The Master Switch: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires - Tim Wu (2010)

Part I. The Rise

Chapter 2. Radio Dreams

One July afternoon in 1921, J. Andrew White paused before speaking the words that would make him the first sportscaster in history. White, an amateur boxing fan who worked for the Radio Corporation of America, stood ringside in Jersey City, surrounded by more than ninety thousand spectators. The boxing ring was but a tiny white square in a teeming sea of humanity. Everyone was waiting for the “fight of the century” to begin.1

In the ring the fighters looked mismatched. The larger was Jack Dempsey, the “Manassa Mauler,” the reigning heavyweight champion,2 who had grown widely unpopular for refusing to serve in World War I. Georges Carpentier, his opponent, had entered the ring to the strains of “La Marseillaise” and deafening cheers. The French war hero was obviously the crowd favorite.

In White’s hand was something unexpected: a telephone. It was fitted with an extremely long wire that ran out of the stadium and all the way to Hoboken, New Jersey, to a giant radio transmitter. To that transmitter was attached a giant antenna, some six hundred feet long, strung between a clock tower and a nearby building. The telephone White was holding served as the microphone, and the rickety apparatus to which it was connected would, with a bit of luck, broadcast the fight to hundreds of thousands of listeners packed for the day into “radio halls” in sixty-one cities.

What was planned now sounds quite ordinary, but at the time it was revolutionary: using the technology of radio to reach a mass audience. Today we take it for granted that the TV or radio audience for some performance or sporting event is larger than the live audience, but before 1921 such a situation had never occurred. This fight, in fact, would mark the first time that more people would experience an event remotely than locally. That is, if everything went according to plan.

The idea to broadcast the fight came from a young man named Julius Hopp, manager of concerts for Madison Square Garden as well as an amateur radio enthusiast. He wanted to experiment with an application of radio technology that heretofore only hobbyists had played with—something they called “radio broadcasting.”

Hopp could not do it alone. He found important backing, financial and technical, at the Radio Company of America (RCA), predominantly a military contractor, including its vice president, Andrew White, and more important, David Sarnoff, an ambitious young executive and enigmatic personality who would figure centrally in the history of radio. A Russian Jew who had immigrated as a youth, Sarnoff had an eye for promising ideas, coupled with a less admirable tendency to claim them as his own. Having managed to funnel several thousand dollars of RCA money to Hopp, he and White focused their combined energies on the Dempsey broadcast.3

The scale of the effort was unprecedented. But to be absolutely clear: Sarnoff, White, and Hopp were in no sense inventing radio broadcasting. They were, rather, trying to bring to the mainstream an idea that amateurs had been fiddling with for years. Just as email had been around since the late 1960s, though reaching the general public only in the 1990s, broadcasting in some form had been occurring since as early as 1912, and perhaps even earlier.

It was amateurs, some of them teenagers, who pioneered broadcasting. They operated rudimentary radio stations, listening in to radio signals from ships at sea, chatting with fellow amateurs. They began to use the word “broadcast,” which in contemporary dictionaries was defined as a seeding technique: “Cast or dispersed in all directions, as seed from the hand in sowing; widely diffused.”4 The hobbyists imagined that radio, which had existed primarily as a means of two-way communication, could be applied to a more social form of networking, as we might say today. And the amateur needed no special equipment: it was enough simply to buy a standard radio kit. As The Book of Wireless (1916) explains, “any boy can own a real wireless station, if he really wants to.”5

If the amateur pioneers had a leader, it was the inventor Lee De Forest, who by 1916 was running his own radio station, 2XG, in the Bronx.6 He broadcast the results of the 1916 presidential election, and also music and talk for an hour or so each day. QST Magazine, the publication of the America Radio Relay League, reported in 1919 of De Forest’s station, “we feel it is conservative to estimate that our nightly audience is in excess of one thousand people.”7

Back in Jersey City, as the bout began, Dempsey ran at Carpentier, punching hard (you can watch the bout on the Internet), and while Carpentier puts up a spirited fight, the larger Dempsey clearly dominates. In the second round, Carpentier breaks his thumb, yet fights on. By round four, Dempsey is insuperable, landing blows to the body and head, seemingly at will, as the Frenchman stoops forward, barely able to stand. Then, in White’s words: “Seven … eight … nine … ten! Carpentier is out! Jack Dempsey is still the world’s champion!”

The broadcasters were in fact lucky it was over in just four rounds, for soon thereafter, their equipment blew up. Still it had held together long enough for more than three hundred thousand listeners to hear the fight in the radio halls. As Wireless Age put it: “Instantly, through the ears of an expectant public, a world event had been ‘pictured’ in all its thrilling details.… A daring idea had become a fact.”8

What is so interesting about the Dempsey broadcast is that it revealed an emerging medium to be essentially up for grabs. It was in retrospect one of those moments when an amateur or hobbyist’s idea was about to emerge from relative obscurity, with the same force, one might say, as Dempsey’s blows raining down on Carpentier. And while not the cause of the extraordinary radio boom to follow, the Dempsey fight, which had taken so many ears by surprise, was in some sense its herald. While records are spotty, the number of broadcasting stations jumped from 5 in 1921 to 525 in 1923, and by the end of 1924, over 2 million broadcast-capable radio sets had been sold.9

Early radio was, before the Internet, the greatest open medium in the twentieth century, and perhaps the most important example since the early days of newspaper of what an open, unrestricted communications economy looks like. Having begun among some oddballs as a novelty aimed at bringing one’s voice and other sounds to strangers via the airwaves, broadcasting was suddenly in the reach of just about anyone, and very soon all sorts of ideas as to what shape it should take, from the rather banal to the most utopian, were in contention.

THE OPEN AGE OF AMERICAN RADIO

When in the course of human affairs things go wrong, the root cause is often described as some failure to communicate, whether it be between husband and wife, a general and a front-line commander, a pilot and a radio controller, or among several nations. Better communications, it is believed, lead to better mutual understanding, perhaps a recognition of a shared humanity, and the avoidance of needless disaster. Perhaps it is for this reason that the advent of every new technology of communication always brings with it a hope for ameliorating all the ills of society.

The arrival of mass broadcasting inspired, in the United States and around the world, an extraordinary faith in its potential as the benefactor, perhaps even a savior, of mankind. And while the reason may not be readily apparent, such belief is crucial to understanding the long cycles in the development of information media. For it is not just the profit motive that drives the opening up of a medium—there is typically a potent mix of both entrepreneurial and humanitarian motives.

Those who grew up in the late twentieth century have known the latter sort of idealism mainly as it manifests itself on the Internet in grand collaborative projects such as the blogosphere or Wikipedia and also in such controversial undertakings as Google’s digitization of great libraries. This impulse is part of what has attracted thinkers like Lawrence Lessig, originally a constitutional theorist, to Internet studies, examining the anthropological and psychological consequences of complete openness and the promise it holds. Scholars such as Harvard’s Yochai Benkler, Eben Moglen, and many others have devoted considerable attention to understanding what moves men and women to produce and share information for the sake of some abstract good.

Of course the human urge to speak, create, build things, and otherwise express oneself for its own sake, without expectation of financial reward, is hardly new. In an age that has radically commoditized content, it is well to remember that Homer had no expectation of royalties. Nor has the fact of payment for many types of information—books, newspapers, music—extinguished the will to communicate unremunerated. Well before the Internet, in a world without paid downloads, before even commercial television, the same urge to tinker and to connect with others for the pure good of it gave birth to what we now call broadcasting and practically defined the medium in its early years. In the magazines of the 1910s you can feel the excitement of reaching strangers by radio, the connection with thousands and the sheer wonder at the technology. What you don’t hear is any expectation of cashing in.

Here is Lee De Forest addressing young people on the joys of the wireless:

If you haven’t a hobby—get one. Ride it. Your interest and zest in life will triple. You will find common ground with others—a joy in getting together, in exchange of ideas—which only hobbyists can know.

Wireless is of all hobbies the most interesting. It offers the widest limits, the keenest fascination, either for intense competition with others, near and far, or for quiet study and pure enjoyment in the still night hours as you welcome friendly visitors from the whole wide world.10

What exactly were the hopes for radio? In the United States, where broadcasting began, many dreamed it could cure the alienating effects of a remote federal government. “Look at a map of the United States and try to conjure up a picture of what home radio will eventually mean,” wrote Scientific American’s editor Waldemar Kaempffert in 1924.11

All these disconnected communities and houses will be united through radio as they were never united by the telegraph and the telephone. The President of the United States delivers important messages in every home, not in cold, impersonal type, but in living speech; he is transformed from what is almost a political abstraction, a personification of the republic’s dignity and power, into a kindly father, talking to his children.

There was even, perhaps unexpectedly for an electronic medium, hope for the elevation of verbal discourse. “There is no doubt whatever that radio broadcasting will tend to improve the caliber of speeches delivered at the average political meeting,” read a column from the 1920s in Radio Broadcast.12 “The flowery nonsense and wild rhetorical excursions of the soap box spellbinder are probably a thing of the past if a microphone is being used. The radio listener, curled comfortably in his favorite chair is likely to criticize the vituperations of the vote pleader quite severely. Woe be unto the candidate who depends for public favor upon wild rantings and tearings of hair.”

There was even the hope for a more cultured society. “A man need merely light the filaments of his receiving set and the world’s greatest artists will perform for him,” said Alfred N. Goldsmith, the director of research at RCA, in 1922.13

Whatever he most desires—whether it be opera, concert, or song, sporting news or jazz, the radio telephone will supply it. And with it, he will be lifted to greater appreciation. We can be certain that a new national cultural appreciation will result.… The people’s University of the Air will have a greater student body than all of our universities put together.

All of these early aspirations partake of the idealistic expectation that a great social interconnectedness via the airwaves would perforce ennoble the individual, freeing him from his baser unmediated impulses and thus enhancing the fellowship of mankind. Such an intuition, of course, is not limited to communications technologies; it is a tenet of many religions that the distance between the individual and his fellows is an unnatural source of suffering, to be overcome. Perhaps this is why some were prepared to ascribe the miraculous potential of the new medium not to human cleverness but to Providence. “Radio proves the truth of the omnipotence of the Almighty,” wrote Radio Dealer editor Mark Caspar in 1922.14 “When the Bible tells us God is omnipresent and sees all we do and knows all our thoughts—we can now better realize that if we, mere humans, can ‘listen in’ and hear people talk all over the earth with a radio set, a foot or two long, what power must we ascribe to the Almighty? Can we longer doubt his omnipresence and omnipotence? Behold, the all-seeing eye!”

The power of an open technology like radio broadcasting to inspire hope for mankind by creating a virtual community is the more remarkable considering that radio was yet far from reaching its full potential as a communications medium. In fact, what it seemed to promise was, if anything, more thrilling than the present wonders. In De Forest’s words, radio “is the coming Science, is moving ahead faster, possibly, than any other.”15 He urged young men to “take up Radio work because it offers a means of entertainment second to no other; gives useful instruction that can be made to produce tangible results later on; keeps everyone interested; enables you to get the news of the world by wireless and provides a pastime and hobby that will get the busy man’s mind into other channels.”

One must stress that it was not merely technological wizardry that set people dreaming: it was also the openness of the industry then rising up. The barriers to entry were low. Radio in the 1920s was a two-way medium accessible to most any hobbyist, and for a larger sum any club or other institution could launch a small broadcast station. Compare the present moment: radio is hardly our most vital medium, yet it is hard if not impossible to get a radio license, and to broadcast without one is a federal felony. In 1920, De Forest advised, “Obtaining the license is a very simple matter and costs nothing.” As we shall see, radio becomes the clearest example of a technology that has grown into a feebler, rather than a stronger, facilitator of public discourse, the vaunted vitalities of talk radio notwithstanding.

But let us not exaggerate the “purity” of early radio: its founders and commercial partners had a variety of motives, not excluding profit. In the early 1920s, publications such as Radio News published lists of all the radio stations in operation, with their frequencies and what one might expect to hear on them—a forerunner of the once hugely profitable TV Guide.

Such listings show that many early stations were run by radio manufacturers such as Westinghouse, the pioneer of the ready-to-plug-in model, and RCA, both of which had an obvious interest in promoting the medium. Still many stations were run by amateurs, “radio clubs,” universities, churches, hotels, poultry farms, newspapers, the U.S. Army and Navy; one was run by the Excelsior Motorcycle Company of Seattle.

The choices were dizzying. “A list of all that can be heard with a radio receiver anywhere within three hundred miles of Greater New York would fill a book,” explained one publisher of listings. “At any hour of the day or night, with any type of apparatus, adjusted to receive waves of any length, the listener will hear something of interest.” A whole class of stations arose—for instance, just to broadcast jazz, which was otherwise inaccessible to most middle-class fans outside the urban centers where the art developed.16

As few recordings of radio in the 1920s survive, however, one must not romanticize the medium by supposing a quality of offerings to rival the diversity. Station schedules extended but a few hours a day. Content was limited to whatever broadcasters could wangle, whether starving musicians, gramophone recordings, or opinionated talkers. Yet we can imagine the wonder of simply tuning in, never knowing quite what we might hear—surfing the untamed world of the dial.

By its nature, early American radio was local, and hence the roots of “localism” in broadcasting. With an average range of thirty miles or so, an amateur radio station in, say, Seattle was not likely to have a national listenership. Stations that could reach the far corners of the country did not yet exist. The outer limit was represented by an event like the Dempsey-Carpentier fight, a sensation with a maximum signal range of two hundred miles. And so with no means to connect to other stations, and limited broadcast wattage, radio stations made a virtue of the necessity to be local. No baseball game or concert taking place nearby was too small to be a broadcast event. A local pastor could always count on his sermon being heard by more individuals than those sitting in the pews before him. There was no such thing as national radio, public or private. And for as long as such limitations persisted, so did the idealism surrounding radio. Even David Sarnoff, the future president of RCA, remarked, “I regard radio broadcasting as a sort of cleansing instrument for the mind, just as the bathtub is for the body.”17

THE IDEALS OF BRITISH BROADCASTING

In 1922, John Reith, the youngest son of a Scottish minister, was appointed general manager of the newly formed British Broadcasting Company. At age thirty-three, he had no relevant experience—though admittedly individuals with credentials in broadcasting were few at the time—and so his selection was something of a mystery, even to him. As Reith wrote in his diary, “I am profoundly grateful to God for His goodness in this manner. It is all His doing.”18

Reith used the favor of Providence to build a distinct and lasting model of public broadcasting, and the early BBC represents a road not taken relative to radio broadcasting in America, one that would abandon the structural openness so stirring of utopian sentiment and yet in some sense more faithfully cultivate the improving ideals of public service. “The Policy of the Company,” wrote Reith in 1924, is “to bring the best of everything into the greatest number of homes.” In tune with Victorian convictions about human perfectibility, radio was employed as a means of moral uplift, of shaping character, and generally of presenting the finest in human achievement and aspiration. And it was this way from the beginning. Reith presided over the medium as a monopoly from its very inception, with no open period of broadcast pluralism, the thrilling free-for-all that had sprung up in America. His power was absolute yet governed by the British imperative of self-restraint.

Reith’s intentions were as evident on the surface as at the core of his efforts. He opened a London studio in Savoy Hill, its appointments more suggestive of a gentlemen’s refuge than the utilitarianism one might expect. Gale Pedrick, a BBC script editor, remarked: “Next to the House of Commons, Savoy Hill was quite the most pleasant club in London. There were coal fires, and visitors were welcomed by a most distinguished looking gentleman who would conduct them to a cosy private room and offer whisky-and-soda.” Beginning in 1926, all announcers were required to wear dinner clothes during broadcasts, ostensibly to put any similarly clad performers at ease, and generally to preserve the decorum of the enterprise.19

In his 1924 book Broadcast over Britain, Reith gave definitive expression to his view of radio as a supremely dignified business.20 The medium, he wrote, must not become “mere entertainment,” catering to the “imagined wants” of the listener. There must be, he insisted, “no concessions to the vulgar.” He believed that anything one might take for popular demand was but the contrivance of the broadcasters themselves. It was a view rather like the one expressed by Reith’s contemporary Walter Lippmann in The Phantom Public.21 As Reith would later put it, “He who prides himself on giving what he thinks the public wants is often creating a fictitious demand for lower standards which he will then satisfy.”22

The mission of improving general sensibilities naturally led to cultural and educational programming, including lectures on important topics by learned men, though avoiding controversy. There was to be an element of what we might call self-help through building “knowledge, experience and character, perhaps even in the face of obstacles, though never proclaiming a competitive creed nor advertising a panacea.”23 Admittedly, the ban on provocation could limit the educational objective—even a talk on women’s rights, for example, could be too touchy. Asa Briggs describes how George Bernard Shaw, invited to give a talk in 1924, was warned not to discuss politics or religion. “Politics and religion,” he replied, “are the only things I talk about.”24

Not that all restriction issued from Reith’s own Victorian reticence. His vision of “a more intelligent and enlightened electorate” was sometimes limited by government pressure.25 The BBC, though initially a private enterprise, was since its inception under the tight scrutiny of the government, with which Reith’s relations were ever poor. In his diary Reith would vilify Winston Churchill as a “cur,” “coward,” “loathsome cad,” and “blasted thug.”26Unfortunately for Reith, his colleagues were hardly so stirred up by the prime minister and were perfectly content to toe the party line. As one BBC manager put it, “we do not wish to have the Broadcasting stations used for propaganda which will excite one section of the population and be very distasteful to another.”27 Hence the norms of British broadcasting continued to conform to those of polite dinner coversation, avoiding anything that might upset or inflame.

Perhaps the most famous of these norms is the one respecting “spoken English.” Among the mandates of the BBC as custodian of the public trust was to save the King’s English from corruption. (BBC English is still a recognizable norm of sorts, though now accommodative of popular usage to a degree that might well have horrified the founders.) Questions concerning “debatable language” were addressed by a particularly impressive advisory committee that included Rudyard Kipling, George Bernard Shaw, and the poet Robert Bridges, which met three times a year.28 The committee could take credit for eliminating expressions like “broadcasted” and “listen in” from standard usage.

Reith’s dream of lifting up the masses has an undeniable element of condescension about it. He had little curiosity about what the common people were interested in, nor, it must be said, was he especially fond of them. “I do not love, or even like, my neighbour,” he once disclosed in a letter; “in fact I dislike him more and more as he hooliganizes about the roads with open exhaust … glorifying in being a damnable curse to the whole community.”29 This sentiment posed for him a certain crisis of faith. “I believe profoundly in the Christian ethic, but I am a very poor practitioner; I have said also that, to such extent as loving one’s neighbour is an essential criterion of admission to the company of the elect, I absolutely fail to qualify.”

Though he had largely succeeded in making the BBC conform to his vision, he was never content with his progress, and felt himself underappreciated. When he was knighted in 1927, but to no specific chivalric order, he wrote in his diary, “an ordinary knighthood is almost an insult. The PM has never comprehended the importance of our work.” His dissatisfaction would persist into the 1940s, when he was created Baron Reith of Stonehaven. “I do not care two hoots or one hoot about honours, and often wish I had never taken one. What I do care about is the injustice of not being given or offered them.”

Reith may have continued to harbor his grudges against the British government, but in a way, his legacy is indebted to that institution. As we have said, the BBC, however closely watched by Whitehall, did not come into being as a government organ but as a private company formed by a collective of radio manufacturers. Only later, in 1927, would it come under more direct public supervision, as a Crown Corporation—that is to say, a corporation owned by the king.

In this way, the BBC would for decades be spared the great controversy over advertising, which would consume and ultimately shape American radio. The BBC, as Reith tells in his memoir, “is not out to make money for the sake of making money.”30 The company’s sustaining revenues came from the sale of licenses to receive broadcasts (ten shillings) and, in the early days, a royalty fee added to the price of radio sets. As for the American revenue model, the first parliamentary committee to consider radio banned advertising on the basis that it might “lower the standard”—though no explanation was given of how mention of tinned meat might have this effect.31

And so, this is radio broadcasting in the 1920s: On one side of the Atlantic, in the geographically vast United States, isolated clusters of local and mostly amateur operators, inspired by the enthusiasm of the hobbyist and a somewhat vague though earnest idea of national betterment. In Britain, a private monopoly, with national reach, arguably elitist but unquestionably and systematically dedicated to bringing “the best of everything” to the general public. In either setting, the medium would never be more hopeful or high-minded.