Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Brief History of American Public Broadcasting

As the 2018 federal budget takes shape, funding for public broadcasting is one of many issues generating debate. In my last post, I presented different perspectives on whether the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) should continue to receive funding. In this post, let’s look at the history of radio and television broadcasting to understand how and why the federal government has gotten involved in these media.

The potential for broadcast media like radio and television to educate and inform citizens was recognized quite quickly after their invention. As soon as physics instructors heard about radio through scholarly communication networks, they began using it to teach students about the physical properties of waves, and many of the first licensed radio stations belonged to universities. The public interest in radio was galvanized when KDKA Pittsburgh, a commercial station, broadcast live results of the 1920 presidential election. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt used his “fireside chats” to reach a national radio audience and foster a sense of unity and hope, while commercial networks expanded their broadcasts to encompass news, entertainment and public interest broadcasting. Educational, religious, cultural, agricultural, and labor interests also saw radio broadcasting as a way to further their missions and clamored for more bandwidth (Gibson 1977).

The laboratory research required to develop television was conducted by commercial broadcasters and the manufacturers of radio receivers, rather than universities. Nevertheless, educational institutions were many of the first to receive TV broadcast licenses, and commissions exploring the future of television in the 1940s and 1950s regularly discussed its potential for serving the public interest. Proposals for a national education television network appeared as early as 1952, and education laws passed by the Johnson administration in the 1960s laid down the legal justification for why government support of educational broadcasting would serve the public interest.

This activity culminated in the 1967 report Public Television: A Program for Action by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. The commission argued that commercial conglomerates were unable to meet the full needs of the American people; what was needed was a decentralized network of noncommercial, local stations creating content for their communities. Stations would receive steady federal funding free of government interference, thanks to a chartered agency that would disburse funds and support the broadcasters. It would be the creation of “a new and fundamental institution in American culture,” public television (Gibson 1977).

President Johnson asked Congress to take up this vision, and after extensive hearings and debate in both houses, the result was the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This law established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) as the corporate entity which would disburse funds and manage relationships between local broadcasters. During the next two years, the nation’s public broadcast system took shape as broadcasters, programming organizations and donor foundations raised money, built partnerships and decided who would do what. National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) were created to help develop programming and coordinate decision making among stations (Gibson 1977). PBS programs debuted in 1969 to solid ratings, with 1.46 million households tuning in to the premiere of Sesame Street (Day 1995, 160).

Government involvement in the early development of broadcast media served the purposes of regulating scarce bandwidth and encouraging technical innovation. The first radio-related laws outfitted all US Navy ships with transmitters for safety, and required broadcasters to register with the Secretary of Commerce to avoid interfering with ship-to-shore channels. As the AM radio bandwidth filled during the 1920s, broadcasters were supposed to share stations by agreeing to transmit at different times of day and using limited power, but initially no one had authority to enforce cooperation between stations. When the Commerce Department tried to sue the Zenith Radio Corporation for hijacking a Canadian channel to gain extra broadcast time, a federal court dismissed the case. Beginning the very next day, stations “engaged in an orgy of broadcasting with unlimited time, unlimited power, unlimited channel shifts, and unlimited interference” (Gibson 1977, 7). Sales of radio receivers plummeted and listeners demanded that Congress enact regulation, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to the creation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934. A remarkably similar situation occurred after the FCC authorized VHF television broadcasting in the 1947, as new television stations proliferated, causing widespread interference and compelling the agency to regulate channel assignments more carefully (Gibson 1977, 70).

Like any technology, radio and television underwent long periods of technical innovation to arrive at a point where they could reliably sustain a mass audience. When the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi invented radio in 1895, he could only transmit in code. University and World War I military researchers added the ability to transmit voice and music using amplitude modulation (AM), and it was voice transmission that transformed radio from a scientific curiosity into a tool for civic engagement. The AM bandwidth rapidly filled, and regulatory agencies struggled to balance the needs of commercial and public broadcasters; however, FCC endorsement of frequency modulation (FM) radio in 1940 opened a new spectrum for public broadcasters, and they lobbied for stations to be set aside for educational purposes.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the FCC was similarly active in promoting the use of UHF television frequencies by mandating that receivers be able to tune both types of channels and reserving bandwidth for educational broadcasters (Gibson 1977).

Studying the history of radio and television shows us that the federal government has played important roles in managing scarce resources of bandwidth and funding, and encouraging technical innovation that enabled these media to reach a broader audience and fulfill their potential. In the 1960s, this led to the creation of public broadcasting as a new American institution. What challenges has public television faced since then, and will the new budget proposal bring an end to public broadcasting as we know it? We’ll turn to these questions in the next post.

Sanjeet Mann
Arts & Systems Librarian, Armacost Library


Day, James. The Vanishing Vision: The inside Story of Public Television. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Gibson, George H. Public Broadcasting: The Role of the Federal Government, 1912-76. New York: Praeger, 1977.

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