Regulating Radio in the Age of Broadcasting
When the Titanic tragically sank on April 15, 1912, potentially life-saving help was delayed as a result of failures in radio communication. In part as a result, Congress moved swiftly to regulate radio, passing the Radio Act of 1912 four months later. Although at this stage radio was still used principally for point-to-point, Morse code communications, the radio scene changed drastically in the early 1920s with the rise of broadcasting, as new private stations began to deliver music and voice programs to a listening public. By 1927, more than 700 stations were battling over 96 available frequencies. This crowding of the broadcast spectrum substantially diminished the quality of radio listening. In fact, the airwaves were so full of interference that many citizens complained that it was often impossible to tune into any station clearly. In January 1926, both houses of Congress began considering sweeping bills to tackle the problem of interference and the question of how to allocate frequencies for broadcasting. Lawmakers vigorously debated a broad set of issues, ranging from questions of ownership and regulatory authority to the protection of free speech and the prevention of monopoly. A bill endorsed by both the House and Senate emerged a little over a year later, after the interference problem was said to have grown worse, and it finally arrived on the desk of President Calvin Coolidge on February 23, 1927. The bill would create a Federal Radio Commission with the power to license radio stations for two years at a time. President Coolidge had endorsed radio reform in his most recent annual message to Congress but had requested that all regulatory power be granted to the secretary of commerce, not to a commission. Now, with Congress having opted for a commission, he had to decide if the bill before him charted an acceptable path for American radio regulation.