for music and entertainment; it is bringing contentment into
the home. We are at the threshold of an international exchange of ideas by
direct speech, and it will bring us better understanding of mutual world
problems. . . . If it will succeed, it must continue as in the past to
devote itself to actual public service to which it is already dedicated.39
Implicit in these comments is the belief that the public would expect a
high standard of broadcast programming. This is exemplified by Hoover's
disdain for the playing of phonograph records on the air, which of course
became the foundation of radio programming with the advent of
television. Hoover acknowledged that the playing of recordings had been an
important part of radio programming in its nascent days, but asserted that
those days were gone forever, because the public now expected more. "The
radio telephone would now die in 24 hours if it were limited to
transmission of phonograph records," he said. "We have made great
improvements in material transmitted. Original music, speeches,
instruction, religion, political exhortation, all travel regularly by radio
Protection of amateurs
In Hoover's view, the radio phenomenon of the early 1920s had been created
by "the genius of the American boy."41 By this, Hoover referred to the
legion of young amateur, or "ham," radio operators, communicating
one-to-one with each other, either by voice or Morse code. The term
"radio" in the early 1920s still referred as much to this original use of
radio technology as to the medium of mass communication and entertainment
radio was fast becoming. Hoover was determined to protect the interest of
these "boys," one of whom was his own son. "I had a boy (Herbert Jr.) who,
like all boys at that period, had gone back on wireless . . . and it was
demanded of me that I listen in on the crystal sets, which I did," Hoover
said.42 Again and again during the series of radio conferences, Hoover
would mention the interests of the "amateurs."
At the Third National Radio Conference, Hoover took up the cause of amateur
operators when he pledged the cooperation of the department in blocking
outside sources of interference from commercial stations.43 Earlier, in a
letter to the editor of Popular Radio magazine, Kendall Banning, Hoover
wrote: "I am sure that the government has every wish to see the interests
of the amateur radio operator fully safeguarded."44 Similarly, Hoover
defended maritime radio interests: "We must not forget that what is a
convenience and a pleasure for us is a necessity for them and that life may
depend on the efficiency of their communication service."45
Hoover was adamant that commercial interests should not squeeze out the
It is my belief that, with the variations that can be given through
different wavelengths, through different times of day, and through the
staggering of stations of different wavelengths in different parts of the
country, it will be possible to accommodate the proper demands and at the
same time to protect that precious thing — the American small boy, to whom
so much of this rapid expansion is due.46
Of course, implicit in this was that the radio listener — the public — must
be able to clearly hear radio transmissions, whether amateur or
commercial. What we take for granted today — an orderly system in which
stations broadcast at assigned frequencies in a well-defined broadcast band
— did not exist in the early 1920s. An article in the November 1929
edition of Radio News magazine, "Public Interest, Convenience and
Necessity," focused mainly on the "clarity of reception unexcelled by the
radio reception of any country in the world" and credited this to "a
stronger law to regulate radio," the Radio Act of 1927.47
In calling the series of national radio conferences, Hoover, the engineer,
more than anything else sought to bring order to the chaos. "The amount of
interference has increased greatly and threatens to destroy the art,"
Hoover warned.48 At the most basic level, unless listeners could not hear
the programs, Hoover said, radio broadcasters could not serve the public:
That is the motive of the broadcaster who gives us better programs and
better quality of transmission, and is the object of the manufacturer of
receiving sets that they should give more reliable and more perfect
Replying to a letter from a listener extolling the potential of radio to
educate and uplift, Hoover wrote in 1923 that the commerce department had
resolved to achieve "the disentanglement of technical conflicts in the
industry which, if allowed to run, would ultimately destroy it." The
secretary connected reliable technical performance with providing
programming that service the public interest. "All this is somewhat apart
from your ideas but it is vital that we have a good working instrument and
service before we can advance other fields. There are now about two
million radio receivers and we are upon the threshold of the possibility of
connecting up all the broadcasting stations in such a fashion that the
President of the United States can speak to every radio receiver at the
Addressing the Third National Radio Conference in 1924, Hoover advocated
raising the power limits for local stations, to improve the quality of
service to rural listeners. "We must have at all times a special thought
for the owners of small sets and for those whose homes are far from great
centers of population," he said. "The true mission of broadcasting will
not be realized until its service is available to each one of them at all
times as it is now available in our larger cities."51
Hoover's vision of broadcasting centered on the distribution of information
to the American public. At his time in history, he could not take for
granted the physical ability of each radio station to successfully transmit
to expectant listeners. "It [the local station] must be able to deliver
important pronouncements of public men," Hoover said. "It must bring
instantly to our people a hundred and one matters of national interest."52
Hoover's guidance of broadcasting's early years should be seen as largely
successful, given that prior to the national radio conferences he
initiated, which led to the Radio Act of 1927 and the Communications Act of
1934, broadcasting was a chaotic mess. Under Hoover's guidance, a system
developed that, by most objective measures, has thrived ever since,
attracting massive audiences and generating enormous revenue. But the
success of broadcasting specifically as an instrument of public service is
As Hoover implicitly defined it, the argument can be made that broadcasting
has mostly achieved his own vision of public service. Hoover steered
broadcasting away from a monopoly of powerful business interests, as might
have occurred if David Sarnoff's vision of a system of "super power"
stations had prevailed. By requiring broadcasters to obtain licenses and
periodically apply for license renewal, Hoover's guidance prevented, in his
words, a "monopoly of a channel on the air."53 Only in recent years, when
broadcasting has been extensively deregulated, have giant corporations
soaked up ownership of hundreds of stations, often owning formerly
competing stations in a local market.
Censorship — in Hoover's definition, the government "determining the
priority of material"54 — has also been avoided, although many would argue
for a more expansive definition of censorship. Hoover's opposition to the
government directing the content of broadcast programming proved prescient
when the Fairness Doctrine, a major requirement of the public interest
standard that the FCC implemented long after Hoover's day, was ruled in
violation of the First Amendment. While amateur radio has faded as a hobby
for young people, certainly broadcast spectrum space has been preserved for
"ham" radio and it remains a vital service, with more than 700,000
FCC-issued call signs.55 And, at the most basic level, broadcasting and
the public have been well-served by the organization of the broadcast band,
which came about from the national radio conferences that Hoover directed.
However, political scientist Ithiel de Sola Pool56 and others argue that
the entire concept behind the Communications Act of 1934 — the successor of
the Radio Act of 1927, which Hoover strongly influenced — was fundamentally
flawed, allowing a form of monopoly and, with it, censorship. Jonathan
Wallace wrote: "Congress could have declared radio broadcasters to be
common carriers [such as telegraph or telephone companies] opening up the
spectrum to every conceivable variety of speech. . . . It granted a
relatively few broadcasters a monopoly over the content of the airwaves —
while imposing on them a public interest obligation." Under the
common-carrier model, broadcast stations would simply provide the means for
transmitting programs produced by others.57
Indeed, such a philosophy existed at the time of the First National Radio
Conference in 1922. Representing AT&T, A.H. Griswold, described the
company's plans for what became New York City station WEAF: "The American
Telephone and Telegraph Company will furnish no program whatsoever over
that station. It will provide facilities over which the general public,
one and all alike, may use those services. . . . It is up to the public to
make use of that service in whatever way it is advantageous and desirable
to the public."58
Whether this would have resulted in a programming schedule dominated by
"infomercials" cannot be known. The first program on WEAF was a 10-minute
"toll broadcast" promoting the sale of real-estate on Long Island, but
entertainment programs soon developed such as the "The Browning King
Orchestra," promoting a clothing store. Similar programs, created by
advertising agencies, eventually dominated radio as we came to know
it. But the WEAF toll-broadcasting approach disappeared when AT&T sold its
broadcasting operations to RCA and its partners in 1926.59
It is mainly in the area of providing a high standard of programming where
it might it be argued that Hoover's vision of public-service broadcasting
has failed. Hoover's faith that the public would actively reject things
that it finds objectionable on the airwaves often seems to have been
misplaced. Certainly, Hoover's conviction that the public would reject
outright commercialism proved entirely unfounded. The tendency toward
niche broadcasting, with radio and television programs increasingly
targeted at demographically narrow audiences, may have contributed to the
public tolerance for what would have been considered outrageous in years
past. Hoover's comments to a 1925 manufacturers' exhibition that
broadcasters must serve the public by providing programming that "maintains
their interest"60 proved prophetic and would be echoed by most of today's
market-oriented broadcasters as the only true measure of public service.
To a great extent, Hoover's faith in "corporate liberalism," or
cooperation between government and business to bring about social good,
seems to have failed. It is common for broadcasters to deny responsibility
for their programming and advertising.
While the mandate to serve in the "public interest, convenience and
necessity" remains, enthusiasm for public service among broadcasters, as
expressed by Hoover and others in the embryonic years of radio, has faded
with the FCC's desire to meaningfully enforce the requirement.
Criticized for running ads touting miracle weight-loss potions, the manager
of five St. Louis radio stations responded: "Part of being in a free
society is that people can make a reasonable claim and it's up to the
citizenry to decide."61 Under fire for staging sexually explicit on-air
stunts, radio "shock jock" Anthony Cumia responded that he is not
responsible for any negative effects on young listeners: "It turns out to
be everyone's problem, but it's not our job to fix it. . . . We're
entertainers. We're not psychologists. We're not doctors. We're not
day-care workers."62 The former chairman of the National Association of
Broadcasters Radio Board, Ted Snider, argued that there should be no public
service standard at all, other than meeting technical operating
standards.63 Broadcasters argue that the billions they contribute to
public-interest projects should be considered as public service, even if
such projects take place off the air.
As Wallace64 and others have suggested, the expectation for commercially
operated stations to serve a significant public-service role may have been
unrealistic from the start. The British model of a publicly funded
corporation charged with the service function might have been a more
practical way of achieving a high-standard of programming — one that
promotes education and citizenship — along with Hoover's other
public-service objectives. As historian Eric Barnouw saw it, Hoover was
"paternally reprimanding — but lenient,"65 unwilling to impose strict
public-service programming requirements.
On the other hand, the notion of a government-sanctioned "high standard of
programming" seems more than faintly elitist to many, and would constitute
censorship under Hoover's definition. In some respects, Hoover's idea that
listeners and viewers would naturally regulate the content of programming
has indeed proved practical. For example, one recent study suggests that
broadcast television is finally responding to the public's increasing
discomfort with the level of sex and violence in its programs. The Center
for Media and Public Affairs found a 27% drop in sexual content and an 11%
decline in violence on broadcast television in 2000.66 Of course, the
decline of offensive elements is not the same as providing constructive
Whatever questions remain about the public-service value of broadcast
programming, it is certain is that Herbert Hoover played a profound role in
creating a public-service standard for broadcasting in the United States
and in shaping the form that it took.
Albiniak, Paige. (April 6, 1998). "Decherd proposes public interest plan."
Broadcasting & Cable 128 (14): 24.
Alesia, Tom. (Feb. 17, 2002). "Newton Minow thinks it's still a 'vast
wasteland.'" Wisconsin State Journal, A-7.
"Amateur Radio Service." (Feb. 19, 2002). Federal Communications
Commission. Accessed March 24, 2003. Available at
Barnouw, Erik. (1966). A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the
United States, Volume 1 — to 1933. New York: Oxford University Press.
Elber, Lynn. (March 21, 2002). "Study: Sex, Violence Are Down on TV."
Emery, Walter B. (1971). Broadcasting and Government Responsibilities and
Regulations. East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press.
Ford, Frederick W. (Summer 1961). "The Meaning of the Public Interest,
Convenience or Necessity." Journal of Broadcasting. XXXXX
Fowler, Mark. (Nov. 1, 1981). "Quotations: Mark Fowler, Former chairman,
U.S. Federal Communications Commission." Reason. Available at
Furchtgott-Roth, Harold. (Dec. 15, 1999). "Separate statement of
Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth concurring in part and dissenting in
part. Re. Public Interest Obligations of TV broadcast licensees, Notice of
Inquiry." Available at
Accessed March 13, 2003.
Griswold, A.H. (Feb. 27, 1922). "Minutes of Open Meetings of Department of
Commerce Conference on Radio Telephony." Herbert Hoover Presidential
Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 496.
Head, Sydney W. and Christopher H. Sterling. (1991). Broadcasting in
America. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
Hoover, Herbert. (Oct. 7, 1924). "Address to Third National Radio
Conference." Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 491.
Hoover, Herbert. (Nov. 9, 1925). "A Statement by Secretary Hoover on Radio
Progress and Problems, Made at the Opening of the Fourth National Radio
Conference." Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 496.
Hoover, Herbert. (April 8, 1922). Letter to Kendall Banning. Herbert Hoover
Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 489.
Hoover, Herbert. (April 17, 1923). Letter to R.H. Peacock. Herbert Hoover
Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 489.
Hoover, Herbert. (Feb. 27, 1922). "Minutes of Open Meetings of Department
of Commerce Conference on Radio Telephony." Herbert Hoover Presidential
Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 496.
Hoover, Herbert (March 6, 1923). "News Release." Herbert Hoover
Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 496.
Hoover, Herbert (Oct. 6-10, 1924). "Proceedings of Third National Radio
Conference." Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 496.
Hoover, Herbert (Sept. 12, 1925). "'Radio: Its Influence and Growth,'
Address to the Fourth Annual Radio Exposition, New York." Herbert Hoover
Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 491.
Hoover, Herbert (March 26, 1924). "Radio talk by Sec. Hoover." Herbert
Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 491.
Hoover, Herbert (March 1922). Statement in Popular Radio
magazine. Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 489.
Hoover, Herbert (March 10, 1924). "Statement by Sec. Hoover for release to
the afternoon papers." Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch,
Iowa, Box 489.
Johnson, Glenn A. (1970). "Secretary of Commerce Herbert C. Hoover: The
First Regulator of American Broadcasting, 1921-1928." Dissertation,
University of Iowa.
Klieman, Howard. "Equal Time Rule." The Museum of Broadcast Communications.
Accessed March 13, 2003.
Krasnow, Erwin G. (Oct. 22, 1997). "The 'Public Interest' Standard: The
Elusive Search for the Holy Grail." Briefing Paper Prepared for the
Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television
Broadcasters." Available at
http://www.ntia.doc.gov/pubintadvcom/octmtg/Krasnow.htm. Accessed Dec. 31,
Krasnow and Longley (1978)
Krattenmaker, Thomas G. and Lusa A. Powe, Jr. (1994). Regulating Broadcast
Programming. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
McConnell, Bill and Paige Albiniak. (Oct. 16, 2002). "The chairman steps
out." Broadcasting & Cable 130 (43): 10-13.
McConnell, Chris. (April 20, 1998). "What public service! What public
service?" Broadcasting & Cable 128 (17): 22.
Montgomery, Kathryn. (Feb. 19, 2001). "Digital divide? Yes!" Broadcasting
& Cable 131 (8): 60.
Ness, Susan. (1994). "Reflections on the Sixtieth Anniversary of the
Communications Act." University of Indiana School of Law. Available at
http://law.indiana.edu/fclj/pubs/v47/no2/ness.html. Accessed Dec. 31, 2002.
O'Relly, Bill. (May 23, 2002) "The O'Reilly Factor" (interview), Fox News
Network, Transcript #052403cb.256. Accessed March 3, 2003. Available at
Pool, Ithiel de Soa. (1983). Technologies of Freedom. Cambridge, MA:
"Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity." (November 1929). Radio News.
Antique Radios. Available at http://www.antiqueradios.com/frc.shtml.
Accessed Dec. 31, 2002.
"Public Interest Standard in Television Broadcasting, The." (January 19,
1999). The Benton Foundation. Available at
http://www.benton.org/PIAC/sec2.html. Accessed March 18, 2003.
Smulyan, Susan. (1994). Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American
Broadcasting, 1920-1934. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press.
Snider, Ted L. (1988). "Serving Public Interest." In Public Interest and
the Business of Broadcasting. Ed. Jon T. Powell and Wally Gair. New York:
"Tentative Report of Department of Commerce Conference on Radio Telephony."
(March 1922). Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, Box 496.
Toroian, Diane. (Dec. 13, 2002). "Stations here defend policy on ads about
weight loss." St. Louis Post-Dispatch: A-1.
Zechowski, Sharon. "Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity." The Museum
of Broadcast Communications. Available at
Accessed Feb. 7, 2003.
And yet, Hoover clearly expected that the public would not permit excessive
commercialism and distasteful programming to succeed on the airwaves,
though surely they have.
While deregulation advanced during the presidency of Bill Clinton, the
chairman of the FCC under the Clinton administration, Bill Kennard, accused
broadcasters of "brazen" indifference to public service and called for
increased public-service requirements to be placed on stations (McConnell &
Albiniak, 2000). Yet, Kennard's successor, Michael Powell, quickly
signaled an end to warming attitudes from the FCC chair's position toward
greater public-service demands on broadcasters when he spoke dismissively
of efforts to close the "digital divide" and to provide greater service to
children (Montgomery, 2001).
As the argument over the allocation of channel capacity for new digital
broadcasting services has grown, Robert Decherd, the president of media
company A.H. Belo Corp., proposed a plan that recognized the essential
conflict in requiring public service obligations to be met by
business. While a member of Vice President Al Gore's commission on the
public-interest obligations of digital broadcasters, Decherd proposed
assigning additional public-service requirements to public broadcasting,
which would receive supplemental funding from fees paid by commercial
broadcasters for the use of the digital spectrum (Albiniak, 1998).
This philosophy is reflected in some of the more substantial manifestations
of the "public interest, convenience and necessity" requirements, such as
the equal-time provision and the Fairness Doctrine.
1Erik Barnouw, A Tower in Babel: A History of Broadcasting in the United
States, Volume 1 — to 1933 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1966).
2Erwin G. Krasnow, Lawrence D. Longley and Herbert A. Terry, The Politics
of Broadcast Regulation (New York: St. Martin's Press, 1982).
3Krasnow, Longley and Terry, Politics; Thomas G. Krattenmaker and Lucas A.
Powe, Jr. Regulating Broadcast Programming (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1994).
4Herbert Hoover, "Address to Third National Radio Conference," 7 October
1924, Box 491, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, 1.
5Barnouw, A Tower in Babel, 196.
6Krattenmaker and Powe, Regulating, 38-39.
7Susan Smulyan, Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American
Broadcasting, 1920-1934 (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press,
8Frederick Ford, "The Meaning of the Public Interest, Convenience or
Necessity." Journal of Broadcasting 5, 3 (Summer 1961), 205-18; Sharon
Zechowski, "Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity," The Museum of
Broadcast Communications, (7 February 2003).
9Walter B. Emery, Broadcasting and Government Responsibilities and
Regulations. (East Lansing, MI: Michigan State University Press, 1971),
319-20; Ford, "The Meaning;" Zechowski, "Public Interest."
10Ford, "The Meaning;" Zechowski, "Public Interest."
11Howard Klieman, "Equal Time Rule," The Museum of Broadcast
Communications, (13 March 2003).
12Ford, "The Meaning;" Zechowski, "Public Interest;" Harold
Furchtgott-Roth, "Separate statement of Commissioner Harold Furchtgott-Roth
concurring in part and dissenting in part. Re. Public Interest Obligations
of TV broadcast licensees, Notice of Inquiry," Federal Communications
Commission, 15 December 1999 (13 March 2003).
13"The Public Interest Standard in Television Broadcasting," The Benton
Foundation. 19 January 1999, (18 March 2003).
14Tom Alesia, "Newton Minow thinks it's still a 'vast wasteland,'"
Wisconsin State Journal 17 February 2002, A-7.
15Mark Fowler, "Quotations: Mark Fowler, Former chairman, U.S. Federal
Communications Commission," Reason, 1 November 1981 (27 December 2003).
16Chris McConnell, "What public service! What public service?" Broadcasting
& Cable 20 April 1998, 22.
17"Tentative Report of Department of Commerce Conference on Radio
Telephony.," March 1922, Box 496, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West
18Herbert Hoover, "Minutes of Open Meetings of Department of Commerce
Conference on Radio Telephony," 27 February 1922, Box 496, Herbert Hoover
Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
19Erwin G. Krasnow, "The 'Public Interest' Standard: The Elusive Search for
the Holy Grail." Briefing Paper Prepared for the Advisory Committee on
Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters," National
Telecommunications and Information Administration, 22 October 1997 (31
December 2002). <http://www.ntia.doc.gov/pubintadvcom/octmtg/Krasnow.htm>;
Susan Ness, "Reflections on the Sixtieth Anniversary of the Communications
Act," University of Indiana School of Law, 1994 (Dec. 31, 2002).
20Herbert Hoover, "A Statement by Secretary Hoover on Radio Progress and
Problems, Made at the Opening of the Fourth National Radio Conference," 9
November 1925, Box 496, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch,
21Hoover, "A Statement by Secretary Hoover," 14.
22Krattenmaker and Powe, Regulating.
23Krasnow, "The 'Public Interest' Standard."
24Hoover, "A Statement by Secretary Hoover," 14.
25Herbert Hoover, "Proceedings of Third National Radio Conference," 6-10
October1924, Box 496, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch,
26Herbert Hoover, "Statement by Sec. Hoover for release to the afternoon
papers," 10 March 1924, Box 489, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West
27Herbert Hoover, "Radio talk by Sec. Hoover," 26 March 1924, Box
491, Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, 9.
28Hoover, "Radio talk."
29Hoover, "Minutes of Open Meetings," 22.
30Jonathan Wallace, "The Communications Act of 1934 was a Mistake," The
Ethical Spectacle, August 1996, (27 December 2002).
31Hoover, "Proceedings," 9.
32Barnouw, A Tower in Babel, 178.
33Hoover, "Proceedings," 9.
35Herbert Hoover, "'Radio: Its Influence and Growth,' Address to the Fourth
Annual Radio Exposition, New York," 12 September1925, Box 491, Herbert
Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa, 2.
36Hoover, "Minutes of Open Meetings," 22.
37Hoover, "Radio Talk," 9.
38Hoover, "Address to Third," 21.
39Hoover, "Radio: It's Influence and Growth," 6-7.
40Hoover, "Address to Third," 4.
41Barnouw, A Tower in Babel, 83.
42Glenn A. Johnson, "Secretary of Commerce Herbert C. Hoover: The First
Regulator of American Broadcasting, 1921-1928" (Ph.D. Dissertation,
University of Iowa, 1970).
44Herbert Hoover, Letter to Kendall Banning, 8 April 1922, Box 489, Herbert
Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
45Hoover, "Proceedings," 10.
46Herbert Hoover, Statement in Popular Radio magazine, March 1922, Box 489,
Herbert Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
47"Public Interest, Convenience and Necessity," Radio News, November 1929
(31 December 2002) Antique Radios <http://www.antiqueradios.com/frc.shtml>.
48Herbert Hoover, "News Release," 6 March 1923, Box 496, Herbert Hoover
Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
49Hoover, "Radio: It's Influence," 2.
50Herbert Hoover, Letter to R.H. Peacock, 17 April 1923, Boxes 489, Herbert
Hoover Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
51Hoover, "Proceedings," 9.
52Hoover, "Address to the Third," 5.
53Hoover, "A Statement by Secretary Hoover on Radio Progress," 14.
54Hoover, "Radio Talk," 9.
55 "Amateur Radio Service," Federal Communications Commission, 19 February
2002 (24 March 2003)
56Ithiel de Sola Pool. Technologies of Freedom (Cambridge, MA: Belknap
57Wallace, "The Communications Act of 1934."
58A.H. Griswold, "Minutes of Open Meetings of Department of Commerce
Conference on Radio Telephony," 27 February 1922, Box 496, Herbert Hoover
Presidential Library, West Branch, Iowa.
59Sydney W. Head and Christopher H. Sterling (Broadcasting in America.
Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1991).
60Hoover, "Radio: Its Influence," 2.
61Diane Toroian, "Stations here defend policy on ads about weight loss."
St. Louis Post-Dispatch 13 December 2002, A-1.
62Bill O'Relly, "The O'Reilly Factor" (interview), Fox News Network,
Transcript #052403cb.256, 23 May 2002 (3 March 2003)
63Ted L. Snider, "Serving the Public Interest: Voluntarily or by Government
Mandate?" in Public Interest and the Business of Broadcasting, eds. Jon T.
Powell and Wally Gair (New York: Quorum Books, 1988), 85-93.
64Wallace, "The Communications Act of 1934."
65Barnouw, A Tower in Babel, 285.
66Lynn Elber, "Study: Sex, Violence Are Down on TV," Associated Press, 21
March 2002, (10 March 2003), <http://web.lexis-nexis.com>.