The Debate Over Net Neutrality Has Its Roots in the Fight Over Radio Freedom

Today’s epic battle has been fought before, when radio took to the air a century ago

Air Waves Net Neutrality Radio
Ian Wilding

It’s almost hard to remember now, but the early years of the Internet were a carnival of crazy, chaotic amateurs.

When the web first went mainstream in the mid-’90s, the early sites weren’t big, glossy ones created by corporations. They were strange, offbeat ones crafted by individuals: diarists posting diaries, video-game fans creating encyclopedias of old arcade titles and discussion boards teeming with “X-Files” arguments.

Indeed, commercial activity was suspect, and anyone trying to make a buck online was shunned. When the lawyers Laurence Canter and Martha Siegel spammed newsgroups with a text-only ad for their green-card services, the outcry was so loud their Internet provider canceled their connection. The Internet, aficionados proclaimed, would always be a Wild West—amateur and proudly uncommercial.

This was naive, of course. By the early 2000s, commercial activity and huge firms boomed, as retailers like Amazon exploded in size and “netizens” began streaming video from services like YouTube and eventually Netflix and Hulu.

Today, it’s the little guy who looks to be in danger. The Internet service providers—like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T—have long pushed to create “speed lanes” online. If you run a website and want to make sure your connection moves swiftly to the end user, you’d need to pay these companies an extra fee. If you don’t pay? Your signal might not move as fast as you’d like. The Federal Communications Commission this spring drafted rules that would allow for fast and slow lanes. If they take effect, it would be the end of “net neutrality,” and critics worry it would spell doom for amateurs online. Sure, established sites like YouTube or Facebook could pay those fees. But quirky little upstart websites—or even nonprofits like Wikipedia—couldn’t.

If amateurs really do get squeezed out, it wouldn’t be the first time we’ve seen this happen. Precisely the same thing happened a century ago to the original “people’s medium”: radio.

The idea of transmitting sound waves through the air caught on especially after the experiments of the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi in the late 19th century. The technology wasn’t complicated, and by the first decade of the 20th century, American tinkerers began building their own sets to transmit and receive radio signals. With relatively small amounts of power, someone at home could broadcast for dozens of miles. Magazines printed schematics. “Any boy can own a real wireless station, if he really wants to,” urged The Book of Wireless.

Stations popped up everywhere—run in churches, fire departments and even businesses, when the owner bought a transmitter and started talking into the ether. Much like the first bloggers, early radio adopters were thrilled that they could reach a distant audience. They needed a new word for this; as Columbia law professor Tim Wu notes, they settled on “broadcasting,” which originally meant casting seeds in a field. “This was the first time in the history of mankind that people in different places heard the same thing at the same time,” notes Anthony Rudel, author of Hello, Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio.

So anyone could broadcast. But what did they broadcast?

“Anything and everything,” Rudel says with a laugh. “It was a free-for-all.”

If you turned on a radio back then, you’d hear preachers reciting sermons, local sports fans listing scores, authors reading their poetry or stories and someone making an argument in favor of the Boy Scouts. Announcers rambled on about any subject that came to mind, and professional standards were shaky. When Harold Hough, of WBAP in Fort Worth, Texas, was finished declaiming on a topic, he’d simply say, “Well, shut ’er down!”

Amateur radio became the first “hyperlocal” media. Since your local station was probably run by a neighbor, people developed a very casual relationship with it. When one woman left “a package of pajamas” on a streetcar in Pittsburgh, she called the radio station and asked that a message be broadcast to help her find it. When an out-of-town visitor arrived in Pittsburgh’s train station and didn’t know his relative’s address, he called the station to “please announce over the radio that I am here and waiting for them to get in touch with me.” It was the Foursquare check-in of the 1920s.

Music quickly became a big draw—usually played live by locals. “You’d hear Joe and his accordion, then you’d hear a trio of high-school violinists, then somebody on the piano,” says John Schneider, a radio historian in San Francisco. “And this would go on for hours, as they scrambled to find different musical artists—some good, some not so good.”

The early amateurs had no fixed schedules. They’d broadcast a song—and then go silent for minutes, even hours, because they had nothing else lined up. Or perhaps they were busy with their day jobs: One Texas station was run by a gas station owner, so if a customer drove up while he was broadcasting, he’d suddenly announce “I’ve got to sell five gallons of gas” and sign off. Audience members would sit listening patiently to silence, waiting for the action to begin again.

While the programming may have been mediocre, audiences were nonetheless riveted. They devoured not only local stations, but far-flung ones. “DX” parties emerged: “They would put up maps, they would turn the dial and try to capture stations from around the map—and when they heard the call sign, they’d put a tack on the map,” says Susan Douglas, a communications professor at the University of Michigan and author of Listening In: Radio and the American Imagination.

Indeed, the constellation of local radio was part of how America’s sense of itself emerged, Douglas argues. Because listeners could sample the flavor of people in far-away states, they began to develop an understanding of the nation’s psyche. “It was a way of imagining a country that you hadn’t seen,” she adds. “One station might be playing hillbilly music, one might be playing jazz. It was this really frothy brew of culture.”

And, like many technologies, this early radio was hailed as a democratizing force—bringing knowledge to the masses. “The people’s University of the Air will have a greater student body than all of our universities put together,” proclaimed Alfred N. Goldsmith, the director of research for the Radio Corporation of America, in 1922.

At first, the idea of making money off radio seemed profane. “It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, and for vital commercial purposes to be drowned in advertising chatter,” said Herbert Hoover, the secretary of commerce, who claimed jurisdiction over radio in 1922. Others soberly agreed. “Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?” one radio executive puzzled.

This attitude did not last, however. By the mid-1920s, larger and more professional stations and networks, such as AT&T’s National Broadcasting System, were emerging. They realized advertising could be a gold mine. On August 29, 1922, the large Manhattan station WEAF ran one of the world’s first radio ads, for a housing development in leafy Queens. (“Get away from the solid masses of brick...where children grow up starved for a run over a patch of grass.”)

But the big broadcasters had a problem: the “chaos” of the airwaves, where their signals were drowned out by interference from amateurs. Up to the mid-’20s, the government imposed few rules on who could broadcast and when. Hoover would tell stations which frequencies they could use, but if several nearby stations overlapped, he left them to work it out. “Times without number a commercial would call an amateur station and tell him to shut up,” as radio historian Clinton DeSoto wrote in 1936. “Equally as often the reply would be, ‘Who the hell are you?’ or ‘I’ve as much right to the air as you have.’”

Then, in 1926, a federal court ruled that Hoover never had any authority over the airwaves anyway—and practically overnight, the Wild West got even wilder. Broadcasters jumped to whatever frequency they wanted, and even more fights between amateur and commercial stations erupted.

For anyone trying to run a business, it was havoc. AT&T, RCA and the other big commercial stations began lobbying Congress to pass laws giving them preferential treatment. In 1927 Congress created the Federal Radio Commission, endowed with the power to assign wavelengths. It began aggressively doing so, booting hundreds of small stations off the air, to produce “clear channels” for the big firms—wide-open zones where they could broadcast with no interference.

Amateur time was over, as the FRC explicitly warned in a memo: “There is not room in the broadcast band for every school of thought, religious, political, social, and economic, each to have its separate broadcasting station, its mouthpiece in the ether.”

Some rogue stations resisted. John Brinkley, a quack surgeon famous for claiming to cure impotence by transplanting goat tissue into the testicles of men, had for years run a wildly popular medical radio station in Kansas. When the FRC ordered him off the air, he fled to Mexico and set up a “border blaster”—a 500,000-watt station so powerful it could be heard across nearly the entire United States. But mostly, amateurs faded. The big firms got the laws they wanted. “It was the use of public policy to create economics that favored the big players,” says media historian Robert McChesney. “There were only a handful of channels. And only some people were going to get them and become fabulously wealthy.”

The centralization of radio wasn’t all bad, as many historians note. The big stations had much more money and could pay for high-quality symphonies, opera and serials—and for expensive news-gathering operations. Truly national, live media was born: More homogeneous, but more professional.

Is this the future of the Internet? Dominated entirely by big firms, with the small fry squeezed out?

Much like the big radio companies of the past, today’s big Internet service providers are lobbying for rules that favor them. Firms like Verizon, Comcast and AT&T—the ones that provide most people’s net connection—complain that their pipelines are getting choked as more Americans stream more bandwidth-hungry media, like TV, online. To upgrade their hardware, the cable and phone companies say, it’s only fair to charge extra fees to the websites and services that send out these floods of data, like Netflix or Google’s YouTube.

But critics rebut that the Internet providers are making healthy profits and could likely upgrade without charging more. (Other critics with technical acumen say the bandwidth crunch is a fiction and that telcos already have lots of unused capacity.) Plus, as public advocates note, a two-tiered Internet would quash innovation. They are frantically lobbying the FCC to pass rules that enshrine net neutrality, requiring Internet firms to treat all signals equally.

This fall, the FCC plans to issue new rules on the matter. And as the net neutrality fight wears on, radio historians are watching closely.

“We need to pay attention,” says Susan Smulyan, an American studies professor at Brown University, “because the one thing we’ve learned from radio is that when they pass these laws, they have an impact on life.”

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