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Broadcasting

The History Of Radio

In its infancy, broadcasting was much less controversial. Experimental radio broadcasting began in 1910 when Lee De Forest produced a program from the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City. Other experimental radio stations were started at the University of Wisconsin in Madison in 1915 and another in Wilkinsburg, Pennsylvania, a suburban of Pittsburgh, in 1916.

Detroit radio station WWJ is considered the first commercial radio station in the United States. It began broadcasting on August 20, 1920. Pittsburgh station KDKA grew out of the Wilkinsburg experimental station. Its broadcast of the 1920 presidential election results on November 2, 1920, is generally considered to be the beginning of professional broadcasting. Although fewer than one thousand receivers were tuned in, the excitement of the event created great publicity.

Stations soon started appearing in all parts of the United States. By the end of 1924, 583 radio stations were transmitting and more than 3 million receivers were tuned in. These stations transmitted radio signals using amplitude modulation, the abbreviation of the term becoming the general category AM radio. AM broadcasts can be received at great distances because the radio transmissions bounce off the atmosphere and reach beyond the curve of the earth. However, AM signals are affected by static, thus reducing sound fidelity.

Radio established itself as a national medium with the creation of the first radio network in 1926. In that year the National Broadcasting Company (NBC), led by David Sarnoff, head of its parent company, Radio Corporation of America, presented its first national broadcast. Radio stations around the country entered into contracts with NBC that allowed them to receive an audio feed through a telephone line, which was then broadcast by the station's radio transmitter. Apart from creating a national radio audience, NBC also introduced the financial cornerstone of commercial radio: networks and local stations would support themselves by selling advertising time. The success of NBC led to the creation of the Columbia Broadcasting System (CBS), led by William Paley.

The success of radio produced problems as well. There was competition for frequencies and increased transmission power. The strongest AM stations have a power of 50,000 watts. At this strength, a station can be heard at night up to 1,000 miles away. The least powerful AM stations operate at 250 watts, which usually limits their range to one or two towns. Unregulated growth of the radio industry led in 1934 to the passage of the Communications Act (40 U.S.C.A. § 791). This act created the FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION (FCC), which replaced the FRC. The FCC began regulating broadcasting content. In the 1930s it banned over-the-air advertisement of hard liquor and lotteries.

The period from 1925 to 1950 has been called the "Golden Age of Radio." During this period radio was a major source of family entertainment. Every night families would gather around the radio and listen to news, music,

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt delivers a 1942 radio address, one of his numerous "fireside chats." The term was first used by a reporter to describe a Roosevelt radio address on May 7, 1933.
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comedies, and adventure dramas. Serialized stories aimed mainly at women, dubbed "soap operas," became popular. They were called soap operas because they were initially sponsored by soap companies. President FRANKLIN ROOSEVELT became the first president to understand the power of radio. He regularly conducted "fireside chats" over the radio between 1933 and 1945. These informal talks helped Roosevelt gain support for his policies.

The importance of radio as a national medium was reinforced during WORLD WAR II. Edward R. Murrow became a national figure when he broadcast from London during the early years of the war. Following the U.S. entrance into the war in December 1941, millions of Americans turned to the radio every day to hear the latest war news.

The popularity of radio continued into the late 1940s until the beginning of television signaled radio's rapid demise as the major source of home entertainment. The popularity of television was so great and so sudden that the FCC had to put a temporary freeze on the granting of licenses, as the number of available broadcast channels was limited. As soon as the freeze was lifted, radio began to lose advertisers to the new medium. Network radio was nearly dead by the early 1950s because all of its greatest stars had moved their programs to television. NBC and CBS quickly shifted their focus to the creation of television networks.

Faced with this sudden change, AM radio developed new formats. Music stations began to specialize in top 40 hits in popular music, country music, and rhythm and blues music. By the 1990s, talk radio had become a popular and profitable format, making national celebrities of political commentator Rush Limbaugh and "shock jocks" Howard Stern and Don Imus. Stern and Imus received the shock jock designation as a result of their raunchy and outrageous behavior on the air. Pacifica challenged the FCC's actions.

Radio broadcasting experienced new growth in the 1960s and 1970s with the licensing of many FM radio stations. FM stations transmit radio signals by frequency modulation, hence the initials, FM. FM waves do not travel as far as AM waves, but FM waves are not affected by static as much as AM waves. In addition, FM signals produce a much truer reproduction of sound. Since the late 1960s FM stations have had the ability of broadcasting in stereo. This development was a factor in the growth of the popularity of FM stations. Music from records and compact disks can be transmitted in high fidelity.

Despite the dominance of television, radio continues to play a major role in broadcasting. More than 10,000 radio stations were broadcasting in the United States in 1995.

As of 2003, the FCC was continuing to serve numerous roles in the radio broadcasting industry. It processes license applications, assigns frequencies and call signs, conducts hearings, enforces regulations, licenses radio operators, and carries out the provisions of the Communications Act.

The U.S. Supreme Court has upheld the FCC's right to police the airwaves for obscene material. In Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726, 98 S. Ct. 3026, L. Ed. 2d 1073 (1978), a New York radio station owned by the Pacifica Foundation broadcast comedian George Carlin's monologue on the "seven dirty words you can't say on the radio." When a listener complained to the FCC that he had heard the monologue in his car while his young son was present, the FCC investigated. Although it imposed no formal sanction, the FCC indicated that the complaint would be placed in the station's license file. If any subsequent complaints were received, the commission stated that it would then decide whether any sanctions would be applied. One potential sanction was the loss of the station's license, when it came up for renewal in three years.

Justice JOHN PAUL STEVENS, writing for the majority, noted that the "broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans." Offensive material over the airwaves "confronts the citizen, not only in public, but also in the privacy of the home, where individuals' right to be left alone plainly outweighs the FIRST AMENDMENT rights of an intruder." In addition, broadcasting is "uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read." Thus, the Court ruled that the FCC had the constitutional right to take the action it did.

In 1987 the FCC demonstrated its continuing interest in preventing the radio broadcast of indecent or obscene language when it threatened not to renew the licenses of several radio stations in New York and California that were engaged in "shock radio." The talk programs, including one by Howard Stern, were intentionally controversial and given to large doses of profanity and sexual innuendo. Although the FCC's threats made headlines, there was little talk of challenging the agency's regulations.

The FCC had a hand in the growth of political talk radio shows such as Rush Limbaugh's when it repealed the "fairness doctrine" in 1987. Since 1934, the FCC had required broadcasters to devote a reasonable proportion of their air-time to discussion of important public issues. Until 1987, the FCC had interpreted this doctrine to require broadcasters who ran editorials that criticized specific persons to provide notice to the persons involved and airtime for rebuttal.

The Supreme Court upheld the FAIRNESS DOCTRINE as a reasonable balance between the public interest in hearing various points of view and the broadcaster's interests in free expression. Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. Federal Communications Commission, 395 U.S. 367, 89 S. Ct. 1794, 23 L. Ed. 2d 371 (1969). Nevertheless, the doctrine remained controversial until its repeal. Freed from this doctrine, radio show hosts such as Limbaugh were free to criticize public figures without having to give the person airtime to respond.

Although a radio license is considered property, a license does not have a constitutional right to a radio license, nor does a licensee obtain a vested interest in any frequency. The FCC continues to consider all applications for a licensee to use a radio frequency. Both new applicants and applicants seeking to renew their licenses must demonstrate to the FCC that the issuance or renewal of the license will serve the public interest.

Congress has retained the right, through the FCC, to deny licenses or to eliminate existing radio stations. The FCC may eliminate a station upon a showing that the station engaged in misconduct, such as attempts to bribe an official of the FCC. The commission may also eliminate stations in order to allocate licenses fairly and equitably, as well as for considerations related to wavelengths, times of operation, and the relative power of stations among various states.

Additional topics

Law Library - American Law and Legal InformationFree Legal Encyclopedia: Bill of Particulars to William Benson BryantBroadcasting - The History Of Radio, The History Of Television, The Future Of Radio And Television, Cable Television