Since the introduction of radio broadcasts, advertising has ushered in an unprecedented era of public content consumption. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an explosion in the penetration of advertisements’ everyday role. Entire public forums are upheld by a business model driven by advertising; web browsing, broadcast television, and radio are hallmarks of this model. They operate by delivering information to the consumer at large, a consumer living within the public sphere.
Jürgen Habermas chronicled the transformation of the public sphere within western civilization, including an emphasis on three transitional periods. A main concern is the arena in which public opinion is informed and practised (Habermas). From historical styles of actual spaces that were dedicated to the public, say a town square, to the cyberspace of websites such as Facebook, the medium that public discourse has been debated as well as disseminated is foundationally crucial to understand the role of mediated ideology.
To say that the ‘free’ platforms of radio, broadcast tv, and web browsing, are democratizing in their lack of a monetary transaction with the consumer is a troubled notion. They are platforms that perpetuate socioeconomic inequality through ad pricing, monopolization, and propaganda. At their best they expand access to information, but at their worst they consolidate power in the hands of a few. To understand this phenomenon, a historical analysis of radio broadcasting will be debated to contextualize the contemporary role of mediated advertising.
From Static to Status
Radio programming came to prominence in the 1920s. Rivaled perhaps only by the Internet, radio transformed the media landscape and allowed unlimited consumption of information. With the upfront cost of a receiver being the only consumer expenditure, radio stations sprang up and pumped out content. Radio became the first media industry to have revenues covered by advertising so as to allow the public consumption of information, at least in The United States.
While the U.S. opted for advertisement-supported radio, other countries were less laissez-faire (O’Barr). One example is the United Kingdom’s British Broadcasting Corporation. Commercialization of radio was nonexistent in Britain until much later when specialization, such as stations dedicated to music, began to make waves. The BBC was the primordial force in UK radio, paid for by consumers licensing fees, the model that funds the BBC to this day.
The British model is starkly different from that of the United States. The British centralized and held government control over radio broadcasts, albeit with a positive morality (“History of the BBC — 1920s”). John Reith became the first Director-General of the BBC in 1927 with a vision that radio should enrich the education of the masses and uplift cultural life (“History of advertising”). Thus, British radio became paid for by the consumer citizen. It left a discernible difference with radio across the pond: the BBC was ad-free.
Meanwhile, listeners of WEAF in New York heard AT&T broadcast their first radio commercial in 1922 (All Things Considered). AT&T pioneered the model that persists today, in creating what was known as ‘toll broadcasting’ (Riley). It was a new way forward in financing US radio. Previously, radio was considered a hobby and most operational radio stations were owned by large companies attempting to bolster sales of their own products or services, but not those of third parties.
Even though radio technology had been around for years, and complicated by World War I, radio did not catch on in the US until David Sarnoff of the Radio Corporation of America began to heavily market the experience (“History: 1920s”). Sarnoff’s RCA eventually overtook AT&T’s efforts, and became the predominant force in radio broadcasts for decades to come.
By this point, AT&T left its mark and RCA was rolling ahead with minimal government intervention. The Federal Trade Commission, established in 1914, was partially created to reign in deceptive advertising, but could not have foreseen the pandora’s box of radio marketing (Daymette). Amid growing concerns of the public interest in radio, The Federal Radio Commission was established in 1926. Eventually forming into the current Federal Communications Commission in 1934, the FRC was at first independent and given the authority to license broadcasters. However, the Commission was muted in its regulation and often described as cozy with industry (Davis). Thus, the FRC fell by the wayside of public interest and allowed the free market to resolve funding.
Debates ensued about the public role of radio and how it could enlighten the masses, bring cultural knowledge to all, and entertain simultaneously. How to pay for it was a whole separate issue. Journalism of the 19th century and early 20th century knew financial concerns all too well. The popular adage of a ‘firewall between editorial and business’ was the main anecdote to guide radio into its new societal prominence. Without a model like that of Britain, the U.S. radio market reached a fever point in the mid-1920s when demand for more content stressed broadcast budgets and forced a decision on revenues. Advertisers promised to bankroll production, a lifeline which broadcasters could not resist (“History: 1920s”). No other viable option caught on, and advertising’s legacy grip over radio was cemented.
It is important to note the role of the ‘public’ in media matters such as journalism, radio, television, and the Internet. As previously mentioned, Jürgen Habermas is the central theorist on the public sphere, which he defines as:
“[A] realm of our social life in which something approaching public opinion can be formed. Access is guaranteed to all citizens. A portion of the public sphere comes into being in every conversation in which private individuals assemble to form a public body.” 75
Habermas then reinforces what constitutes a public opinion:
“The expression public opinion refers to the tasks of criticism and control which a public body of citizens informally — and, in periodic elections, formally as well — practices vis-à-vis the ruling structure organized in the form of a state.” 76
From these foundational bases, one is able to grasp the first of three periods that Habermas chronicles in the transformation of the public sphere, being ‘the bourgeois public sphere.’ This sphere opposes the principle of supervision and comprises of private individuals critiquing public authority. The bourgeois public sphere gave rise to journalism, and thus radio as it co-opted much of journalism’s role in society.
This second iteration, ‘the liberal model of the public sphere,’ followed the bourgeois public sphere by spurring modern constitutions that established fundamental rights guaranteeing society to be a sphere of private autonomy where public authority was restricted to a few functions. Radio is ultimately private parties assembled to disperse content, and in many situations critique public authority that has roots in the bourgeois public sphere.
Jürgen Habermas mostly focuses on journalism in the liberal model of the public sphere era. However, much of the golden age of radio can be attributed to this model of the public sphere as well. One staple of the liberal model of the public sphere is that information be made accessible to all. While newspapers were bitter to loosen their hold, radio became the new accessible source of informational and entertaining programs (“History: 1920s”).
Presidential politics also elevated the platform. In 1922, President Harding became the first President to be heard over the airwaves (History.com Editors). The public sphere was never the same, as citizens could now hear and not just read about their elected leaders. The following year President Coolidge became the first President to deliver an address via the airwaves, what is now known as The State of The Union (The Learning Network). Franklin D. Roosevelt began the tradition of his ‘fireside chats’ over radio, what would eventually become the President’s weekly address. And in 1948, the first presidential primary debate was broadcast via radio; all of which contributed to the growing power of the platform (“First Presidential”).
The rise of radio was striking and unprecedented. For the first time in The United States, one could make a single upfront purchase for a device that would then provide unlimited media content whenever, wherever. It fit into the notion that information be made accessible in the liberal model of the public sphere. Although, what consumers thought of as ‘free radio’ was subserviently financed by large corporations through advertisements that all but increased their sphere of influence.
Following RCA’s overtake of AT&T’s radio holdings, the company transformed into a government-sanctioned media juggernaut in the 1920s (Wood). RCA produced The National Broadcasting Company that split into the red and the blue network. NBC then created its advertising rate cards (“History: 1920s”). Shortly thereafter The Columbia Broadcasting System was formed, and these two would solidify their hold on broadcasting all the way through television. They were accompanied by the relatively short lived Mutual Broadcasting System, and a portion of NBC that the FCC forced apart, which became The American Broadcasting Company (Scott). Together, these companies formed an industry oligarchy.
Legislation that was supposed to increase the public vitality of radio wound up assisting the major broadcasters. As discussed earlier, the US government and radio broadcasters were on friendly terms, thus the industry chose to stack the cards in their favor.
“In 1924, Herbert Hoover, who was secretary of the Commerce Department, said that the radio industry was probably the only industry in the nation that was unanimously in favor of having itself regulated. Presumably, this was due both to the industry’s desire to put a stop to stations interfering with each others’ broadcasts and to limit the number of stations to a small enough number to lock in a profit” (Scott).
As a result, The Radio Act of 1927 ended stations’ practice of stepping over one another’s frequency, allowing the larger broadcasters to cordon off their airwaves. The Act also acknowledged that airwaves are public property, but chose not to charge broadcasters for using them (Scott).
With an economic advantage at the outset, the oligarchy began affiliating with smaller stations to increase their reach at economies of scale. The broadcasters could expand their programs’ reach without maintaining countless stations across the country, somewhat similar to how restaurants franchise their locations. Affiliating even aided smaller stations economically by providing financial relief and airtime that was taken care of, all with the appeal of a national brand. The Radio Act of 1927 quashed the democratic hopes of what radio could become as a vast majority of the media disseminated via the airwaves originated from all but a few sources.
Enter, the advertisers.
While AT&T’s trailblazing ad in 1922 foreshadowed the eventual format of radio advertisements, being small blocks of direct airtime, the golden age of radio in the 1930s saw an increasing amount of branded programs. These were longform programs titled after mega corporations in a sponsorship deal that sometimes netted the advertiser a spot at the program’s production table (O’Barr). This is a practice that journalists decry, when content is crafted with corporate influence. Such examples include the Hallmark Hall of Fame, Kraft Music Hall, Pepsodent’s Amos n Andy, The Fleischmann Yeast Hour, and The Lucky Strike show (O’Barr).
Radio was also susceptible to World War II. Following advertising’s funk in the depression, the US government formed The War Advertising Council to disseminate propaganda that would prepare the nation for war (Daymette). Not only was the government involved in producing their own programs such as ‘The Treasury Hour,’ but they mobilized industry to support the efforts. Tobacco ads were popular, including “Lucky Strike Green Has Gone To War” (O’Barr). Shell Oil also bought airtime to link their products with the assistance of war efforts (Concho).
An industry steeped in oligarchy, deep-pocketed advertisers, and a government equipped to create propaganda all lead to a system that complicates Jürgen Habermas’s concept of the public sphere.
One critique of the Habermasian theory is its basis on a singular public sphere. Nancy Fraser is a dissenter who argues that universality in the public sphere is not helpful in realistic circumstances (Fraser). For instance, Habermas believes that all must debate in the public sphere as equals, while Nancy Fraser says that equality has not been upheld historically, thus the participation has been skewed to advantage white males (Ricarose). This can be seen in how advertising through the decades was slow to become representational and acknowledge changing perception in social norms (Daymette). Pepsodent’s Amos n Andy was mired in the fact that it was a show about two black men, voiced by white actors.
More to Fraser’s point that multiple public spheres are needed in order to provide a more representational public sphere, marginalized groups were not of advertisers’ interest in the golden age of radio. The market was dominated by a few large broadcasters and advertisers with enough funds to pay top dollar for promotional airtime. Thus, advertisers were keen to appeal to large audiences in order to influence as many consumers as possible. With no space for dissenting messages, multiple public spheres are needed to ensure marginalized voices’ are heard and can make their way into a larger public, through overlapping of various public spheres, as Fraser puts it.
Eventually, advertisements for narrower demographics came about in the 1980s with cable television. Cable tv offered numerous channels that attracted particular viewers. However, the system of advertisers getting spot time to pitch their product or service remained and continues to influence the way consumers interact with media. As Jackson Lears put it, “[advertisers] played a crucial hegemonic role in creating the consumer culture that dominated post-World War II American society” (Walker 22).
The business model marched from one medium to the next, as over the air television was truly adapted from radio. The broadcasters mostly remained the same, still providing unlimited content in exchange for advertisements. Though even more powerful than cable tv’s disruption of the advertisement and media landscape, the Internet adapted radio’s business model to fund its unlimited content.
Similar in essence for the most part, browsing the web is an economy akin to radio. Advertisements support the ‘free’ consumption of content, while deep-pocketed advertisers dominate the messages, and broadcasters come websites, i.e. Facebook and Google, operate an industry oligarchy. In less than a century, radio’s advertising model has innovated with technology’s gains to become nearly inseparable with contemporary life.
The United States’ decision to allow a free market to fund radio in the 1920s has reverberated across media and society to further concentrate power in the hands of a few, and exclude the voices of those marginalized by its hegemonic operation. One should consider the joy of unlimited radio, broadcast television, and online consumption to be relative, as democratization of media does not spur from a singular public sphere steeped in dominant ideology.
(Originally published December 12, 2018)
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