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Herbert Hoover at a wireless set.

Herbert Hoover’s four warnings about radio

Good news. MacMillan’s 1952 edition (pdf) of the memoirs of Herbert Hoover is online. That means you can read Hoover’s assessment of his administration of broadcast radio during his stint as Secretary of Commerce in the 1920s.

Hoover was a staunch believer in public control of the airwaves. He wrote that when he arrived at the Harding Administration in 1920, radio broadcasting developers wanted regulation to prevent interference with each other, but “many of them were insisting on a right of permanent preemption of the channels through the air as private property – a monopoly of enormous financial value.” Mr. Secretary thought this was crazy. Their arguments for total privatization were “in a fashion comparable to private ownership of a water navigation channel,” he wrote.

In the end, there had to be a “public right over the ether roads,” Hoover believed. “There must be no national regret that we have parted with a great national asset.” The “Great Humanitarian,” as he was called thanks to his efforts at famine relief during World War I, then organized a series of radio conferences to encourage some kind of consensus about broadcasting. His speeches contained many expressions of concern and even warnings about the future of broadcasting.

Here is an excerpt from Hoover’s speech from the first conference in 1922:

“I think that it will be agreed at the outset that the use of the radio telephone for communication between single individuals as in the case of the ordinary telephone is a perfectly hopeless notion. Obviously if ten million telephone subscribers are crying through the air for their mates they will never make a junction. . . . The wireless spoken word has one definite field, and that is for broadcast of certain predetermined material of public interest from central stations. This material must be limited to news, to education, and to entertainment, and the communication of such commercial matters as are of importance to large groups, of the community at the same time.”

Here is what Hoover said at that conference about commercialism:

“It is therefore primarily a question of broadcasting, and it becomes of primary public interest to say who is to do the broadcasting, under what circumstances, and with what type of material. It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.”

Hoover reiterated these assumptions in a 1925 radio summit:

“We hear a great deal about the freedom of the air, but there are two parties to freedom of the air, and to freedom of speech for that matter. There is the speechmaker and the listener. Certainly in radio I believe in freedom for the listener. He has much less option upon what he can reject, for the other fellow is occupying his receiving set. The listener’s only option is to abandon his right to use his receiver. Freedom cannot mean a license to every person or corporation who wishes to broadcast his name or his wares, and thus monopolize the listener’s set . . . “

Finally, his chapter of on radio regulation contains an assessment of radio following the Second World War:

“On the good side it has been a powerful educational force. It has stimulated the appreciation of good music, despite the fact that it gives tenfold time to the worst of music. It has made science, the arts, the professions, the daily lives of other men and women familiar to all the people. It has vastly enriched the lives of shut-ins and residents of remote places. It has made transmission of news instantaneous. It has brought into every household the voice and views of the men who create thought and command action.

But truth is far less carefully safeguarded on the radio than in the press. The control of slander, libel, malice, and smearing is far more difficult. The newspaper editor has a chance to see a statement before it goes to the press. But on the radio it is often out before the station can stop it. A misstatement in the press can be corrected within twenty-four hours, and it reaches approximately the same people who read the original item and is open to all who have a grievance.

There is little adequate answer to a lying microphone. The audience is never the same on any two days or hours, and it takes days to arrange time for an answer even when the station consents. At that, no matter how grave the injustice, the broadcasting companies will seldom sacrifice time for this privilege. Action under American law as to slander is doubly futile against the radio.

Also radio lends itself to propaganda far more easily than the press.”

I don’t post these comments because I agree with all of them, but they offer an interesting window into the social and technological assumptions of the United States’ first broadcast regulator. In what ways are they still relevant in our smarphone era? Your feedback is, as always, welcome. You can read all of Hoover’s comments about radio in Chapter of 20 of the first volume of his memoirs. That section begins on page 139 of the tome.

PS: Oh yeah . . . right . . . later on Hoover became President of the United States. It didn’t work out so well, but that’s another story.

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One Response to Herbert Hoover’s four warnings about radio

  1. Robert August 4, 2015 at 6:22 pm #

    There are well-known economic advantages to privatiz’n of most goods that are considered technically “rivalrous” — i.e. the occupation of it by one deprives another of the same. But whenever some such entity (such as a frequency over which to xmit) is newly recognized, it can be argued endlessly as to HOW (i.e. to whom) to initially assign the rights. John Locke in his 2nd treatise addressed the problem but gave incomplete & indefinite criteria. It is especially vexing when, as in most cases, the resource in question has a history of use; should one ratify a windfall by giving permanent rights to a party that may have gotten temporary use by arbitrary process? OTOH, every day that one dithers over how or whether to privatize continues the uncertainty & inefficiency of uncertain future access.

    Either state communism (political control of the resource, which Hoover seemed to favor) or anarcho-communism (denial of control of the resource) looks bad for most useful goods. (Another option would be state Georgism, in which the state leases the resource with no strings attached for a politically determined rent. Anarcho-Georgism would allow occupation of the resource for continuous use only, not sale.) However, it just FEELS as if for some goods — whether wildland parks or ham radio spectrum — there’s more “goodness” there than could be afforded by their users if they had to buy or lease them in the competitive market. But that feeling may be an illusion.

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