By: U.S. Congress
Date: February 23, 1927
Source: U.S. Congress. Radio Act of 1927. Public Law No. 632, 69th Congress, February 23, 1927. Available online at http://www.geocities.com/a_h_kline/1927act.htm; website home page: http://www.geocities.com (accessed April 24, 2003).
With the public broadcast of a program at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City in January 1910, the era of radio began. World War I (1914–1918) stymied the industry's growth, as civilian radio broadcasts were suspended. Only a handful of stations operated in the years immediately after the war. The relative economic prosperity of the 1920s created the first commercial programs and the installation of hundreds of radio stations nationwide. By the end of the decade, the majority of Americans enjoyed hours of radio programming every day. Radio provided the unprecedented ability to hear music programs, news reports, and sporting events as they transpired miles away. The growing popular appeal of radio spawned a multimillion-dollar industry based upon the sending and receiving of broadcast signals, as well as the marketing of commercial time on expanding radio networks.
The first nationwide network, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), was formed through the connection of twenty-four stations in 1926. The Radio Corporation of America (RCA), which produced "radio receiving sets," announced its establishment with a bold proclamation that signified radio's status and nearly infinite possibility for growth. RCA noted that five million homes already owned radios and twenty-one million possessed the technology (namely electricity) to use radio. By creating NBC, RCA shrewdly maneuvered to control a nationwide network whose programs would increase Americans' desire to purchase radios produced primarily by RCA. The Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS) began operations in 1928 and linked forty-nine stations by the beginning of 1929. NBC, CBS, and ABC (formed by the division of two NBC networks) dominated radio and television broadcasting in the United States for the rest of the century.
The Radio Act of 1927 represented the federal government's attempt to take control of the radio industry. The Radio Act attempted to streamline radio communications and resolve interference problems that plagued the industry. The law provided the government with the power to grant licenses that granted "individuals, firms, or corporations" the right to transmit radio signals. This meant that only federal authorities controlled the airwaves and thus prohibited any unsanctioned radio transmission. The act established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) as the agency that would create and police regulatory guidelines for all broadcasting in the United States. The five-member FRC governed radio channels and granted temporary access, initially three-year licenses, to stations as it saw fit.
Two months after the Radio Act's passage, the American Telephone & Telegraph Company (AT&T) successfully demonstrated the first long-distance television broadcast. This event foreshadowed a new dimension of communications that the government would struggle to control in the coming decades.
Primary Source: Radio Act of 1927 [excerpt]
SYNOPSIS: Passed on February 23, 1927, the Radio Actestablished the fundamental structure of federal regulations that would govern the radio industry to the present day. In the midst of the unprecedented expansion of radio broadcasting across the country, the U.S. Congress set the following guidelines for radio communications. Perhaps the most important section of the law featured the creation of the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). Congress, like much of the country, was inexperienced in dealing with this new technology and recognized the likelihood of unforeseen changes in the burgeoning industry. Thus, the FRC received somewhat vague guidelines for its operation.
Public Law No. 632, February 23, 1927, 69th Congress. An Act for the regulation of radio communications, and for other purposes.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled,
That this Act is intended to regulate all forms of interstate and foreign radio transmissions and communications within the United States, its Territories and possessions; to maintain the control of the United States over all the channels of interstate and foreign radio transmission; and to provide for the use of such channels, but not the ownership thereof, by individuals, firms, or corporations, for limited periods of time, under licenses granted by Federal authority, and no such license shall be construed to create any right, beyond the terms, conditions, and periods of the license.…
SEC. 3. That a commission is hereby created and established to be known as the Federal Radio Commission, hereinafter referred to as the commission, which shall be composed of five commissioners appointed by the President, by and with the advice and consent of the Senate, and one of whom the President shall designate as chairman: Provided, That chairmen thereafter elected shall be chosen by the commission itself.…
SEC. 4. Except as otherwise provided in this Act, the commission, from time to time, as public convenience, interest, or necessity requires, shall—
- Classify radio stations;
- Prescribe the nature of the service to be rendered by each class of licensed stations and each station within any class;
- Assign bands of frequencies or wave lengths to the various classes of stations, and assign frequencies or wave lengths for each individual station and determine the power which each station shall use and the time during which it may operate;
- Determine the location of classes of stations or individual stations;
- Regulate the kind of apparatus to be used with respect to its external effects and the purity and sharpness of the emissions from each station and from the apparatus therein;
- Make such regulations not inconsistent with law as it may deem necessary to prevent interference between stations and to carry out the provisions of this Act: Provided, however, That changes in the wave lengths, authorized power, in the character of emitted signals, or in the times of operation of any station, shall not be made without the consent of the station licensee unless, in the judgment of the commission, such changes will promote public convenience or interest or will serve public necessity or the provisions of this Act will be more fully complied with;
- Have authority to establish areas or zones to be served by any station;
- Have authority to make special regulations applicable to radio stations engaged in chain broadcasting;
- Have authority to make general rules and regulations requiring stations to keep such records of programs, transmissions of energy, communications, or signals as it may deem desirable;
- Have authority to exclude from the requirements of any regulations in whole or in part any radio station upon railroad rolling stock, or to modify such regulations in its discretion;
- Have authority to hold hearings, summon witnesses, administer oaths, compel the production of books, documents, and papers and to make such investigations as may be necessary in the performance of its duties. The commission may make such expenditures (including expenditures for rent and personal services at the seat of government and elsewhere, for law books, periodicals, and books of reference, and for printing and binding) as may be necessary for the execution of the functions vested in the commission and, as from time to time may be appropriated for by Congress. All expenditures of the commission shall be allowed and paid upon the presentation of itemized vouchers therefor approved by the chairman.
Archer, Gleason L. History of Radio to 1926. New York: Arno/New York Times, 1971.
Barnouw, Erik. A Tower of Babel, vol. 1. New York: Oxford University Press, 1966.
Emery, Michael, and Edwin Emery. The Press and America: An Interpretive History of the Mass Media, 7th ed. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1992.
"United States Early Radio History." Available online at http://earlyradiohistory.us/ (accessed April 24, 2003).
AUDIO AND VISUAL MEDIA
Empire of the Air: The Men Who Made Radio. PBS Video. Videocassette. 1991.