The Origins and Future of Radio


Nicholas Johnson


Remarks On the Occasion of KOHI-FM’s Third Anniversary

United Methodist Church, Ames, Iowa


August 23, 2015 [150820]


Happy Birthday!


Thank you KOHI for inviting me to share with you your successful first three years of radio service to Ames and much of Des Moines. And thanks to all of you who are here today – including the delegation from Iowa City’s newest radio station, KICI.


Even those working for KOHI may not realize how much of an accomplishment this is. According to Forbes magazine, within our capitalist system “8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months.”[1]  


So you are already amongst the top 20% of America’s new enterprises. That’s why even mere survival for three years is worth a birthday party. And when you add to that your growth and many successes it is a truly remarkable accomplishment and reason for pride and celebration.


Many presidents have begun their annual State of the Union address with the line, “The State of the Union is good.”[2]


Similarly, I can report to you today, “The state of radio is good.” In fact, it’s never been better – regardless of how you define radio.


When we speak of “radio” we are usually referring to radio broadcasting – AM and FM radio stations.


Radio broadcasting has been in the past, and can be again – as it is with your station -- a form of communication, a word with 14th Century origins. “Communication” shares its root with the words community, commune, communitarian, and the commons. Radio can be a major building block in the creation of the social capital that supports a civic society.


Indeed, it is no coincidence that you state as your mission, “building community through communication,” your “vision” includes “the enrichment of our community,” and that one of your goals is to “be a communications clearing house for community issues.” That’s what you do. That’s your job.[3]


Radio as Technology


Many years ago on a cross country flight, the fellow sitting in the adjacent seat told me about his warehouse full of slide rules. Most of you may have never seen a slide rule. Slide rules were sort of a wooden ruler with movable parts.[4] Engineers carried them on their belts, and used them for making mathematical calculations. My seatmate’s challenge was the “broadside blow” that new technology sometimes strikes against a previously dominant industry – in his case the blow was delivered by the handheld calculator.


Swiss watchmakers did not anticipate the digital watch. Kodak was offered the Xerox process, videotape, and digital cameras and didn’t initially see the future of any of them. IBM almost missed out on the desktop computer. It’s a common challenge.


Fortunately, radio as a technology is not confronted with such potential broadside blows.


Over our species’ 50,000 year history we have devised many means of communicating through space without wires: couriers and the Pony Express, drums and horns, smoke signals and flashing light, semaphore flags and the moveable semaphore arms first used in 1790 and later on poles along railroad tracks.[5]


But over all those years nothing has come along that is any better than radio’s invisible, electro-magnetic energy, carrying whatever content we wish at 186,000 miles a second – whether for fifteen feet across our living room, or for billions of miles, even light years, through distant galaxies.


Your TV remote, garage door opener, the apps controlling everything from furnaces to refrigerators, the Wi-Fi connecting your laptop and smart phone to the Internet, drones, talking cars – all use radio. Even the New Horizons spacecraft used radio to send photos of Pluto nearly five billion-miles back to Earth.[6]


Of the seven billion people on Earth, three billion are connected to the Internet.[7]  But our Internet of three billion people is rapidly being transformed into an Internet of things, soon to be connecting an estimated 25-to-75 billion devices – with radio.[8]


And that is why I believe we can safely say that the state of radio – at least in the sense of radio technology -- is more than just good; it’s excellent, it’s spectacular. As technology, radio is king.






Radio as Mysterious Miracle


Steve Marin and Bill Murray once had a Saturday Night Live routine in which they play a couple of rednecks who screw up their faces, point in the distance, and repeat with various intonations, “What the hell is that?”[9]


A century ago they might very well have been pointing to a radio receiver.


It is said that two-year-olds used to think there were people inside the early, bulky television receivers[10] – one of the reasons it was thought immoral to aim TV commercials at them.


But a century ago, adults were astute enough to know that there could not be people inside those small black boxes that emitted human voices and music. Radio was a miracle, a mystery, simultaneously exciting and deeply disturbing.


The telegraph was the product of inventors during the 1830s and ‘40s – most especially for us, Samuel Morse, and his first telegraph message sent the 38 miles from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844: “What hath God wrought?”[11]


Ironically, the telegraph also played a more direct role in what later became radio broadcast programming and even cable television.


For starters, today’s digital everything is but a variation on Morse’s way of embedding information into electromagnetic energy with his Morse code.[12]


The telegraph even played a major role in the naming of radio – as we often tend to name the new we don’t know in terms of its relationship to the old and comfortable that we do know.


Did your grandparents ever tell you the name first given to what we today call automobiles, or cars? Nineteenth Century Story County farmers coming to the county seat of Nevada on Saturdays rode in carriages pulled by horses. These newfangled devices (many of which were the first electric cars) were also carriages – but without horses. So they naturally called them, what? That’s right, horseless carriages.  And note, while we don’t call them horseless carriages anymore, we still measure their engines in, what? Yes, horsepower.


So if an automobile was a horseless carriage, what do you suppose early radio was named, this new way of sending telegraph messages over distance without wires? That’s right, wireless telegraphy.


Names make a difference. They direct our thinking and restrain our imaginations.


As a wise observer once wrote:


A rose by any other name

Might never, never smell the same --

And canny is a nose that knows

An onion that is called a rose[13]


Marconi’s 1890s radio didn’t transmit voices or music.[14] What it transmitted was what years ago, with AM radios in old cars, we called static. But this static, like Samuel Morse’s electric pulses sent along telegraph wires, were all that was needed to send Morse code messages without wires.


There was little agreement as to what radio was, how it could be used, and who should control it.


The Navy, having used and advanced radio technology during World War I, understandably saw radio as a form of military equipment properly controlled by them – with wireless telegraphy’s ability to provide rapid, where telegraph wires were not an option communication, between ships, and ship-to-shore.[15]


Telegraph companies argued that anything called wireless telegraphy was obviously still telegraphy, and a private business inappropriate for military or other governmental operation.[16]


Telephone companies, with comparable certainly, saw radio as an obvious extension of their businesses – and even more so once radio started to be used for broadcasting programming. After all, as early as the 1870s telephone companies in the U.S. and Europe were distributing music and other entertainment programming over telephone wires -- what we today might call cable radio.[17] 


The radio hobbyists, soon to be called radio amateurs, or ham operators, provided most of the early improvements in radio – as they continued to do with electronics generally throughout the Twentieth Century.[18] They were among the first to transform their hobby into the earliest broadcasting stations, and felt it was only proper they should be entrusted with radio’s future.[19]


Soon a young David Sarnoff,[20] a national hero as the wireless telegraph operator the night of the Titanic’s sinking,[21] was envisioning radio as a medium for the kind of entertainment programming that had years before run over those telephone lines.[22] And how would he make money from this? Why, by the profits he’d make on the sale of radios – a kind of reversal of the old business plan adage, "Give 'em the razor; sell 'em the blades."[23] He did not, then, envision what would become his RCA-owned NBC network’s profits from radio commercials.


Radio as Communication within Civic Societies


During the rush to radio broadcasting during the 1920s the only law in place was the Radio Act of 1912.[24] It was clearly concerned with the 1912 perception, and use, of radio as something for “wireless telegraphy” by ships at sea. Whatever authority it granted the Secretary of Commerce, it did not provide a regulatory scheme for the burgeoning number of radio broadcasting stations, let alone the denial of their licenses.


Nonetheless, Secretary Hoover went ahead with at least a frequency allocation scheme to bring a little order out of chaos and signal interference.[25]  The high powered stations of 500 to 1000 watts would have wavelengths from 545 to 300 meters – what we would recognize on our AM radio bands as 550 kilohertz (kHz) to 1000 kHz.[26] That’s where we still find WMT in Cedar Rapids (600 kHz), WOI in Ames (640 kHz), and WSUI in Iowa City (910 kHz). Medium powered stations up to 500 watts were allocated 1000 kHz to 1350 kHz (where WHO is located at 1040 kHz).


But there were also hundreds of low power stations.[27] The industry wanted Hoover to abolish them.[28] He refused, but limited them all to one frequency: 833 kHz (near to where Iowa City’s KXIC is located at 800 kHz).


It is difficult to over emphasize the extent to which radio broadcasting was local in its early formative days. Amateurs alone had 8562 transmitting licenses as early as 1917,[29] in addition, by March of 1927 there were 732 stations broadcasting programming, over 600 of which were independent.[30]


As is true with the government regulation of many industries, the pressure to regulate came, not from the government, but from the very industry itself. The competition created by the Johnny-come-latelies to this electronic gold rush was not welcomed by the big four – RCA, AT&T, Westinghouse and GE – and others who acquired the stations with greatest economic potential. Like most business persons, they were prepared to stand and applaud “free private enterprise competition” when mentioned at a Rotary Club meeting, but panicked at the prospect of its moving in next door.


Iowa’s own Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce (and later U.S. President), responded to the broadcasters’ pleas with a series of radio conferences during the 1920s.[31] During this time 13 radio bills were introduced during the 68xth Congress (1923-1925), and 18 during the 69xth (1925-1927).[32]


By November of 1926, Erik Barnouw reports, “the demand for a new law was shrill.”[33]


Unlike the current U.S. House and Senate, in 1926 the members not only took seriously their responsibility to actually legislate, they “reached across the aisle” to compromise, then buckled down in short order to produce a very thoughtful resolution of what to do with the electromagnetic miracle called radio. It took the form of the Radio Act of 1927[34] – passed a mere two months later, on February 23, 1927. In 1934 it was simply copied into what became the Communications Act (along with what had been the Interstate Commerce Commission’s regulation of telephone service), which is still the charter document today.[35]


Bear in mind the alternative ideologies and approaches that had been seriously put forward by the Navy, the telegraph company, the telephone company, and radio amateurs, discussed above.[36] There was also the BBC model of a public corporation – the choice of most countries at that time. The BBC was funded with license fees paid by those with radios. Some suggested nationalization; others favored virtually unregulated private ownership.


So coming up with what they did was both a spectacular and significant political and intellectual accomplishment.

Congress’ solution was that the frequencies, and the right to use them, would remain public rather than private property. Only licensed operators could use broadcast frequencies, and then only for fixed terms (three years was standard for many years). Moreover, licensed operators would have no right to a renewal of their license.[37] It is this statutory language that gave rise to the expression “the public owns the airwaves.”[38]


Congress’ guidance regarding the standard to be applied in making these decisions was somewhat vague: “the public interest, convenience and necessity.”[39] So much so that NBC argued to the Supreme Court that this congressional delegation of power, without more specific directions, was unconstitutional. Justice Frankfurter disagreed, along with a majority of his colleagues.


In its early years, with a couple of exceptions, there was neither the inclination nor the need to address definitive definitions of what “the public interest” required with regard to programming. The 1927 Act provided that “no person within the jurisdiction of the United States shall utter any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communications.”[40] There is no record of broadcasters’ objection to this provision, and the industry’s self-regulation standards – mirroring those of polite society at the time -- were, if anything, even stricter.[41]


Moreover, this was a time in which America had less total population. More of its people worked in agriculture.  More of those who lived in towns lived in smaller towns than today. The overwhelming majority of the radio stations were the expanded result of early amateur radio operators, locally based and independent of any network affiliation. What would later come to be called “local live” programming was broadcast as much out of necessity as from a commitment to local service – or, as KHOI has put it, an effort at “building community through communication,” or a desire to “be a communications clearing house for community issues.”[42]


However, once the big four came to the agreement that produced NBC, with its “red” and “blue” networks, broadcasting was on its way to becoming an industry. As other business plans failed, or seemed impractical, broadcasters’ attitudes about advertising changed. Broadcasting was seen as a potentially very lucrative business – one earning profits of as much as 100% to 200% of depreciated capital.


A regulatory scheme born in the day of little mom-and-pop stations[43] in rural America was ill-suited to hold the forces of big business that would begin to gather broadcasting stations and other media into conglomerates that would come to be what I described in June of 1968 as “media barons.”[44]


But the fact that Congress neither saw coming, nor took steps to prevent, media ownership concentration does not mean it was unaware of the risks.


Even though the miracle of radio was only barely understood in 1926, Congressman Luther Johnson of Texas was able to see, and say on the floor of the House,


American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations. For publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a Republic, and when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership and dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them. It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.[45]


Secretary Hoover “said it would be most unfortunate if broadcasting should be controlled by any ‘corporation, individual or combination’”[46] or “if its control should come under the arbitrary power of any person or group.“[47] “Thirty years later, in 1956, Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Warren G. Magnuson was still warning the Commission that it ‘should be on guard against the intrusion of big business and absentee ownership.’"[48]


There was an equal concern in the 1920s about the possibility of advertising on radio stations. Secretary Hoover said, “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.”[49]


Even the trade press, later to attack with considerable vituperation any FCC effort that might impede profit maximization, expressed concern that “driblets of advertising, indirect but unmistakable, are floating through the ether every day. You can’t miss it . . .. The woods are full of opportunists who are restrained by no scruples when the scent of profit comes down the wind.”[50]


New York Democrat Sol Bloom proposed that radio advertising be outlawed by Congress.[51] Senator Burton Wheeler likened the programming to a “pawnshop.”[52] Senator James Couzens noted the “growing dissatisfaction with the present use of radio facilities.”[53] The Federal Radio Commission’s Annual Report declared that “such benefit as is derived by advertisers must be incidental and secondary to the interest of the public.”[54]


And, of course, the growing number of stations signing on as network affiliates, the increasing share of their broadcast day devoted to network programming, coupled with the audience preference for it, led to a relative reduction in the local programming stations provided in the early 1920s.


From the time of the 1927 Radio Act to the 1934 Communications Act to 1944, the Commission’s primary focus of the “public interest” standard was engineering compliance – stations’ compliance with specified power, assigned frequencies, and hours of operation.[55] Around 1944 there was a growing perception that the quantity and quality of programming, especially local programming, had significantly deteriorated.[56] Even the industry’s National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) acknowledged that “it is the manifest duty of the broadcasting authority” to review past programming.”[57]


FCC Commissioner Clifford Durr began to refuse to vote for renewals when there was no basis for judging programming – as I did as a commissioner twenty years later.[58] Ironically, it was an engineering report about WBAL, a Hearst 50,000-watt station in Baltimore, which ended up triggering Durr’s investigation. It ultimately revealed numerous violations – such as no sustaining programming between the hours of 2:00 and 10:00 p.m., a refusal to carry NBC’s public affairs programs while carrying the network’s sponsored programs, running 16 one-minute commercials during a 45 minute period, and selling 10 hours of religious programming to churches at full commercial rates. Further investigation uncovered many more stations with comparable practices.[59]


Chairman Paul Porter addressed the subject in his first speech to the NAB in March 1945, suggesting that the stations’ program plans, submitted to the FCC, be compared to their actual programming, which came to be called “promise vs. performance.”[60]


One year later, March 1946, the report he called for was issued – itemizing and illustrating broadcasters’ failures, and setting forth the Commission’s expectations. With its blue cover, this 59-page document immediately became known as “the Blue Book.”[61]


What the Commission was calling for was remarkably similar to what pre-network, local stations were doing during the 1920s. In justifying the Commission's jurisdiction to consider programming, the Blue Book noted, among many other arguments, that the first license renewal form, in 1927, asked applicants to supply "Average amount of time weekly devoted to the following services (1) entertainment (2) religious (3) commercial (4) educational (5) agricultural (6) fraternal,"[62] and that Congress continued to support the Federal Radio Commission, and reenact its provisions into the 1934 Communications Act, with full knowledge the Commission was considering programming under its “public interest” authority.


The Blue Book went on to identify – and then more fully expand upon -- "four major issues currently involved in the application of the 'public interest' standard to program service policy; namely, (A) the carrying of sustaining programs, (B) the carrying of local live programs, (C) the carrying of programs devoted to public discussion, and (D) the elimination of commercial advertising excesses."[63]


Sustaining programs were programs for which the station received no commercial income, in other words they were "sustained" by the station owner. Amongst the reasons the Commission thought them valuable was that they could "provide programs for significant minority tastes and interests," "programs devoted to the needs and purposes of non-profit organizations," and "provide a field for experiment in new types of programs, secure from the restrictions that obtain with reference to programs in which the advertiser's interest in selling goods predominates."[64]


The Blue Book’s supporting examples and discussion of these issues is as timely today as it was in 1946 – stations having as little sustaining programming as possible, the inherent conflict between commercial profit and creative quality or experimentation, the often laughingly absurd restrictions placed on writers.[65]


As for local programming, the authors noted that “It has been the consistent intention of the Commission to assure that an adequate amount of time during the good listening hours shall be made available to meet the needs of the community in terms of public expression and of local interest.”[66] Aware of the industry’s focus on maximizing profits, they shared the story of how broadcasters could as well end up “doing well by doing good.”


One 250-watt station located in the Middle West had struggled along for 4 years and lost money each year until a reorganization was forced in 1942. “The former management had attempted to compete directly with outside stations whose signals were strong in the local community. . . . [N]o attempt was made to establish the station as a local institution interested in the life of the community. . . .

“The new management reversed this policy completely. All attempts at copying outside stations were eliminated. . . . Station facilities were made available on a free basis to civic institutions such as the Chamber of Commerce, women’s clubs, parent-teacher association, public schools and Community Chest. . . . [O]ther programs of distinctly local interest were developed. . . . [A]n audience of more than 50 percent of all local radio listeners had been attracted to the station. . . . At the time the new management came in, gross monthly income was $2,400 and at the end of 12 months this amount has been increased to $6,000. The new manager attributed all improvement to the policy of making the station a real local institution and a true voice of the community.[67]


Sadly, but not surprisingly, the Blue Book was not long for this world. It generated little enthusiasm among broadcasters, who were increasingly enjoying the political support of their local members of Congress in return for providing them free time on local stations. And as members of the Commission changed over time, it was rare that enough of them could be found to form a majority to seriously challenge a station’s license renewal over matters of programming.


During my term, from 1966 to 1974, the Blue Book’s song of regulation had become mere whiffs of idealistic poetry, no longer supported with musical accompaniment or other enthusiasm. Stations’ licenses were still limited to three-year terms, and renewals required reports of a week’s worth of programming, quantities of commercials, public service announcements (PSAs), and percentages of programming devoted to news, public affairs, and “other than entertainment programming.” But the commissioners were disinclined to do much of anything with that data.


Because all the licenses in a given state expired on the same day, it was possible to do comparative analyses of a state’s stations, and rank them. One or two colleagues and I did some of that in the form of dissenting opinions. But no matter how bad the very worst station in the state was, the Commission majority almost always found that licensee to have adequately served “the public interest, convenience and necessity.”


The 1960s and 1970s did bring some rays of hope. There were improvements in the station ownership and presence on Americans’ television screens of minorities and women. My insistence on cable television companies’ provision of public access channels provided a kind of democratization of television analogous to what you are providing with low power local stations. A citizens’ media reform movement took shape, in the form of local TV station license renewal challenges.


But with the 1980s came President Reagan’s mantra, “government is not the solution, government is the problem.” At the FCC, as with many other agencies of government, this took the form of “deregulation.”


Sweeping former concerns about monopoly media power aside, Congress enabled a small startup named Clear Channel to ultimately own 1225 stations in 300 cities, with the largest audience share in 100 of 112 major markets.[68] The number of global media conglomerates dominating the media business continued to shrink from 50 or so to the day when one executive, when asked to give a reason for his latest merger, responded, “Someday there will be five firms that control all of the media on Planet Earth, and we intend to be one of them.”[69]

If you are interested in learning more about the problems created by our multiple, multi-media conglomerates, you might want to take a look at my article, “The Media Barons and the Public Interest.” The Atlantic Magazine still makes it available on its Web site 48 years after they first published it[70] -- perhaps in part because the issues it addresses are still with us, just worse.[71]


Among the issues it addresses are the categories of news and opinion upon which a democracy depends, and the impact of various forms of media ownership upon those public needs.


For example, Bill Paley and Frank Stanton of CBS, and General David Sarnoff of RCA/NBC, were of the industries they had helped shape, and at least aware of the culture, obligations and ethics of those broadcasting organizations. They were personally identified with their companies’ programming, and daily confronted by family, friends, neighbors and reporters who reminded them of that fact. To the extent they were wealthy, and held ownership shares, they were in a position to make decisions for reasons other than profit maximization – and personally proud of those decisions. The journalists they hired came, for the most part, from the newspaper industry – journalists first, broadcasters second. (By contrast, I once had a communications studies student who told me he wanted to go into radio and television announcing because he wasn’t very good, or interested in, reading and writing.)


As such corporations have come to be managed by professional executives with no necessary connection to journalism or other media, they may well be unaware of, for example, the once impenetrable, Trump-like wall, between the advertising department and the news department.


As media companies are no longer identified with known individuals, and are publicly held, the pressures from Wall Street bankers, hedge fund managers, and shareholders play an ever greater role in corporate decisions. When there is pressure to increase profits, and little to no way to increase income, the only option is to cut costs. And when a major cost center is human capital, that means laying off journalists – starting with the most experienced.


Then there is the conflict of interest for conglomerate corporations. When ITT wanted to acquire ABC, a proposed merger ultimately aborted, its chairman told me he had over 400 boards of directors reporting to him, a diversity illustrated by bakeries, rental car and insurance companies. This becomes more serious when a media-owning conglomerate also sells weapons to the Defense Department, or has other financial ties to the federal government. A CEO of such a company, with no journalistic experience, might think of the media she owns as simply part of the conglomerate’s public relations, marketing, and advertising missions.


Geographically, there are essentially four categories of news, information and opinion from which we benefit by having access.


There’s the global news from the 17 or so largest industrialized nations, the emerging BRICS nations, and the two billion people living in real poverty.


There’s the national news, sometimes defined as what happened in Washington and New York today.


There’s the regional or state news, such as what the Register reported when it delivered statewide and really was, as its banner proclaimed, “the newspaper all Iowa depends upon.” (This was a time when it could proudly proclaim that, after the New York Times, it had more Pulitzer Prizes than any other newspaper in the nation.)


Then there’s the local news, provided by our local daily and weekly newspapers, television and radio stations – such as yours.


American media’s coverage of global news has always been shameful – aside from reports of the civilian and military carnage in nations we have chosen to invade. Such overseas news bureaus as the major papers and networks used to have are either nonexistent or mere skeletons of their former staffing. There was a story that one the networks had only one reporter assigned to the entire continent of Africa, and she was based in Paris.


As an FCC commissioner I took an interest in how other nations handled their media, and did studies of Great Britain, Germany, Sweden, and Japan, among others. Japan’s NHK television service, I discovered, had more news about the United States than NBC provided. Of course, NHK also provided news of Japan, Asia, Europe, and Africa.


For years, I relied on the BBC to provide my global news – first by way of a shortwave receiver, and later with NPR’s carriage of BBC programming.


Now, with the online papers, I was able to follow the news of our Afghanistan operations with three English-language Pakistan papers. There’s an app for Rudow, the news from Kurdistan. Le Monde, from Paris, and the Guardian, from London, keep me up on news from Europe. There are many more.


There are a number of useful sources of United States news, such as the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, and the PBS News Hour.


But the networks leave a lot to be desired. ABC’s evening newscast has become the National Enquirer of American news, as it comes ever closer to Paddy Chayefsky’s vision in the book and movie, Network. Its goal seems to be to hype ratings by terrorizing and frightening the audience into watching the day’s fires, terrorist threats, floods, traffic disasters, tornados, shootings, new diseases (just before the pharmaceutical ads), sports heroes and celebrities who have embarrassed themselves.[72]


Indeed, it has reached the point where John Oliver – a standup comedian – now seems to be America’s most reliable source of the data and analysis necessary for American citizens to address their most serious public policy challenges.[73]


Regional and statewide news coverage has suffered from many of the same pressures.


Which brings us full circle round to the role you and other non-profit local radio stations play in today’s media environment. It is, as it turns out, very similar to where radio broadcasting began 100 years ago, and where the FCC’s Blue Book told broadcasters they ought to be 70 years ago.


There is a there there. And you are there. The state of radio is good – both as a technology and as a local civic service, an endeavor that comes as close as any can to the potential for rebuilding the sense of community we so desperately need in these times.


Thank you for the invitation, happy birthday, and now let’s party on!

Notes: (1) Nicholas Johnson is a former commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, and the Iowa City, Iowa, Broadband and Telecommunications Commission, who taught media law, communications law, and cyberlaw at the University of Iowa College of Law from 1981 until his retirement in the fall of 2014. For more bio, see Email:; Web:; Blog:

(2) This is a speech text (only a small portion of which was used on the occasion for which it was prepared), with no pretense as an academic, or law review, article – nor a finished product of any kind. The footnotes do not consistently conform to any standard style book, and often cite Wikipedia, and thus the statements for which they are cited cannot be relied on as even accurate, let alone the best, original source. They are simply there for the handful of readers who would like to pursue some of these ideas and assertions, for which these notes may provide at least a start.


[1] Forbes citing Bloomberg, “According to Bloomberg, 8 out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months.”

[2] U.S. Constitution, Art. II, Sec. 3; Jaime Fuller, “The State of the Union is … what, exactly?” Washington Post, Jan. 19, 2015,

[3] KHOI-FM 89.1,

[4] “The slide rule . . .  is a mechanical analog computer. The slide rule is used primarily for multiplication and division, and also for functions such as roots, logarithms and trigonometry . . ..”

[5]See, e.g., History of Communication, (especially, History of Telecommunication,, and (references semaphore) and “Railway Signal,” Wikipedia,

[6] “New Horizons,” NASA,; in the 1970s and ‘80s, the early battery-operated portable phones, connected to a base with landline connection, were radio transceivers – that is, they could both create and transmit radio signals, and receive them as well. “Cordless Telephone,” Wikipedia, Today’s smart phones are transceivers.

[7] “Global Internet Usage,” Wikipedia,

[8] ZDNet,; Business Insider,



[11] “Samuel Morse,” Wikipedia,; The first successful transatlantic telegraph cable was laid in 1858. Seven years later the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) was created in Paris – one of the world’s first global organizations that was also one of the United Nation’s first agencies in 1947. “International Telecommunications Union,” Wikipedia,

[12] Morse gave us as well the code that bears his name, the Morse code, which made it possible to communicate the letters of the alphabet over those telegraph wires with combinations of long and short bursts of electricity. Today’s binary transmissions that make digital everything possible -- from computers to conversations to the Internet, to digitized audio and video -- are but a variation on Morse’s approach to embedding information into electromagnetic energy.

[13] Wendell Johnson, Your Most Enchanted Listener, p. 5.

[14] Although the electro-magnetic building blocks that made radio possible date from the early Nineteenth Century, it was the work of a twenty-year-old Italian in the 1890s, Guglielmo Marconi, that is often credited with producing the first successful trans-Atlantic radio transmissions. Dr. Mahlon Loomis is said to have sent “intelligible messages” between two kites on Blue Ridge mountain peaks, 14 miles apart, in 1866. Erik Barnouw, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, vol. 1, p. 18.

[15] “Even before the war was over, there were suggestions from the navy that this productive era, made possible by navy control, should be carried on into the peace.” Erik Barnouw, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, vol. 1, p. 52.

[16] Ironically, the telegraph also played a more direct role in what later became broadcast programming and even cable television. For their own entertainment, telegraph operators as early as 1876 were not only using Morse code to send jokes across the country, they were also using telephony technology to send entertainment programming to each other. With the coming of the telephone, one of its early applications in the 1870s and ‘80s, here and in Europe, was for the distribution of what we today might call cable radio.  “The development of the telephone in the 1870s and 1880s included adapting it to distribute entertainment and news. In the January, 1908 issue of Telephony, C. E. McCluer's Telephonic Reminiscences reviewed some of his early experiences, including hearing experimental musical concerts in 1876, which were transmitted along commercial telegraph lines for the entertainment of the operators on the wire. In the March 22, 1876 issue of the New York Times, a review of The Telephone highlighted its potential for widely distributing entertainment, noting that ‘By means of this remarkable instrument, a man can have the Italian opera, the Federal Congress, and his favorite preacher laid on his own house.’" “Secretary [of Commerce Herbert] Hoover still spoke of radio [at the first Radio Conference, 1922] as the ‘wireless telephone’ . . ..” Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 96.

[17]“The development of the telephone in the 1870s and 1880s included adapting it to distribute entertainment and news. In the January, 1908 issue of Telephony, C. E. McCluer's Telephonic Reminiscences reviewed some of his early experiences, including hearing experimental musical concerts in 1876, which were transmitted along commercial telegraph lines for the entertainment of the operators on the wire. In the March 22, 1876 issue of the New York Times, a review of The Telephone highlighted its potential for widely distributing entertainment, noting that ‘By means of this remarkable instrument, a man can have the Italian opera, the Federal Congress, and his favorite preacher laid on his own house.’"

[18] Soon they would improve on AM radio, experiment with FM, the radio transmission of images, and then the moving images we call television. They ultimately developed the more efficient single sideband transmission, long distance hand-held transceiver networks that ultimately led to today’s smart phones, the first communications satellites at a fraction of NASA’s prices, and the successful effort to communicate with signals bounced off the moon and back to Earth. Their organization, the Amateur Radio Relay League (ARRL), was organized in 1914.

[19] “These experimenters, in city and country, were not only the beginning of what became the radio audience; they were also the cadre from which many broadcasters were to spring. Many of those who started and directed radio broadcasting stations in the 1920s – and in many cases, television stations later – were ‘amateurs’ in the fertile time before World War I.” Erik Barnouw, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, vol. 1, p. 28. As well, “In many instances, amateur activity developed into professional work that, in one way or another, built foundations for the broadcasting age.” Id. at p. 33.


[21] “The following year [1912], he led two other operators at the Wanamaker station in an effort to confirm the fate of the Titanic. Sarnoff later exaggerated his role as the sole hero who stayed by his telegraph key for three days to receive information on the Titanic‍ '​s survivors. The event began on a Sunday, when the store would have been closed. Some researchers question whether Sarnoff was at the telegraph key at all. By the time of the Titanic disaster in 1912, Sarnoff was a manager of the telegraphers.” Ibid.

[22] "Unlike many who were involved with early radio communications, viewing radio as point-to-point, Sarnoff saw the potential of radio as point-to-mass. One person (the broadcaster) could speak to many (the listeners). . . .

Sarnoff realized his dream and revived his proposal in a lengthy memo on the company's business and prospects. . . . [Sarnoff helped] arrange for the broadcast of a heavyweight boxing match between Jack Dempsey and Georges Carpentier in July 1921. Up to 300,000 people heard the fight, and demand for home radio equipment bloomed that winter. By the spring of 1922 Sarnoff's prediction of popular demand for broadcasting had come true, and over the next eighteen months, he gained in stature and influence." Ibid.

[23] “Freebie Marketing,”

[24] An Act to Regulate Radio Communication, August 13, 1912,

[25] Erik Barnouw, , A History of Broadcasting in the United States, vol. 1, pp. 121-22.

[26] 545 meters = 550 kHz; 300 meters = 1,000 kHz; 300 meters = 1,000 kHz; 222 meters = 1350 kHz; 360 meters = 833 kHz

[27] Their modern equivalent would be the “daytime only” AM stations. Because AM radio signals only reach a limited geographical area during daylight – but can bounce off the ionosphere to much greater distances at night – by limiting stations operating hours to daytime many more can operate.

[28] “Some industry leaders urged Hoover to abolish these [low power stations] altogether.” Erik Barnouw, A History of Broadcasting in the United States, vol. 1, p. 122

[29] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 33

[30] Something less than 100 had a network affiliation. Id. at p. 209

[31] They were held February 27, 1992, March 1923, October 1924, and 1925. Barnouw, vol. 1, pp. 94-96, 121-122, 177-9.

[32] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 190

[33] “That summer and fall [of 1926], various stations began to increase their power, move to more attractive dial positions, and used the hours they liked best. Scores of new stations erupted. Bedlam mounted. By November, as NBC approached its debut and congressmen headed back to Washington – they were to reconvene December 8 [1926] – the demand for a new law was shrill.” Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 190. “Early in 1923 Secretary Hoover [found] the chaos in the air ‘simply intolerable,’ . . ..” Id. at p. 121.

[34] Radio Act of 1927, Public Law 632, 69th Congress, February 23, 1927,

[35], see, e.g., Sec. 301.

[36] Text at notecalls 15-19.

[37] “[T]his Act is intended to regulate all forms of interstate and foreign radio transmissions and communications within the United States, its Territories and possessions; to maintain the control of the United States over all the channels of interstate and foreign radio transmission; and to provide for the use of such channels, but not the ownership thereof, by individuals, firms, or corporations, for limited periods of time, under licenses granted by Federal authority, and no such license shall be construed to create any right, beyond the terms, conditions, and periods of the license.” Radio Act of 1927, Public Law 632, 69th Congress, February 23, 1927, Sec. 1, This language is carried over into Sec. 301 of the Communications Act of 1934, see n. 35, supra.

[38] “The [broadcasters want] to shut down the startup Aereo's two-year-old video streaming service and claim ownership of the airwaves as the sole right of broadcasters like ABC, NBC and CBS. This, quite simply, goes against everything the broadcast industry has agreed to over the past 100 years. When radio and television entered American life in the 1920s, the government made a bargain with the nation's broadcasters: They would receive free use of the nation's airwaves in exchange for providing free, advertising-supported programming in return.” Barry Diller, “Broadcasters Don't Own the Airwaves; Yet they want to stop people from watching TV on the device of their choice, using an 'antenna in the cloud,” Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2014, (Billionaire Barry Diller has, among other things, served as vice president for development at ABC, Chairman and CEO of Paramount Pictures and Fox (Fox Broadcasting and 20th Century Fox). He's slightly wrong about "advertising-supported" as, at the time of the 1927 Radio Act there was widespread opposition, including from broadcasters, to broadcast advertising.)

[39] “SEC. 9. The licensing authority, if public convenience, interest, or necessity will be served thereby, subject to the limitations of this Act, shall grant to any applicant therefor a station license provided for by this Act.


SEC. 11. If upon examination of any application for a station license or for the renewal or modification of a station license the licensing authority shall determine that public interest, convenience, or necessity would be served by the granting thereof, it shall authorize the issuance, renewal, or modification thereof in accordance with said finding.


SEC. 21. No license shall be issued under the authority of this Act for the operation of any station the construction of which is begun or is continued after this Act takes effect, unless a permit for its construction has been granted by the licensing authority upon written application therefor. The licensing authority may grant such permit if public convenience, interest, or necessity will be served by the construction of the station.”

[40] Ironically, the very same Section 29 also forbid the commission to “interfere with the right of free speech by means of radio. “SEC. 29. Nothing in this Act shall be understood or construed to give the licensing authority the power of censorship over the radio communications or signals transmitted by any radio station, and no regulation or condition shall be promulgated or fixed by the licensing authority which shall interfere with the right of free speech by means of radio communications. No person within the jurisdiction of the United States shall utter any obscene, indecent, or profane language by means of radio communications.”

[41] “A ‘discreet’ talk on the teeth and their care, [in programming] offered by a toothpaste company, was delayed while executives argued over whether anything so personal as tooth-brushing should be mentioned on the air.” Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 157.

[42] See text at note call 3, supra.

[43] The 1927 Act was based on the “Dill-White” bill. The Dill was Senator Clarence C. Dill of Montana. Representative Wallace White of Maine first offered his bill in 1923. Barnouw reports that the 1927 Act’s “general pattern was descended from the White bill of 1923, its direct ancestor.” Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 199. “This was written when stations were separate entities. The law assumed that each station controlled its own programming. The lawmakers could not know the extent to which negotiations just concluded in New York City [creating NBC] would make their picture of the radio world a thing of the past.” Ibid.

[44] Nicholas Johnson, “The Media Barons and the Public Interest: An FCC Commissioner’s Warning,” The Atlantic, June 1968, p. 43,

[45] 67 Cong. Rec. 5558 (1926).

[46] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 178.

[47] "In 1924 another individualist [Herbert Hoover] thought it would be unfortunate for the Government to control "distribution of information but still more 'unfortunate if its control should come under the arbitrary power of any person or group.'" From testimony in The Communications Act of 1979: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Communications of the Committee on Interstate and Forein Commerce, House of Representatives, 96th Congress, 1st Session, on H.R. 3333, 1980, p. 1378.

[48] Nicholas Johnson, Your Second Priority,” p. 105.

[49] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 96. At the first Radio Conference in 1922 “The idea of ‘ether advertising’ was mentioned but with disfavor.” Ibid.

[50] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 133, citing Radio Broadcast magazine, November 1922.

[51] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 177, citing Radio Broadcast magazine, October 1925.

[52] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 243, citing Payne, Federal Communications Act, p. 29.

[53] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 243, citing Resolution No. 129, 72xnd Congress, 1xst Session, 75; Congressional Record, pp. 1412-13.

[54] Barnouw, vol. 1, p. 243, citing Annual Report of the Federal Radio Commission (1928), pp. 169-70.

[55] “The FCC had drifted into the habit of renewing batches of licenses solely on the basis of engineering reports, with no scrutiny of past programming.” Barnouw, vol. 3, p. 227

[56] Barnouw, vol. 3, p.227 (“a catastrophic decline”).

[57] Id. at p. 228, citing Hearings on H.R. 8301 (which became the Communications Act of 1934), April 16, 1934, p. 117..

[58] Id. at p. 227.

[59] Id. at pp. 227-228.

[60] Id. at p. 228.

[61] Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees, FCC, March 7, 1946, , hereinafter “Blue Book;” see generally, “Blue Book,” Barnouw, vol. 3, pp.227-236.

[62] Id. at Blue Book p. 10.

[63] Id. at Blue Book p. 12.

[64] Ibid.

[65] Id. at Blue Book pp. 12-36. See also the Blue Book’s comments about the need for discussion of public issues (“an unequalled medium for the dissemination of news, information, and opinion, and for the discussion of public issues”), pp. 39-40, detailed and revealing advertising abuses discussed at pp. 40-47, and the resulting economic health of the industry, pp. 47-54.

[66] Id. at Blue Book p. 37.

[67] Id. at Blue Book pp. 37-38, emphasis in original. The authors footnote Sandage, Radio Advertising for Retailers, p. 210, as the source for this story.

[68] “Before passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a company could not own more than 40 radio stations in the entire country. With the Act’s sweeping relaxation of ownership limits, Clear Channel now owns approximately 1225 radio stations in 300 cities and dominates the audience share in 100 of 112 major markets. Its closest competitors — CBS and ABC, media giants in their own right — own only one-fifth as many stations.” Jeff Perlstein, "Clear Channel: the Media Mammoth that Stole the Airwaves," Reclaim Democracy, November 2002, 

[69] “Those of us opposing the Time-Warner merger in 1989 asked one of the executives why they wanted to merge. He replied, in effect, “Because someday there will be five firms that control all of the media on Planet Earth, and we intend to be one of them.” Nicholas Johnson, "Communications Evolution, Revolution and the Role of the Academy," February 20, 2014, p. 13, n. 39,

[70] Nicholas Johnson, “The Media Barons and the Public Interest: An FCC Commissioner’s Warning,” The Atlantic, June 1968, p. 43,

[71] On the occasion of the 40th anniversary of former FCC Chair Newton Minow’s speech to the broadcasters in which he famously observed that their television programming was giving the American people little more than “a vast wasteland,” the Federal Communications Law Journal asked a number of authors for articles. In mine I presented a somewhat more balanced view; for example, with cable, satellite and Internet distribution we were certainly given more choice in programming than the three networks provided in the 1960s, even if it was not all that much better. Nicholas Johnson, “Forty Years of Wandering in the Wasteland,”

[72] See Nicholas Johnson, “Three Legged Calves, Wolves, Sheep and Democracy’s Media,” December 1, 2014, -- and section headed “Two Nights With World News Tonight.”

[73] During the past ten weeks (June 7-August 16, 2015) he has addressed public policy issues associated with bail, torture, online harassment, transgender rights, taxpayer-funded stadiums, food waste, mandatory minimum sentences, District of Columbia statehood, sex education, and fraudulent televangelists.