Radio Gets A Policeman

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The conference agreed to a voluntary system of regulations and between conferences to abide by my decisions as an umpire, no matter what the legal right may have been, until we could devise the needed legislation. The first conference agreed that certain parts of the wave bands be set aside for public broadcasting, certain parts for the Army and Navy, the public services, and we gave a wave band to the boys, or more properly, the amateurs. We agreed to forbid the use of person-to-person telephoning.

As far as the art had developed, there were sufficient wave lengths for all the purposes then known. Then the department set itself to solve the picture puzzle of allotting the wave lengths to the broadcasting stations, so that they would not interfere with each other.

Very fortunately, at that time, owing to the weak sending, the same wave lengths could be used in different cities situated at only a little distance from each other. So we were able to accommodate everybody that came along for a while.

Subsequently in March, 1923, a year later, I called a second conference. I called a third one a year later in November, 1924, and a fourth in November, 1925, where we expanded the voluntary system.

Perhaps a little later than 1922, but certainly before 1924, the British had established governmental broadcasting. My statements made at that time bear out the fact that I objected to such a system for the United States. I thought that free speech and general communication would be safer in private hands. While that system would be most advantageous to free speech, obviously the only method of support would be advertising. But I found it necessary to constantly object to the amount of time devoted to commercials.

As to advertising, I announced what proved a foolish thought. That idea was that the advertiser should at the opening of a broadcast confine himself to the announcement that he was contributing his program to public service. I thought he could then omit interference with the program until the end. At that moment he could again make a simple statement as to what kind of business he had and what goods for sale. I felt that such a practice would commend itself to more customers than annoying the public with the immediate and the long commercials we were receiving.

I have often felt when I listen to present-day commercials that I will never buy that product. I have thought the receiver would have a more favorable reaction to the advertiser if he said simply: “We are now presenting you with the following program which we hope that you will enjoy, but remember that we are a commercial concern in business and if our products commend themselves to you, we would be glad to have your custom.” I believe something of that kind would attract far more purchasers of goods than this hideous repetition. But it was a futile idea and received little attention.

 

In this whole period of conferences from 1921 to 1924, I held that we should have more experience before we attempted to draft legislation. At the 1924 conference I proposed a draft bill which had in the main met the approval of that conference. I found, however, that Congress was overburdened with more urgent work and that they did not rush to take up such a complex subject, especially as they would have to resist pressure from various interests.

One of our difficulties in securing legislation was the very success of the voluntary system. Members of congressional committees kept telling me, “It’s working all right; why do you bother us?” Thus there was a long period of delay.

One bill died between the House and the Senate in 1925. But finally a Chicago station broke away from our voluntary system. They preempted a wave length for themselves and established in the courts their contention against our weak legal authority. Then Congress woke up, and finally in February, 1927, it passed the law which was recommended by the Department of Commerce with the advice of our conferences.

The law which Congress passed firmly established the public ownership and regulation of wave channels.

One of my most vivid experiences in the early days of radio was with the evangelist, Aimee Semple McPherson, of Los Angeles. She was one of the first to appreciate the possibilities of radio and she established a small broadcasting station in her temple. That station, however, roamed all over the wave band and caused interference and bitter complaints from all the other stations in southern California. We repeatedly warned her to stick to her assigned wave length. But the warnings did no good. Finally our inspector sealed up her station with the great seal of the United States and this fearsome act stopped it.

At any event the next day I received this telegram from Miss McPherson. She said, “Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone. You cannot expect the Almighty to abide by your wave length nonsense. When I offer my prayers to Him, I must fit in with His wave reception. Open this station at once.”

Our tactful inspector finally persuaded her to employ a capable manager for her station to keep her on the proper wave length.

Another case with a little humor in it was when the representatives of a religious sect in southern Illinois came to Washington to secure a wave length. They were ushered in to see the head of our radio division and myself. They said that they were going to build a broadcasting station. They explained that the world was coming to an end in about six months and they felt that to broadcast the news would be the way to notify as large a number of people as possible to get ready.