Rear Admiral W.H.G. Bullard, chairman of the newly created Federal Radio Board, "tunes in" on a radio set in his office at the Department of Commerce on April 14, 1927. The new radio commission was created by the Radio Act of 1927 to license broadcasters and reduce radio interference. (Photo via Library of Congress, public domain.)
The Radio Act of 1927, which superseded the Radio Act of 1912, was signed by President Calvin Coolidge on February 23, 1927.
Radio Act of 1927 created Federal Radio Commission
The act created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), which was primarily directed to license broadcasters and reduce radio interference, a benefit to both broadcasters and the public in the chaos that developed in the aftermath of the breakdown of earlier wireless radio acts. One assumption underlying the act was that the First Amendment protected radio as a form of expression.
There were several other underlying assumptions:
- Transmission facilities, reception, and service would be equal;
- Although the “Public” at large owned the radio spectrum, individuals would be licensed to use it;
- Licenses would be granted based on the public interest, convenience, and necessity; and
- Broadcasters were responsible for their operations, and the government would not interfere unless operators failed to meet the public interest standard.
Act ordered stations to give equal time to political candidates, forbade obscene programming
Section 18 of the Radio Act of 1927 was a forerunner of the equal time rule by ordering stations to give equal opportunities to political candidates.
The act did not authorize the Federal Radio Commission to make any rules about advertising. However, it forbade programming that used “obscene, indecent, or profane language.” Otherwise, anything could be programmed. The act did vest in the Federal Radio Commission the power to revoke licenses and give fines for violations.
Radio industry accepted First Amendment did not mean any speech was allowed on air
Because the broadcast industry was concerned that the government’s licensing power might degenerate into censorship, Section 29 of the act, while prohibiting obscene, indecent, or profane language, provided that the commission would not otherwise have the power to censor the content of programs.
The concept that broadcasting was a privilege was not considered a violation of broadcasters’ First Amendment rights. The radio industry generally accepted the premise that “free speech” did not mean the right for anyone to say anything on the air. Free speech issues in 1927 were secondary to ending the airwaves chaos.
This article was originally published in 2009. Sharon L. Morrison was the Library Director at Southeastern Oklahoma State University.Send Feedback on this article