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Robert McChesney’s The Political Economy of Media (Part II)


McChesney’s book is a compilation of his best political economy of media work in the past two decades. It contains 23 separate offerings under three topic headings. In them he covers "enduring issues" and "emerging dilemmas." Part I of this review discussed some of them. More follow below. The entire book is must reading and contains new material never before published.

 

The Battle for the US Airwaves, 1928 – 1935

 

McChesney recounts the beginning. It explains much of the current dilemma and necessity to confront it.

 

The notion that the dominant media system is "natural" and was adopted enthusiastically is pure myth. Opposition to what emerged was considerable. It insisted that network, for-profit, commercial broadcasting was inimical to the public interest, and that there should be a substantial nonprofit sector.

 

In the mid-1920s, things looked much different than later on. Several hundred nonprofit broadcasters began operating in the decade’s early years, mostly affiliated with colleges and universities. Commercial ones, in contrast, weren’t even professionals. They were owned and run by newspapers, department stores, power companies and others in the private sector.

 

NBC was established in 1926, CBS the following year, and neither had an impact until the 1927 Radio Act’s passage. Commercial advertising, the pillar of today’s system, hardly existed until 1928. It was very controversial and very unpopular throughout the 1920s. Before 1927, it was generally agreed that nonprofit broadcasting should have a significant, even a dominant position, in the US system.

 

Then came the Radio Act that year. It established the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). It was to make the airwaves orderly, reduce the number of stations, allocate broadcast licenses, and favor those applicants that would best serve the "public interest, convenience or necessity." The FRC was renewed in 1928 and then indefinitely in 1929. It used these years to solidify the emerging industry’s dominance and make no effort to change it.

 

FRC held meetings with commercial broadcasters. Nonprofits and nonbroadcasters were left out, so it’s not surprising how things developed. FRC’s reallocation plan came out under General Order 40. Of the 90 available, it set aside forty 50,000 watt clear channels for one occupant nationally. The remaining 600 broadcasters got the other 50 to operate simultaneously on at much lower power levels. Those in the same region would share a frequency at different times of day. The squeeze was on, and by autumn 1929, 100 fewer stations were on-air.

 

Not surprisingly, the networks won big. They got a flying start, and by the early 1930s, controlled 30% of the stations, including all but three of the clear channel ones. In addition, commercial advertising began growing substantially. Equally dramatic was the decline in nonprofit, noncommercial broadcasting. The FRC reduced their hours and power and made it harder for them to generate funds to keep operating. As a result, by 1930, their numbers dropped to less than one-third their 1927 total of around 200. By 1934, nonprofit broadcasting accounted for about 2% of total broadcast time. Business was king. The potential of the medium was beginning to be understood. The FRC was on board to support it, and said it was in "general public service" to do it.

 

Nonetheless, nonprofit opposition emerged. A National Committee on Education by Radio (NCER) was formed to get Congress to set aside 15% of channels for its use. Other nonprofit broadcasters joined the battle, and so did newspaper owners (at first) and civic groups. The former ended up partnering with for-profit broadcasters, while remaining opposition elements continued the struggle. They were against the status quo and wanted reform. Three themes underlined their position:

 

– the airwaves should be a public resource and broadcasting a public utility;

 

– most important, an advertising-supported for-profit network would use its programming to defend the status quo and would shut out unpopular or radical ideas; and

 

– reformers criticized broadcast advertising and the limitations of for-profit broadcasting; it would work against cultural, educational, and public affairs efforts that are less suited to commercial operations.

 

Opposition groups proposed a number of plans with three getting the most attention in the early 1930s:

 

– setting aside a fixed percentage (15 – 25%) of broadcast channels for exclusive nonprofit use;

 

– have Congress authorize an extensive and independent broadcasting study to devise a whole new system; and

 

– have the government establish a number of local, regional, and national nonprofit stations; they’d be subsidized by taxes and operated by a congressionally approved citizen board of directors; these stations would supplement, not replace, commercial operations.

 

None of the proposals were considered. For-profit operators worked against them. The opposition movement was divided in its tactics, and it faced three major barriers – the radio lobby, consisting of NBC, CBS and the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). They went all out with a PR blitz to establish the "status quo."

 

Against this, reformers got little coverage while the press was strongly on board with the broadcasters. So was the legal community. The ABA established a Standing Committee on Communications in the late 1920s and stacked it with commercial broadcasting attorneys, The handwriting was on the wall.

 

The campaign to restructure commercial broadcasting went throu

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