While drawing analogies too closely from history is perilous, I am sometimes struck by parallels between events of today and events of the past. Our world today is not the only world facing disruptive technologies which test the minds of men and the flexibility of institutions. Men and institutions today are wrestling with challenges presented by the internet, Google and social media. For all practical purposes, these did not exist twenty five years ago. Issues of privacy, fairness, free speech and monopoly power have all emerged, in new shapes and sizes, in today’s wired world. We struggle to wrap our minds around them, to manage them and make them serve beneficial ends. In the 1920s broadcast radio emerged as a similarly disruptive technology, upsetting the status quo and challenging men and institutions to find a new equilibrium. Herbert Hoover was deeply involved in this.
Hoover spoke on these challenges at an event celebrating the 25th anniversary of broadcast radio. Speaking from New York City to a nationwide radio audience, Hoover recounted his role as ‘traffic cop and nurse’ during the early days of broadcast radio. This task fell to Hoover as Secretary of Commerce because Commerce had authority to prevent interference with Morse telegraph signals. Although the technological link between telegraph and radio was thin, Hoover did not hesitate to act.
While there were only sixty broadcast stations and less than a thousand receiving sets in America, Hoover convened the first radio conference in February 1922. Opening the conference he said: ‘We have witnessed one of the most astounding things that has come into American life. . . . We are on the threshold of a new means of widespread communication of intelligence. . . . It has profound importance in public entertainment, education and public welfare. . . . It will yet influence our whole lives.’ He was right. Hoover saw the broadcast channels of the new medium as public property, akin to navigation channels in waterways. As such, no private sector monopolies should exist. Government’s role should be to regulate traffic flow and prevent interference.
Over the next five years America grew to have over a thousand broadcast stations and more than six million receiving sets. In this period Hoover convened a series of radio conferences to regulate the airwaves by assigning broadcast frequencies to avoid interference. Most saw this as reasonable and complied. One radio evangelist did not see the light. She sent Hoover a telegram: ‘Please order your minions of Satan to leave my station alone. You cannot expect the Almighty to abide by your wave length nonsense. When I offer my prayers I must fit into the receiving sets in heaven. You don’t know what their wave lengths are and neither do I. Stop this interference with me at once.’
Hoover ended his 1945 remarks: ‘And today, 25 years after, radio still never ceases to be magic to me. Coming from nowhere into everywhere it brings us not alone news instantly from the spot. It brings the greatest and worst music. It brings good and bad speeches…. It brings them alike to all of us, farm house, village cottages, and city cliff-dwellers.’ Speaking when television was in its earliest days, and the internet and social media had yet to be conceived, one is left to ponder what Hoover would make of today’s media environment.