Unscrambling the Ether


To students of present-day society — especially American society — few ideas are more significant than that of ‘cultural lag.’ The idea, as presented by Professor William F. Ogburn, is roughly as follows. Different parts of a civilization develop at different speeds; and this difference of speed results sometimes in a serious loss of smoothness, of efficiency, in the working of the social system. In our own case, the chief source of friction arises from the rapid onrush of scientific technique in all the material aspects of our culture, and the failure of the non-material substructure of political and legal ideas to adapt itself fast enough.

We have shown no such inventiveness in this latter sphere as we have in the former. Almost every material aspect and activity of life is radically different from what it was fifty, even twenty years ago; but our outfit of concepts and techniques for the ordering of our life as a society is still heavy with the dust of the eighteenth century. There is a terrific inertia in the latter sphere that does not exist in the former.

We reckon depreciation on our machines at an ever-increasing rate; but who in the world thinks of reckoning the depreciation on our pet political or legal axioms? We put a premium on new notions in applied science and compete with one another to obtain them; but we distrust and systematically hamper originality in respect of individual or group relations in society. The result is that every now and then we find ourselves in a mess — confronted with a problem created by our own technical prowess for which we have failed to develop adequate ideal tools. Such problems are on the increase, in both number and gravity; and, of course, nowhere more rapidly than in those aspects of our collective doings which depend, one way or another, on electricity.

The case of radio is a very interesting example. It has already given us — about four years ago — one dramatic reminder of the inability of our nonmaterial culture to support the material advance we prize so highly. The resulting collapse was literally audible through all the loud speakers of the country. What happened, as listeners may recall, was that the invisible foundation of law suddenly cracked under the rising edifice of technique. It was old law — laws get old in less than fourteen years nowadays — by which the Department of Commerce was allotting broadcasting channels; and put to the test it was discovered to be without authority. Stations began broadcasting on any wave length they pleased. Out of that witches’ Sabbath the present radio law was born.

Now that, too, is showing signs of strain. Once more the edifice of technique is cracking the foundation. Demands for more power are coming along faster than the public has any idea of. It is possible that the whole layout of broadcasting service may have to be revamped. Demands for facilities are pressing hard against the limits of the United States quota — limits set by international agreement. Within those limits, as every listener knows, there is severe congestion, and not a little confusion. Inevitably the question of the exact status of government control over broadcasting is forced to the fore. During the winter of 1929-1930 the Commerce Committee of the Senate conducted exhaustive hearings on a proposal to put the whole business on a new basis under a Federal Communications Commission. Then the question of the use to which broadcasting is put has become urgent. The public is increasingly critical of what a recent writer calls ‘the vast cacophonous sales mart’ of the air, and organizations all over the country, including the Federal Office of Education, are concerning themselves with the problem of programme content. To what extent the present advertising basis of broadcasting either can or should survive is an open issue.

The ordinary listener is concerned in all this in respect, first, of the quality of his radio reception, and, second, of the material that is put on the air for his edification. And since, as a citizen, he is likely sooner or later to be expected to have an opinion about it, an effort to grasp the elements of the problem is worth while. In its extreme complexity it has, for those who like that sort of thing, the added interest of a jig-saw puzzle or a good detective story — save that there is no guarantee that the pieces will fit or that the clues will lead anywhere.


The ‘broadcasting band’ available for general purposes in North America extends — as anyone can see from the dial of a receiving set — from 550 to 1500 kilocycles. Frequencies below and above this range are reserved by international agreement for special purposes, such as maritime, transoceanic, visual, and other types of broadcasting. Ten kilocycles is considered the very minimum degree of separation between channels; we thus have ninety-six possible channels, including both terminals.

And that is as far as we can get in the exposition without running into politics. Radio, like most other technical bases of modern civilization, is ill adapted to the national divisions on which our political life is framed. But, things being as they are, there had to be a sharing out of these ninety-six channels with our neighbors to the north and south. Strictly speaking, the sharing out is only to the north at present; Mexico has none, but is likely to be heard from in the near future. Canada has six channels exclusively and shares twelve more with the United States.

Here again the situation may not last forever. There is therefore strong reason for economy in the use of the ninety channels left.

On these ninety channels, or frequencies, or wave lengths, are crowded over 600 broadcasting stations. There were 732 when the Federal Radio Commission was formed in 1927 — there had at one time been over 1000 — and the Commission has had a hard time reducing the number even so far. But why should it want to reduce the number? Because from a technical point of view there are far too many stations for comfort. They get in each other’s way all the time, and the endeavor to keep them from doing so is an intricate and interminable job involving constant checking and a good deal of legal wrangling. The ideal thing would be to have only one station on one channel in the entire area which might be affected by its operations. England keeps quite close to this ideal, even weak stations having channels to themselves.

But the United States is a big country: surely there is room for several stations on one channel in so large an area? Ah, but at this point Nature plays a pretty little joke on the broadcasters. A broadcasting station, like a gossiping woman, can make itself a nuisance through a much wider sphere than that in which it can be useful — can, and does. Mr. John Hogan, appearing as expert witness before the Radio Commission in 1928, gave some interesting illustrations of the fact. A moderate-sized station of 5000 watts can give good service, if free of interference, over a 100-mile radius (a somewhat liberal estimate if applied to existing conditions). Its nuisance area, however, has a 3000-mile radius, A second station of the same power on the same channel 1500 miles away will cut down the good service radius of the first station from 100 miles to 15 miles, and the interference effect of even a weak station at the same distance is almost as great.

Obviously the nuisance effect of duplicating stations on the same channel mounts up much more quickly than the increase in the service facilities. Every duplication means some waste, from a technical point of view; much duplication, especially at high power, far more than offsets the gain to listeners in each locality. The listeners may, within a narrow range, get better reception from their local station; but the range of that service will be far narrower than that which the power of their station could render, and the chance of hearing anything else clearly will be tremendously restricted. Taking only a very moderate standard of radio reception as the criterion, Mr. Hogan estimated that all 5000-watt stations ought to have cleared channels; 1000-watt stations should be about 1400 miles apart — which would give four or five per channel; 500-watt stations from 900 to 1000 miles apart, giving about ten per channel; 100-watt stations about 450 miles apart, giving about twenty per channel on a geographically equal spacing.

What do we find in practice? Taking one channel absolutely at random, — the 1200-kilocycle band, — there are at present forty-two stations operating on it, eight using less than 100 watts power, eight of them using more than 100 watts in the daytime. Their geographical spacing is far from even throughout the country. And that happens to be one of the channels that is also shared with Canada. How has this situation come about? In fact it is a legacy of pre-regulation days — days when anybody could set up a station and get a license on the strength of the fait accompli. It is a relic of individualism — which means, in matters of this sort, the practice of proceeding helter-skelter without any plan until an impossible situation has developed and all sorts of vested interests have been created, and then trying to impose a plan retrospectively in face of innumerable technical and legal obstacles. The theoretical defense of this multiplicity of stations is the desire for local service. But on the merits of the case it is very questionable whether what most of these small stations contribute to the repertory of the ether is a sufficient justification for the amount of nuisance they create. In the particular case selected — and, be it emphasized, this is a random sample — twenty of the forty-two stations are in towns of less than 25,000 people. And it is stations of this sort that do the worst type of advertising and the greatest amount of mechanical record playing.


In the attempt to impose some sort of plan on the chaos which had come into being by 1928, two events are of outstanding importance. One is the passage of the Davis Amendment to the Radio Act in March 1928. The other is the issuance by the Commission of General Order No. 40 in the following August.

The Radio Act of 1927 had divided the country into five zones, each of which sent one member to the Commission. These zones are not of equal size or of equal population. The smallest (Zone II, East Central) will contain a circle of 131 miles radius, the largest (Zone V, Western) one of 725 miles radius. In population the first four zones are not far apart, but the fifth has less than half that of any other. The Davis Amendment ordered the Commission to make an equal allocation of licenses, wave lengths, and power to each zone; and added that within each zone there should be an equitable distribution between states on the basis of population.

If population were evenly distributed throughout the entire country and there were no political questions involved, the engineers could — at least on paper — proceed to an optimum distribution of broadcasting stations on the sole basis of geographical considerations and technical efficiency. The Davis Amendment represents an attempt to compromise with the facts as they are. Its weakest feature — a feature which it may be necessary ultimately to abandon — is the acceptance of purely political subdivisions in the working out of a technical programme.

The Commission was next faced with the job of reallocating the 700-odd stations then in existence in accordance with the general principles thus laid down. Its scheme, evolved after much technical study and considerable difference of opinion within as well as without the Commission, was announced in General Order No. 40. The problem was one of classifying not merely stations but wave-length assignments, and of doing so with as little interference as the general policy permitted. The whole 550-1500 kilocycle band had therefore to be studied. The result was the definition of three types of service — national, regional, local. For national service the commission ‘cleared’ forty channels, on each of which only one station was to operate at one time. Regional channels, thirty-five in number, were to accommodate 125 stations of moderate power, widely spaced. Local channels, comprising the remainder, were to accommodate 150 low-power stations.

This scheme, for various reasons, some of which will be indicated below, has not been fully carried out. But even so far as it has been carried out — that is, in respect of the cleared channels— its operation leaves much to be desired. In the first place, there is still duplication of stations on the same wave in certain cases, which the Commission has been unable for legal reasons to abolish. That fact is necessary to explain the apparent paradox that there are about fifty stations operating full time on the forty cleared channels in addition to over thirty others operating on low power or limited time.

In the second place, there is still a good deal of ‘waste room’ in the ether because many stations operating on cleared channels are using only low or very moderate power; while at the same time, since title to a cleared channel is the most valuable concession obtainable from a money-making point of view, these stations would strongly object to others being authorized on their channels even if the Commission were disposed (as part of it has been disposed) to take such a step. As a matter of fact some twenty of these cleared-channel stations applied to the Commission last November for permission to increase their power up to fifty kilowatts. A good many of them have been losing money, and from their point of view an increase in the service area would enable advertising rates to be increased. The smaller stations, however, have stoutly resisted the increase on the ground of interference, and the Commission has hitherto been very chary of granting high-power permits.

The gravest waste, however, is in connection with the chain hook-ups. A majority of these stations on cleared channels are associated with either the National Broadcasting Company or the Columbia system. For a very obvious reason. It is these cleared-channel stations that have the largest potcnt ial service area and therefore the greatest cash value as advertising agencies; and though only a small proportion of them are actually owned by the radio interests, almost all of them are in commercial or financial ownership, and almost all of them exist simply to sell wares or services and make money. The vast advertising networks in which they are associated are a natural development of that commercialization of broadcasting which the Radio Commission has accepted as in conformity with ‘public interest, convenience or necessity.’ But the result entails a tremendous wastage of broadcasting facilities, for the reason that instead of forty cleared channels presenting, as they might, forty different programmes, the same material comes every night over the air from the great majority of them. Irrespective of whether the programme is good or bad, this involves a colossal waste of ‘air space’ — a waste over which the Commission has apparently no control at all. In view of the congestion of broadcasting facilities, which has involved outright denial of facilities to many non-commercial stations, such a result of individualism is a deplorable piece of inefficiency.

It is possible that, at some time in the future, synchronization — that is, operation of two or more stations on the same wave kept absolutely in unison — may release some of these cleared channels. To date, however, synchronization has been commercially possible only by direct wire connection — a process too expensive to carry out over large distances. Whether or when this relief may come is uncertain; in the meantime the monopolization of the national channels stands squarely in the way of independent enterprise in programme development.


In the original scheme of the Davis Amendment and General Order No. 40, it will be noticed that a total of 315 stations was originally provided for. There are in fact over 600 stations operating. The difference provides some measure of the various technical, political, and legal obstacles that have stood in the way.

Of the political obstacles perhaps the less said the better. Their general nature can be very well imagined. The legal ones, however, provide some points of vital interest. The Radio Act of 1927 laid down that the grant of a license was subject to ‘public interest, convenience or necessity ’ — leaving the interpretation of the phrase entirely to the Commission. All sorts of cases have been brought up by stations ‘ordered off the air’ or contesting particular rulings of the Commission; but the outstanding issues may perhaps be briefly indicated as follows.

On the face of it, radio regulation must be entirely a Federal matter.

Even a weak station is not confined in its effects within the intra-state area. The courts have ruled that ’radio communication in general’ falls within the category of interstate commerce and that the constitutional power thus arising must be broadly interpreted — just how broadly is not yet fully explicit. Further, it has been quite definitely laid down that the grant of a license conveys no property right in a wave length, and that the regulatory power of the Commission is therefore not ipso facto in contravention of the Fifth Amendment. But apparently regulation can be successfully contested on the plea of arbitrary use of power by the Commission. A leading case was that of station WGY(Sehenectady). The Commission, in its attempt to apply the Davis Amendment on the lines of its General Order No. 40, had found it necessary to curtail this station’s time on the air. The attempt failed, and the argument of the court suggested that, although the station had no vested interest in any particular wave length, it had acquired a property interest in its operations entitled to protection of the opportunity for their full continuance.

The question of vested interests is in fact by no means disposed of by the contention that there is no vested interest in a wave length as such. The power to curtail operations or order stations off the air may be contested on various grounds, and it is not too much to say that the exact nature of that power has never been finally settled. An extract from an important brief recently presented before the Supreme Court illustrates the basic confusion: —

The property right of a broadcasting station to the use of the ether with the power upon which it is operated is, perhaps, best established by the doctrine of priority of appropriation as applied to water rights in non-navigable streams of the Western States. It is contended that rights to the use of the ether for broadcasting are similar in nature, the property right to the continued use of both media being acquired by priority of appropriation.

The case resolves itself into this: Shall a pioneer broadcaster who, at the risk of money and effort, contributed to the creation of broadcasting be deprived of the fruits of his labor?


The same brief attacks the regulatory power on the ground that there are no previously established criteria of ‘public interest, convenience or necessity.’ And here a different and perhaps even more difficult phase of the problem arises. That phase concerns the nature of the service rendered. The Commission is explicitly denied the power of censorship by Section 29 of the Radio Act, except that it may close stations permitting the use of ‘obscene, indecent or profane language.’ Some stations have been closed on this ground. On the other hand the Commission can hardly avoid — does not avoid in practice — taking into consideration the quality of the service given in deciding between competing stations where facilities are limited and a choice has to be made. Should it have power to go further?

First, there is widespread evidence of a public reaction against radio advertising. It is surprising how many people one meets who either do not own sets or scarcely use their sets because they will not tolerate it. Dr. Lee De Forest, in his presidential message to the Institute of Radio Engineers in January 1931, attributed the falling off in radio sales during 1930 largely to this factor, and went so far as to describe the present situation as ‘perilously menacing.’ In what is probably the gravest warning yet uttered by a person of high authority in the industry itself, he said: —

Unless these broadcasting conditions are very soon materially improved; unless the public is given the opportunity to listen to four or five hours each day of fine entertainment free from sales talk, I cannot see any way of restoring its former prosperity to the radio industry.

As long as it seems hopeless to expect our Congress to authorize any censorship of radio programmes or to levy a tax on receiving instruments for the support of fine programmes, even if such measures were wise, I am forced to regard the plan of associated manufacturers collectively sponsoring high-class programmes freed of all advertising as the surest and most practical means for remedying a situation which will, unless cured, certainly spell disaster for the radio industry.

Testimony of a different kind, though no less devastating, was forthcoming last December from the attorney to the Federal Radio Commission, Mr. Arthur W. Scharfeld: ‘The widespread and unthinking reliance of the public on broadcast advertising as a guide to purchases of every nature [including in certain cases security issues banned under state blue-sky laws] creates a potentiality for abuse upon which advertisers have not been slow to realize. Established remedies which cover the ordinary situation of false or misleading advertising have been but slight deterrents to fraudulent practices over the radio. Persuasive evidence that the evils exist is afforded by the continuing galaxy of complaints covering every conceivable subject matter.’

There is another phase of this question. Apart altogether from the effect of advertising upon programme content, there exists behind the scenes a good deal more skepticism than is allowed to leak out as to the actual sales value of the radio campaign. A large proportion, perhaps a majority, of station managers are professional advertising men; and although there is competition between radio advertising and other forms of the art, there is also coöperation, as evinced in the various ‘tie-ups’ between radio and press or billboard publicity. No one branch is going to give the rest away by too much candor. But it is unlikely that broadcasting revenues will continue indefinitely increasing. It is not impossible that radio advertising has already passed its zenith. One wonders, in that event, whether the ‘ unsponsored ’ programmes which now account for most of the better features of American broadcasting will be continued on the increasing scale which cultural considerations demand. Such programmes cost a lot of money, and the amount that can be spent on them — apart from its function in staving off criticism and the possibility of outside control — is closely connected with the size of the advertising revenue. If, as the Radio Commission has laid down, advertising must be accepted as the sole means of support for broadcasting, the outlook is not altogether reassuring.

The commercial basis raises yet another obstacle to cultural progress. Chain stations are paid for the advertising material they relay from the central studios of the system. On the other hand they pay for the ‘sustaining ’ or ‘ unsponsored ’ programmes they pick up and rebroadcast. They are not under obligation to take these latter, and as a rule do not if they can sell the same hours to an advertiser on their own account. The result is, of course, that the only material which is certain of nation-wide reception is the advertising. The educational or cultural features offered by the central stations may or may not be distributed on the local or regional hook-ups. Perhaps that is a fair reflection of the scale of values obtaining in the average American mind. But it is not encouraging to those who would like to see broadcasting made more worthy of a nation that claims to call itself civilized.

Mr. Hoover’s views on this matter have apparently undergone a strange metamorphosis. A few years ago he said very frankly; —

Radio communication is not to be considered as merely a business carried on for private gain, for public advertisement, or for the entertainment of the curious. It is a public concern impressed with the public trust and to be considered primarily from the standpoint of public interest to the same extent and upon the basis of the same general principles as our other public utilities.

Last December, in a letter to the vice president of the Westinghouse Company apropos of the tenth anniversary of commercial broadcasting, Mr. Hoover wrote as follows: ‘It has already begun to modify the character of American life and fortunately its tremendous influence is all on the side of progress. To-day the high level of service and the wholesome character of programmes should be a proper source of pride to all engaged in it.’ One wonders whether Mr. Hoover knew what happened to the Massachusetts University Extension programme of radio education at the hands of the Westinghouse stations of New England. He can find the story on page 144 of the report on radio education issued by his own Secretary of the Interior.


It is in connection with the educational use of radio that the question of programme control is being most keenly discussed. The contribution that radio at present makes, or under existing conditions can make, to either juvenile or adult education in America is lamentably small in comparison with the opportunity or with what is being done elsewhere. Education cannot compete for ‘room on the air’ with national advertisers. There are even people who hold it ought not to be compelled to. But all available channels are full, and more than full. What — if anything — can be done about it?

Three main proposals have so far been put forward for serious consideration by responsible groups in America. A conference summoned in Chicago by the Radio Education Division of the Federal Office of Education last October formulated a demand that the Radio Commission be instructed by Congress to clear 15 per cent of all channels for government and educational purposes. A proposal similar in principle is contained in a joint resolution now before Congress, calling for three cleared channels to be put at the disposal of the Departments of Labor, Agriculture, and the Interior.

An alternative suggestion which has met with some favor on the part of two members of the Radio Commission itself is that stations should be compelled, as a stipulation of their license, to hold a stated proportion of their time at the disposal of the public services. Commissioner Robinson has coupled this idea with the suggestion of a license fee, to be paid, as it is in other cases, for the use of a public medium.

The legal obstacles in the way of either plan are undoubtedly serious, though less so in the second case than in the first. In view of the attitude of the courts, the Commission might well shrink from any attempt at a compulsory clearing of channels. The alternative would be to wait — indefinitely — for the release of existing channels by synchronization, on the by no means certain assumption that when that time came present holders of unrequired national channels would give them up without a struggle. But even so, to devote cleared channels to any restricted type of service would be poor economy in view of the improbability of such restricted service requiring full-time use of the facilities.

The second proposal avoids this objection; but it is open to another that might prove no less serious. If the stations themselves are to be allowed to choose which hours they will devote to public-service programmes, they will naturally choose the hours they cannot sell. If they are to be told by some outside authority what hours they shall surrender, much the same legal problems will be raised as would be involved in an attempt to put some of them ‘off the air’ altogether.

A third proposal, which is now being acted upon through the instrumentality of the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education (a non-governmental organization), avoids any element of coercion. In his recent report to the American Association for Adult Education (‘Education Tunes In’) Mr. Levering Tyson drew attention to the following statement by the president of the National Broadcasting Company, Mr. Merlin H. Aylesworth: —

‘The pleasing progress that we have made in musical education leads us to hope that we shall soon undertake general educational work, but I feel very strongly that that should not be done until a carefully considered programme is prepared by nationally recognized educators of outstanding ability. Such a programme should be sponsored by some responsible organization of educators or perhaps a group of them. . . . When they are ready we will place our facilities at their disposal without charge.’

Up to the present, it must be confessed, the National Broadcasting Company has had considerable justification for holding its hand. There have been very few examples of first-class educational broadcasting in America, and it may be said, taking the field as a whole, that educational opinion is divided and discouraged. Objectives are not yet defined and methods not generally agreed on. Nor is there convincing evidence of any widespread popular demand for education as such. Educators cannot see their way clear to getting untrammeled use of the ‘air,’ even if they knew what they wanted to do with it; on the other hand, they are skeptical of education sponsored by commercial firms — even in those cases where the firms have made genuine efforts to promote it. The offer of facilities on the two national chain systems, though it is probably the best opportunity open at present, is subject to certain drawbacks. There is the difficulty, in an area as large as the United States, of local time variations; but, assuming that this can be got over, there is the larger question as to whether uniformity on a nation-wide scale is a really promising road for education. The fact remains, however, that in very few cases have local stations cither the resources or the initiative to command first-rate material.

An effort is therefore being made by the National Advisory Council to explore the educational demand on a nation-wide scale with a view to action upon the lines suggested above by Mr. Aylesworth. The significance of any experiments so made will depend very largely on the amount of public response they evoke. But should the experiment succeed, we shall have another example of the American way of doing through the instrumentality of — and within the limits imposed by — big business the things that other countries would naturally do by public enterprise. The distinction, however, is probably unimportant, since it would be folly to pretend that there is any vital difference in the ideals and the policies of the two agencies at present.

Big business has in fact come to occupy in America very much the position occupied by the Church in mediæval Europe. It dominates politics and international relations, colors the administration of law and the concept of justice, controls popular aspiration, recreation, and a large part of education, moulds the forms and sets the standards of social intercourse, permeates while it patronizes the national culture in a hundred ways. It rests on a widespread and uncritical faith which is carefully protected from the shocks that too much knowledge might impart; and it is served throughout the lower ranks of its hierarchy with loyalty, sincerity, and devotion. To its highly centralized controls are drawn, as by magnetic attraction, the ablest men from every sphere that fits its grand design. And even at its core, cynicism and Realpolitik stand cheek by jowl with idealism and a sense of stewardship.

This is no caviling comment. After all, the attempt to establish the kingdom of God was not a conspicuous success. And, having decided to establish instead a kingdom of man, what more can one reasonably demand than to be made comfortable? The higher flights of culture have, as is well known, a tendency sometimes to disturb the mind, evoke quite inconvenient aspirations, diminish the measure of our content with things as they are, and even affect the working of the digestive organs. Let us be grateful we are spared the prospect of such a consummation.