Before Net Neutrality: The Surprising 1940s Battle for Radio Freedom

As with the fight over who would control the public's radio airwaves during previous generations, millions of Americans are now engaging with technical policy issues like net neutrality, whose loss could fundamentally change the nature of the Internet by creating fast and slow lanes. (Photo: Peter Miller/flickr/cc)

Before Net Neutrality: The Surprising 1940s Battle for Radio Freedom

To fully understand what’s at stake in the fight over the future of the Internet, you have to revisit another era.

In 1947, near the 40th anniversary of his invention of the Audion tube, Lee de Forest, "the father of radio," addressed a message to the National Association of Broadcasters that was widely circulated and printed in Time magazine, the Chicago Tribune, and other news outlets:

What have you gentlemen done with my child? He was conceived as a potent instrumentality for culture, fine music, the uplifting of America's mass intelligence. You have debased this child...made of him a laughing stock... The occasional fine program is periodically smeared with impudent insistence to buy or try... Soap opera without end or sense floods each household daily.

De Forest's anguish over radio's lost democratic potential echoed across a chorus of media criticism.

His position also evokes a more contemporary debate about a much newer technological infrastructure and its cultural purpose. Recent policy battles over net neutrality may seem unprecedented, but we've faced similar moments in American history.

As we again set policies that define core power relationships for a new medium, we might look to our past to discern lessons for charting our future. For the media system we've inherited--one dominated by a small number of corporations, lightly regulated in terms of public interest protections, and offset by weak public alternatives--was not inevitable or natural; it resulted from the outcomes of specific policy battles, and from specific logics and values triumphing over others.

The country's media infrastructure has undergone periodic confluences of technological, political, and social changes--what historians sometimes call "critical junctures." These moments create rare windows of opportunity for activist interventions and radical ideas. By crystallizing a social contract between commercial media institutions, government, and the public, policy decisions at these junctures can profoundly shape our information system's trajectory.

One such inflection point occurred in the 1940s during policy battles over radio, which resulted in America's preeminent medium being largely captured--and some would say degraded--by commercial forces. With the public airwaves marred by excessive advertising and low-quality programming, many felt that radio's revolutionary promise was being squandered to over-commercialization. This growing anger was experienced most acutely among African Americans, labor unions, and intellectuals who felt excluded and powerless as commercial media neglected or misrepresented their voices and viewpoints. To advance their politics they needed to change the system, and to do so they needed to change media policy.

A spirited media-reform coalition of activists and average listeners entered policy debates and targeted the Federal Communications Commission with letters and petitions.

One letter from a returning World War II veteran noted that racist radio programming like the popular Amos 'n' Andy evidenced an "American Fascism." Many decried radio's anti-labor slant. Pleading that "labor and capital both be heard equally," one representative letter asked that radio not be "utilized so exclusively for sheer advertising and propaganda purposes." A self-described housewife urged the FCC, "Please keep up the fight. If it means government control, better that than [advertiser] control." These letters certainly did not represent all or even most listeners, but they gave voice to a palpable disgust with what had become of American radio.

This surge in criticism and engagement with policy--what Fortune dubbed "The Revolt Against Radio"--coincided with a rare progressive bloc at the FCC. Even as the New Deal project was in various stages of retreat elsewhere, a social democratic vision arrived later and stayed longer at the FCC. The liberal faction was led by two southerners, FCC chairman Larry Fly from Texas, and the commissioner Clifford Durr from Alabama. To defend democracy and the public interest they aggressively went after commercial broadcasters. Bolstered by grassroots pressures, the FCC launched a number of progressive initiatives throughout the decade aimed at reining in the power of media monopolies and defining public service responsibilities for broadcasters. These policy interventions resulted in forcing NBC to divest itself of one of its two networks (which is how ABC was formed), mandating that broadcast license renewals be dependent on meaningful public interest obligations (the FCC's infamous "Blue Book"), and establishing the much maligned and misunderstood Fairness Doctrine (which was actually a consolation prize in the fight for stronger regulations).

If history is any lesson, reforming our media system will require continued public pressure from below, and not just from political elites.

Most of these reform efforts ultimately were defeated or fell short, largely at the hands of red-baiting. Reformers were charged with "BBC-izing" American radio, an argument made plausible by the convenient fact that the Blue Book's primary author was Charles Siepmann, one of the BBC's early programming directors. Conservatives and commercial broadcasters accused the FCC of having socialist sympathies, and incessantly attacked Durr and Siepmann. By the end of the decade the Red Scare had taken its toll; few reformers remained in positions of influence, and many were now blacklisted and scattered across the country. If anti-communist hysteria hadn't shifted the political landscape we may have a very different media system today. At the very least, the libertarian assumption that government had little legitimacy in shielding a media system from undue commercial pressures might not have triumphed. Beyond revisiting roads not taken, a number of contemporary parallels can be drawn from this history.

Today, millions of Americans are engaging with technical policy issues like net neutrality, whose loss could fundamentally change the nature of the Internet by creating fast and slow lanes.

Beyond threats to an open Internet, America's broadband speeds and prices are atrocious when compared to many other democratic nations. The "digital divide," which sounds like a throwback to the 1990s, is still a major problem in the United States. In a series of "FDR moments," President Obama has confronted some of these challenges, making two dramatic YouTube interventions in recent months and pledging to promote a free, open, and fast Internet in his State of the Union address. But if history is any lesson, reforming our media system will require continued public pressure from below, and not just from political elites. And it will require removing the intellectual and ideological constraints that prevent our government from taking on media monopolies. Policy battles from the 1940s suggest that media corporations cannot simply be shamed into being good.

With old problems affecting new media, Americans sit at a crossroads. Like in the 1940s, again there is concern over whether a revolutionary medium will fulfill its democratic promise or instead be dominated by commercial interests. Again we are facing the insurmountable market power of enormous monopolies over our media infrastructure. And again we are looking to the FCC to defend the "public interest." Can this quaint-sounding principle survive into the digital age?

Unlike in the 1940s, we are not in the throes of a Red Scare, but market fundamentalism still prevails in Washington. The question remains: Can we rescue a potentially democratic medium from commercial capture? The former FCC commissioner Michael Copps has called the net neutrality decision expected next month "The Biggest FCC Vote Ever." How this debate plays out may determine whether we follow the path of broadcasting or begin to create a media system worthy of its democratic promise.

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