Thesis

A buzz in the ether: the Sacramento Bee, radio, and the public interest, 1922-1950

Between the end of World War I and the passage of the Radio Act of 1927, the business of radio broadcasting in the United States developed rapidly. When Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927 as a means of regulating broadcasting, it did so without an understanding of either the realities of the new medium or its potential. The phrase “public interest, convenience, and necessity” in Section Eleven of the Radio Act was never clearly defined in regard to broadcasting, and the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) created by the Radio Act was vested with broad regulatory powers driven by the undefined public interest standard. The Communications Act of 1934 replaced the FRC with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Communications Act gave the FCC authority to regulate all communications by wire and radio and reaffirmed the concept of the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” as a key, although largely undefined, component of broadcast regulation. The Communications Act of 1934 also upheld the interests of commercial broadcasting over the interests of non-profit and commercial-free broadcasters. Public interest became synonymous with general audience appeal, not with any form of public service or community need.
 Media historians have largely ignored the West when studying the early years of radio broadcasting. While historians have studied several angles of radio’s development—technical, regulatory, cultural, debates over advertising—their work has primarily focused on those regions of the United States where radio had its initial corporate launch. Much of the examination of radio’s beginnings and early growth have focused on public policy, the development of national networks, and the advertising campaigns that supported nationally broadcast programs. This thesis examines one West Coast company’s early entry into, and development of, local and regional radio in California from the early 1920s through the 1940s. I argue that the development of radio broadcasting was different for a regional business located far from the national networks, the industry lobbies, and the point of legislative and governmental control. The McClatchy Company and the McClatchy family, publishers of the Sacramento Bee, entered broadcast radio at the industry’s beginnings with a single five watt radio station that later grew to a mere 100 watts where it stayed until 1935, well into radio’s so-called “golden age.” Although operating a number of low-powered radio stations and lacking in political influence, the McClatchy Company achieved success in its initial broadcast ventures by consistently adhering to its own definition of what constituted the public interest. Operating within the shifting and changing regulations of the new broadcast industry, the McClatchys focused on serving their listeners using the tenets adhered to by their newspapers: the media outlet serves a local audience, meets local needs, and does not bow to outside influence.
 Using archival and manuscript collections, newspapers and periodicals, and U.S. government and broadcast industry publications, I show how legislative developments and the differing ideas of what constituted the public interest had a more immediate impact on the operation of regional stations like McClatchy-owned Sacramento station KFBK. In addition, I examine how local broadcasters—those most likely to serve a specific regional audience rather than a generalized national audience—had to struggle as their businesses adapted to shifting regulations, and how one company’s concept of what served the public ultimately could not succeed within the commercial broadcast model upheld by the Communications Act of 1934.

Thesis (M.A., History) -- California State University, Sacramento, 2010.

Between the end of World War I and the passage of the Radio Act of 1927, the business of radio broadcasting in the United States developed rapidly. When Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927 as a means of regulating broadcasting, it did so without an understanding of either the realities of the new medium or its potential. The phrase “public interest, convenience, and necessity” in Section Eleven of the Radio Act was never clearly defined in regard to broadcasting, and the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) created by the Radio Act was vested with broad regulatory powers driven by the undefined public interest standard. The Communications Act of 1934 replaced the FRC with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). The Communications Act gave the FCC authority to regulate all communications by wire and radio and reaffirmed the concept of the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” as a key, although largely undefined, component of broadcast regulation. The Communications Act of 1934 also upheld the interests of commercial broadcasting over the interests of non-profit and commercial-free broadcasters. Public interest became synonymous with general audience appeal, not with any form of public service or community need. Media historians have largely ignored the West when studying the early years of radio broadcasting. While historians have studied several angles of radio’s development—technical, regulatory, cultural, debates over advertising—their work has primarily focused on those regions of the United States where radio had its initial corporate launch. Much of the examination of radio’s beginnings and early growth have focused on public policy, the development of national networks, and the advertising campaigns that supported nationally broadcast programs. This thesis examines one West Coast company’s early entry into, and development of, local and regional radio in California from the early 1920s through the 1940s. I argue that the development of radio broadcasting was different for a regional business located far from the national networks, the industry lobbies, and the point of legislative and governmental control. The McClatchy Company and the McClatchy family, publishers of the Sacramento Bee, entered broadcast radio at the industry’s beginnings with a single five watt radio station that later grew to a mere 100 watts where it stayed until 1935, well into radio’s so-called “golden age.” Although operating a number of low-powered radio stations and lacking in political influence, the McClatchy Company achieved success in its initial broadcast ventures by consistently adhering to its own definition of what constituted the public interest. Operating within the shifting and changing regulations of the new broadcast industry, the McClatchys focused on serving their listeners using the tenets adhered to by their newspapers: the media outlet serves a local audience, meets local needs, and does not bow to outside influence. Using archival and manuscript collections, newspapers and periodicals, and U.S. government and broadcast industry publications, I show how legislative developments and the differing ideas of what constituted the public interest had a more immediate impact on the operation of regional stations like McClatchy-owned Sacramento station KFBK. In addition, I examine how local broadcasters—those most likely to serve a specific regional audience rather than a generalized national audience—had to struggle as their businesses adapted to shifting regulations, and how one company’s concept of what served the public ultimately could not succeed within the commercial broadcast model upheld by the Communications Act of 1934.

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