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"The American system": Herbert Hoover, the associative state, and broadcast commercialism.

More than 80 years after he guided the formation of U.S. broadcasting as we know it, Herbert Hoover remains an object of scorn for many commentators. A blogger recently blamed Hoover for what he considers the sorry state of television and radio: "If you have difficulty with the pap fed you on TV and radio today, and are sick of the greater and greater amount of time filled by mindless advertising, you have no one more important to thank than ... Herbert Hoover" (Bond 2006).

Arguably, as secretary of commerce under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge (before he became president himself), Hoover played a more significant role than any other individual in the early development of American broadcasting, so to place the blame for commercialism on Hoover is justifiable. Under the original Radio Act of 1912, the Department of Commerce had jurisdiction over the fledgling radio broadcasting industry. Although the Commerce Department's authority was limited, broadcasters and the public looked to Hoover for leadership, in particular on the question of advertising (Barnouw 1966, 155-56).

However, Hoover's reputation--deserved or not--as a conservative's conservative, an acolyte of Coolidge's aphorism "the business of America is business," a man who resisted engaging the power of government to combat the Great Depression, may lead one to assume that he deliberately set out to establish a system of broadcasting dominated by business interests and commercialism. In fact, Hoover came to national attention in the role of humanitarian when he took the lead in providing relief for war-ravaged Belgium and northern France during and after World War I, and this reputation was bolstered when he directed relief efforts following the catastrophic flood of the Mississippi River in 1927 (Barry 2005, 114-21; Smith 1984). Hoover's papers further reveal that he strongly advocated the notion that broadcasting--more than a profit-centered medium for advertising and entertainment--should serve the general public interest, and he expressly opposed "direct" advertising on the new medium.

Still, for better or worse, it is true that broadcasting went commercial on Hoover's watch. How is it--given the secretary's expressed opposition--that American radio and television audiences today are resigned to the pervasiveness of broadcast advertising? In our view, Hoover was sincere in his opposition to advertising and did not covertly direct broadcasting toward its adoption. The truth is less dramatic. Hoover's belief in the associative state, in which businesses cooperate with each other and with government through self-governing organizations to create "desired outcomes for society" (Himmelberg 2001, 34-35), resulted in a passive drift toward acceptance of a commercial system--the "American system"--of broadcasting.

Ironically, in view of the eventual outcome, Hoover spoke out strongly against commercialism, believing that, if radio became dominated by advertising, the "audience will disappear in disgust" (Hoover 1924g, 9). At the First National Radio Conference, which Hoover convened in February 1922, the secretary spoke with forcefulness against the threat of commercialism:

It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes, to be drowned in advertising chatter, or for commercial purposes that can be quite well served by other means of communication. (Hoover 1922b)

Further, Hoover strongly emphasized the concept that broadcasters, receiving licenses to use the public airwaves for commercial purposes, should in return provide a measure of public service. Indeed, Hoover was the first to articulate the public interest standard of U.S. broadcasting (Krasnow, Longley, and Terry 1982, 17; Krattenmaker and Powe 1994, 8).

As a means of sorting out the many questions relating to the development of the fledgling radio broadcasting industry in the 1920s, Hoover brought together manufacturers, broadcasters, and others in a series of radio conferences--very much in keeping with the associative state philosophy. To the third radio conference, the commerce secretary asserted:

Radio has passed from the field of an adventure to that of a public utility. Nor among the utilities is there one whose activities may yet come more closely to the life of each and every one of our citizens, nor which holds out great possibilities of future influence, nor which is of more potential public concern. It must now be considered as a great agency of public service. (Hoover 1924a)

For nearly three decades after leaving the White House, Herbert Hoover's legacy remained trapped in the public perceptions that his policies caused and even worsened the economic collapse during the 1920s and 1930s. Despite the claim of broadcast engineer C. M. Jansky, Jr., that Hoover should be recognized as the "Father of the American System of Free Broadcasting" (1957, 241-49), historians ignored Hoover's contributions to radio broadcasting and did little to reexamine or resurrect his pre-presidential or presidential reputation until the 1970s, when political and social events within the United States caused a rebirth of and newfound respect for conservative ideology.

Whether critical or lauding of Herbert Hoover's pre-presidential tenure at the Department of Commerce, historians have generally recognized a dichotomy in his philosophies and practices. Joan Hoff Wilson's Herbert Hoover: Forgotten Progressive (1975, 5-11, 14-15, 278-81) and Timothy Walch's Uncommon Americans: The Lives and Legacies of Herbert and Lou Henry Hoover (2003, 11-19, 51-57, 63-66) noted that Hoover's humanitarian efforts in Europe during and after World War I illustrated his ability to coordinate and direct relief projects, though they both acknowledged Hoover's massive inability to translate his international feats to U.S. domestic issues. Gary Best's The Politics of American Individualism: Herbert Hoover in Transition, 1918-1921 (1971, 79-84) explained Hoover's ideology using location and time--that is, Hoover utilized his engineering and coordination skills during the war crisis but returned home to a society seeking "normalcy," which encouraged him to follow a rigid ideology. Journalism historian Daniel Garvey (1976, 66-70, 85) and historian Ellis Hawley (1978, 309-20) both observed that, while Hoover is remembered as a staunch advocate of business, he fully understood that some sort of limited government regulation of broadcasting was essential.

On the other hand, historians continue to criticize Hoover's faith in associationalism. David Hamilton (1991, 2-7, 28-40, 64-65, 81-82, 132-33, 147) suggested that Hoover failed to understand the new paradigms of the 1920s in manufacturing, economics, consumption, and trade, which prevented Hoover from adjusting his belief in cooperative organization of business and society. Most recently, Amity Shlaes (2007, 5-7, 81-82, 98-99, 114-16) argued that Hoover, for all his rhetoric encouraging regulation during his time at the Commerce Department, placed efficiency above politics when the time came for decisions to be made.

Susan Smulyan (1994, 70) argued that, although great opposition to radio advertising existed in the 1920s, the emergence of the broadcast networks ultimately led to the acceptance of commercialism. Perhaps the most authoritative work on the development of commercial broadcasting during the 1920s, however, is Robert McChesney's Telecommunications. Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (1993, 3-7, 13-17, 27-28, 252-70), in which he argued that commercial broadcasting was not the inevitable destination for radio. He noted that many historians and journalism scholars perpetuated the "myth" that commercial broadcasting was not just inevitable but the only path for the use of radio, but McChesney did not place the evolution of broadcasting and Herbert Hoover's relationship to it in the context of Hoover's associational ideology that dominated the politics of business during the 1920s.

This study uses primary sources contained in the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library in West Branch, Iowa, supplemented by other sources, to provide a deeper understanding of how U.S. broadcasting, under Hoover's guidance, came to be so thoroughly commercial in character, despite almost universal opposition to broadcast advertising--even among many broadcasters--in radio's embryonic period. While the emergence of commercialism in broadcasting and Hoover's role in the development of the U.S. broadcasting system have been addressed in other works, this interdisciplinary article, involving authors from the disciplines of mass communication and history, provides a unique perspective by showing how Hoover's fervent belief in associationalism led to the eventual acceptance of commercial broadcasting.

There are many tangential topics related to the development of broadcasting under Hoover's leadership as secretary of commerce in the 1920s, but the focus of this article is Hoover's role in the emergence of a dominantly commercial broadcasting system in the United States and how his belief in the associative state contributed to it.

Hoover, the Associative State, and Broadcast Advertising

Historians continue to analyze and mostly find fault with Hoover's faith in an associative state. As a young American coming of age early in the twentieth century, Hoover was among those "caught up in unregulated competition and a crescendo of unthinking optimism" (Smith 1984, 77). From George Nash's authoritative biography (1983) to the most recent Depression work of Amity Shlaes (2007), historians have illustrated how Quaker faith and ideas shaped Hoover's childhood and his perceptions of the world. Biographer Richard Smith noted that, in the midst of the economic and social revolutions of his time, Hoover often remembered the Quaker teachings of his youth, which encouraged people to work toward "a social and economic system which will so function as to sustain and enrich life for all" (1984, 77).

These ideas and experiences spawned the roots of Hoover's associative ideology, and his success as a public official complemented his childhood lessons. His successful management of food production in the United States during World War I and his positive contributions to the postwar economic recovery of Europe reinforced Hoover's associative ideology, and he concluded that the cooperation and collaboration of business and government was the best way for a society to progress and prosper. Indeed, just three years after the end of the Great War, Hoover wrote that American society had "long since abandoned the laissez faire of the 18th century--the notion that it is every man for himself and the devil take the hindmost" (Hoover 1922a, 10).

Hoover's relocation from Iowa to Oregon following his mother's death provided a new, but consistent, source of guidance in the person of maternal uncle Henry John Minthorn, a teacher and school administrator and a Quaker missionary, who often admonished the children that "the worst thing a man can do is to do nothing" (Strench 1963, 19). Not surprisingly, Uncle John kept the children--his own and the Hoover children--busy with a variety of farm-related and business projects that were designed to teach responsibility, resourcefulness, and community. These ideas and experiences spawned Hoover's associative ideology. As an adult and later as a public official, Hoover embraced this ideology of cooperation and collaboration as the best way for a society to progress and prosper. And so, as secretary of commerce, Hoover brought a combination of market-oriented and socially conscious values to his role as regulator of early radio (Nash 1983, 2-25; Shlaes 2007, 27).

Historian Walter Buenger characterized Hoover's associative efforts as an ideological paradox: Hoover wanted to prevent a merger of industry and government, but he sought to "modify nihilistic capitalism and avoid fascism" (1990, 482-84) by encouraging businesses and corporations to create nationwide networks that would decrease competition and thereby increase efficiency in production. Hoover believed these relationships would prevent destructive corporate battles and improve life for ordinary workers and consumers. In his aptly titled Aggressive Introvert, historian Craig Lloyd noted that Hoover favored "the indispensability of the expert [for example, an industrial executive] in the management of government and society" (1972, 101) because federal officials--elected and appointed---could not comprehend the complexities of national problems without inserting their own political prejudices and loyalties into the debates. Perhaps historian Joseph Taylor, in his examination of Hoover's role as commerce secretary, captured Hoover's ideology best when he argued that Secretary Hoover felt a sense of noblesse oblige: "Responsible producers [instead of managers] would rationalize production, and the benefits would trickle down to Americans and nature alike" (2002, 386). In Hoover's view, "producers" were the manufacturers and factories--anyone who created something to buy and sell--whereas "managers" would represent external entities, government agencies telling the businesses how to run their operations, deal with their workers, or set prices. David M. Hart (1998, 419-44) argued that Hoover's belief in associationalism was at least partly vindicated by the turn toward deregulation of business, including broadcasting, in the 1980s and 1990s.

While Hoover disliked broadcast advertising, he saw government funding (and, therefore, control) of radio as the equivalent of censorship (Hoover 1925 a; Jansky 1957); certainly, a government-imposed ban on advertising could be interpreted as prior restraint, a concept addressed in Near v. Minnesota in 1931 (Eastland 2000, 26-31). Further, Hoover saw government involvement in broadcasting as an impediment to the development of the fledgling medium. This was in keeping with Hoover's belief that the free enterprise system operated more efficiently and effectively than government (Hawley 1978, 309-20; Williams 1961, 385). An engineer by training, Hoover focused in the series of radio conferences on the technical challenges facing the new medium, and broadcasting gradually drifted toward all-out commercialism. Finally, by 1925 and the fourth of Hoover's radio conferences, a committee appointed to study the issue of broadcast advertising issued a report that, while denouncing "direct" advertising, left the issue up to the broadcasters themselves ("Committee No. 2" 1926, 18).

The sponsoring of conferences on everything from Alaskan fisheries to radio broadcasting epitomized Hoover's faith in associationalism, and his mastery of Progressive ideology allowed him to perceive the potential for good in radio broadcasting. Electronic mass media, in Hoover's view, could serve as a new medium for business and government agencies to disseminate information; broadcasting would present new knowledge to members of the public and would enable them to solve or cope with social problems.

Some may question how Hoover's belief in the associative state corresponds with the establishment of stricter federal licensing procedures for radio stations, which came about through Hoover's series of radio conferences and, ultimately, the Radio Act of 1927. It is important to remember that many early radio station operators asked the Commerce Department under Hoover to impose regulation on broadcasting in order to help the fledgling industry deal with the problem of signal interference between stations (Head, Spann, and McGregor 2001, 34; McChesney 1991, 354-56). For an industry to ask for government intervention, and for the government to respond, can be seen as very much in keeping with Hoover's associative philosophy.

Hoover on the Public Interest and Broadcasting

Along with his belief in associationalism and his distaste for broadcast advertising, Hoover strongly held that broadcasting should provide a public service. As he spoke to the First National Radio Conference in Washington, DC on February 27, 1922, the idea of the public interest was very much on Hoover's mind. Contemplating what form broadcasting regulation should take, Hoover was certain that some measure of public service should be part of the proposition. He asked the delegates to recommend whatever additional power the Commerce Department should seek from Congress so that "the maximum public good shall be secured" from broadcasting. Hoover resolutely told the conference that it must keep the public interest foremost in mind. "There is involved in all of this regulation the necessity to so establish the public['s] right over the ether roads that there may be no national regret that we have parted with a great national asset into uncontrolled hands," Hoover said (1922b, 4).

Two years later, Hoover expressed similar thoughts. "It is our duty as public officials, it is our duty as men engaged in the industry, and it is our duty as a great listening public to assure the future conduct of this industry with the single view to public interest," Hoover said (1924e).

While Hoover made references to the public interest in broadcasting starting with the First National Radio Conference in 1922, broadcasting historian Erwin G. Krasnow (1997) and former Federal Communications Commission (FCC) member Susan Ness (1994) have placed the establishment of the public service principle in Hoover's address to the Fourth National Radio Conference on November 9, 1925. "The ether is a public medium and its use must be for public benefit," he said. "The use of a radio channel is justified only if there is public benefit.... I have no frozen views on radio, except that the public interest must dominate.... The greatest public interest must be the deciding factor. I presume that few will dissent as to the correctness of this principle, for all will agree that public good must overbalance private desire" (1925b, 14).

Hoover saw no contradiction in his associative belief that broadcasting should serve the public interest but operate within the realm of free enterprise. He believed that government should work closely with business to promote the social good but avoid coercive action. Hoover favored minimalist government, but he was comfortable with using the power of the government, through the Department of Commerce, to encourage industrial self-regulation. He promoted the establishment of trade associations, by which industries would govern themselves (Houck 2001, 55-59). In Hoover's mind, business could be trusted, ultimately, to do the right thing, if only because the public would punish businesses that did not. Of the radio conferences that Hoover organized, seminal broadcast historian Erik Barnouw observed:
 [t]hat Hoover should turn for counsel to the most successful
 elements in the industry was taken for granted. This was
 cooperation--an administration policy. That their initiative would,
 in the nature of things, produce public benefit was an accepted
 article of faith. Another was that excesses would create their own
 antidotes through public reaction. Where enlightened business
 leaders were involved, all that would be needed would be an
 executive word of caution. (1966, 178)

However, unlike latter-day FCC commissioner Mark Fowler--remembered for his dismissive comment that television was simply "a toaster with pictures" (Head, Spann, and McGregor 2001, 286)--Hoover saw that the radio receiver was something more than just another household appliance. Clearly, Hoover believed that broadcasting should strive to elevate the listener, to promote education and citizenship, and to provide entertainment. At the Third National Radio Conference on October 7, 1924, Hoover noted that, for the first time in history, it would be possible to communicate with millions of people at the same time, providing entertainment but also addressing national problems. "An obligation rests on us to see that it is devoted to real service and to develop the material that is transmitted which is really worthwhile," Hoover said (1924a, 21). And yet, holding true to his associative philosophy, Hoover argued that the "obligation" should not be coerced: "This may be called an experiment in industrial self-government. The voluntary imposition of its own rules and a high sense of service will go far to make further legislation or administrative intervention unnecessary" (1924e, 21).

The next year, at the Fourth National Radio Conference, Hoover was more direct in asserting that the profit motive should not overwhelm the public interest: "We can surely agree that no one can raise a cry of deprivation of free speech if he is compelled to prove that there is something more than naked commercial selfishness in his purpose" (1925b, 14).

The Debate over How to Pay for Broadcasting

As time went on, Hoover found the problem of how to provide revenue for radio--without government funding or advertising--highly vexing. "The man who evolves a practical and fair way of compensating them [broadcasting stations] will have cracked the hardest nut in the bowl," Hoover wrote (1924c).

The Department of Commerce files at the Hoover Library in West Branch, Iowa, contain many letters from the public and press articles concerning the then-urgent issue of how to provide adequate funding for the new marvel of broadcasting. Many expressed opposition to advertising.

Harry S. Davega (1923) of New York City wrote to Hoover advocating a tax on manufacturers, similar to the value-added tax employed by many European countries, and a listener fee. Davega said that broadcasting should serve an educational function. The only way for that to happen, Davega said, was for the U.S. government to fund broadcasting. He suggested a tax paid by radio manufacturers and added, "It would also be possible to license the people who desire to receive broadcasting and who are using receiving sets. This could be done in a manner similar to automobile licenses in all states of the Union."

One listener explicitly emphasized his opposition to over-the-air advertising. "This business should not be commercialized," he wrote. The listener suggested a "small annual tax ... I do not believe the people would object to paying such a tax to the government" (Tracy 1924).

A Detroit woman wrote Hoover that only four stations in the city were "worth listening to," and the others were "abominable ... WAFD advertises all the cheap stores in the city offering prizes, this does not interest real listeners, and for that we have newspapers" (Cartwright n.d.). This echoed Hoover's observation that other forms of communication were better suited to advertising than radio.

The opponents of advertising looked to the secretary. A New York Mirror editorial stated, "The Mirror calls upon Secretary Hoover for enforcement of the regulations regarding advertising by radio broadcast." An assistant to Hoover, Harold Phelps Stokes (1925), replied, "There is no federal authority of any kind by which the Secretary of Commerce may suppress advertising.... His very limited authority extends only to questions of interference between stations." Hoover's stated opposition to advertising carried considerable weight because of his position and stature. But, in fact, even if he was so inclined, under the Radio Act of 1912, Hoover could have done little to stop advertising.

Even in the 1920s, a few observers foresaw that listeners ultimately would accept advertising. James C. Young (1924), a prolific author in the early days of radio, presciently observed that the listener would not object to advertising if the programming was sufficiently entertaining. "What he [the listener] seems to care about principally is the quality of entertainment offered for his amusement," Young wrote.

Entertaining or not, broadcasting had to have a source of funding. Hoover, speaking to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 1924, enumerated what he saw as the possible funding sources for broadcasting, other than advertising: manufacturers, using revenue from the sale of radio sets and parts; public service (nonprofit) corporations; public (federal or state government) institutions; and municipal authorities (Hoover 1924b). Of these, funding from manufacturers or nonprofit corporations received serious consideration.

As early as 1922, the publication Radio Broadcast suggested "endowment of a station by a public-spirited citizen" in a fashion similar to the funding of public libraries by Andrew Carnegie, or municipal financing in the same way that cities funded schools and museums. Radio Broadcast also advocated a "common fund ... controlled by an elected board," with contributions coming from the public and other sources, comparable to today's Corporation for Public Broadcasting. None of the early funding methods suggested by Radio Broadcast included advertising (Barnouw 1966, 55-56).

David Sarnoff--vice president and general manager of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and soon after the president of the first major broadcasting network, the National Broadcasting Company (NBC)--advocated such a philanthropic approach to the funding of broadcasting (Rosen 1980, 68). Believing as many at the time did that the public would not tolerate blatant advertising, and fearing government funding and control, Sarnoff wrote, "There may even appear on the horizon a public benefactor, who will be willing to contribute a large sum in the form of an endowment.... Such a company will ultimately be regarded as a public institution of great value in the same sense that a library, for example, is regarded today" (Archer 1939, 33).

If the corporations involved in the fledgling radio industry themselves created such a benevolent foundation, Sarnoff believed, it would counteract the idea that broadcasters were operating "because of profit to themselves" (Archer 1939, 33). In 1925, a proposal to create a "Broadcasting Foundation of America" made up of major radio industry manufacturers was seriously considered within RCA. The suggested participants--including RCA, General Electric, and Westinghouse, as well as a number of smaller companies--would contribute part of the revenue from the sales of their radio products to operate the foundation. Philanthropic donations would be accepted, as today with public broadcasting. Advertising, or "tolls," would be allowed, but would be of "the good-will type rather than direct advertising." But this idea eventually morphed into RCA's decision to form NBC (Archer 1939, 230-33).

In the early days of radio, churches, department stores, newspapers, and other entities owned and operated stations, mainly to generate the "good will" to which Sarnoff alluded. Their intent was to promote themselves, rather than to sell the products of others (Barnouw 1966, 99). Still, one pragmatic listener recognized that, even when these stations broadcast entirely without overt advertising, their motives were not altruistic by nature: "Broadcasting of any kind is advertising, be it religion, politics, or merchandise. ... You [the broadcaster] receive notoriety, which brings you hard, iron dollars--or you wouldn't do it," the writer observed in a letter to a radio station published in Radio Broadcast magazine (Taylor 1926, 38-39).

Another early commentator on radio foresaw the coming domination of the advertising agencies in the production of network radio programs, but innocently failed to anticipate the extent to which advertising on the radio would grow. "We often hear fear expressed over the fact that our best studios may sooner or later be operated by advertising agencies and that radio broadcasting will become an out-and-out advertising medium," R. F. Yates wrote in Popular Radio magazine. "We don't know what could be more out-and-out advertising than radio is at the present time" (1925, 90).

Intriguingly, a 1923 memo from the Department of Commerce's supervisor of radio, W. D. Terrell, to Hoover's assistant, Christian A. Herter, suggests that the department considered the feasibility of imposing a system of license fees, despite Hoover's steadfast public pronouncements to the contrary, if a satisfactory collection system could be found: "Do you know anything about the receiving sets advertised in the attached circular [?] I should be much interested in learning how the use of the receiving set can be controlled so that a monthly fee can be charged for its use" (Terrell 1923). No further reference to this inquiry was found in the files. But the next year, Hoover again alluded to the difficulty of collecting license fees. "I do not believe there is any practical method of payment from the receivers," he said (1924h, 6).

However, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) by 1923 was operating on license fees collected by the Postal Service from radio listeners in the United Kingdom (Burns 1977, 7). Ironically, at the same conference at which Hoover pronounced "payment from the receivers" impractical, P. P. Eckersley, the chief engineer of the BBC, testified that the BCC was soon to celebrate the sale of the one-millionth license to British radio listeners (Paulu 1956, 24).

Hoover was well aware that other countries were funding their broadcasting systems with license fees. In early 1924, seven months before his and Eckersley's comments to the Third Radio Conference, Hoover said, "[I] do not favor a solution by any license and charge upon receiving sets as is imposed in other countries. So far as I am advised, the United States is the only country which does not impose a license upon or regulate receiving sets" (1924i, 23). So Hoover's opposition to license fees was based at least as much on philosophy as on concern over the practicality of collecting fees.

Years later, Hoover spoke disdainfully of the British quasi-governmental system. "I don't think that they have contributed anything like as much to the development of broadcasting as we have," he said. "When you have a government monopoly you have none of the inspiration and ingenuity that you get out of private enterprise" (1950, 15).

"Indirect" and "Direct" Advertising

While Hoover and most early broadcasters agreed that advertising was undesirable for radio, debate began to revolve around the distinction between "indirect" and "direct" advertising. Indirect advertising allowed the sponsor's name to be mentioned, but without direct selling of a product or service. Direct advertising was unrestrained, blatant promotion of a product or service (Smulyan 1994, 70). Ultimately, the seemingly innocuous nature of indirect advertising broke down the barriers against all advertising.

Hoover presumed that the listening public would revolt against blatant direct advertising. As previously noted, if radio became saturated with commercial content, the "audience will disappear in disgust," he said (1924g, 9). By no means was Hoover alone in this view. Hoover had an exchange with E. P. Edwards, the General Electric radio department manager, at the First National Radio Conference, in which Edwards suggested restricting radio advertising to the daytime hours, then the time of day when fewer listeners tuned in. Hoover asked how stations could support themselves without "cluttering" the airwaves with "material they [the listeners] would resent." Edwards replied, "A great deal of resentment has already been expressed, I understand, because of personal advertising mixed with entertainment features" (Hoover 1922b, 22).

Radio Broadcast published a listener's letter m support of indirect advertising on New York station WEAF (which in 1922 became the first station to use advertising; see Barnouw 1966, 110-11), but the writer warned against blatant direct advertising. "No one objects to WEAF's announcer telling us that we are indebted to the Goodrich Company for the excellent entertainment afforded by the Silvertown Cord Orchestra; or the Eveready Hour; or the Goldust Twins; or Roxie; or Atwater Kent," the listener wrote. But "how long do you think an audience would listen to the 'A & P Gypsies' if every number were followed by a dissertation on the quality and price of their beans and pickles?" (Taylor 1926, 39).

That advertising was an evil to be avoided was an article of faith during the early days of broadcasting. During debate over what would become the Radio Act of 1927, Congressman Emanuel Celler of New York even objected to indirect advertising, calling it "disguised" and "deceptive" advertising. Celler, speaking on the House floor, satirized indirect advertising: "This is BLAA station of the Giant Peanut Co., Newark, NJ. You will now have the pleasure of listening to the Walk-Up-One-Flight Clothing Company's orchestra. Their first number will be 'You Don't Wear Them Out If You Don't Sit Down'" (Congressional Record). Celler demanded that stations be required to identify advertising content in their programs, a provision that was ultimately included in the legislation (Bensman 2000, 185).

A. E. Davies, a representative of Philadelphia station WIP, operated by Gimbels department store, expressed the view that broadcast advertising could backfire on the advertiser. "A department store cannot take the chance at this time of antagonizing the public that comes to its counters to buy its merchandise," Davies said. "We had tried in a few small cases, as an experiment, to put across indirect advertising, with more or less disastrous results.... Advertising is one of the things that the public, in my estimation, does not want." But Davies cautiously added, "It may come" (1924, 60).

A letter Hoover received from Rhey T. Snodgrass (1922) of Snodgrass and Gayness Advertising held out the ultimately futile prospect that broadcast advertising could be kept mild and unobtrusive. Snodgrass advocated a "middle course" between direct advertising and a government ban on commercialism. He had recently broadcast a "story" promoting a client's products: "And yet my talk was so free from commercialism, so thoroughly 'ethical,' that it could not possibly be criticized. Hundreds of letters were received from private radio operators [listeners], commenting favorably and asking for more of this sort of entertainment."

But some listeners objected even to the subtle persuasion of indirect advertising. The author of a November 1922 article in Radio Broadcast complained that concerts were "seasoned here and there with a dash of advertising paprika." The writer correctly foresaw where it all would lead: "More of this sort of thing may be expected. And once the avalanche gets a good start, nothing short of an Act of Congress or a repetition of Noah's excitement will suffice to stop it" (Archer 1939, 64).

Crucially, Hoover--the fervent believer in associationalism--maintained that broadcasters could be trusted, ultimately, to do the "right thing," if only because the public would punish those who did not. On the issue of whether direct advertising should be permitted over the air, Hoover characteristically commented, "The problem of radio publicity should be solved by the industry itself, and not by government compulsion and legislation" (1926, 67).

By the end of 1924, Hoover seems to have accepted indirect advertising. In a letter to Congressman Wallace H. White, Jr. (coauthor of the Radio Act of 1927, which created the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), the predecessor of the FCC; see Barnouw 1966, 199), he wrote, "It has been found possible by indirect advertising to turn broadcasting to highly profitable use." Still, he distanced himself from outright, direct advertising. "If this were misused we would be confronted with the fact that service more advantageous to the listeners would be crowded out for advertising purposes" (1924d).

Finally, at Hoover's Fourth Radio Conference, a committee on advertising and publicity approved a resolution strongly opposing direct advertising: "The conference deprecates the use of radio broadcasting for direct sales effort, and any form of special pleading for the broadcaster or his products, which forms are entirely appropriate when printed or through direct advertising mediums" ("Committee No. 2" 1926).

But the committee, taking its cue from Hoover and his associationalism, ultimately left the issue up to the broadcasters themselves: "The conference concurs in the suggestion of the Secretary of Commerce that the problems of radio publicity should be solved by the industry itself, and not by Government compulsion or by legislation.... The conference urges upon all owners of radio broadcasting stations the importance of safeguarding their programs against the intrusion of that publicity which is objectionable to the listener" ("Committee No. 2" 1926). If a moment can be isolated when broadcast advertising was "officially," if reluctantly, accepted, this would be it.

Many years later, Hoover admitted misjudging what form indirect advertising eventually would take on radio and later television. He imagined it being similar to underwriting announcements on current-day public radio and television. "I had the foolish thought that if an advertiser at the opening of a broadcast announced that he was contributing this program to public interest, it would be realized that he was doing it for advertising purposes and he could then leave the subject until the end of the program," Hoover said. "Then perhaps he would mention in a simple statement what kind of business he had and what goods were for sale.... I often feel when I listen to present-day commercials that I will never buy that product" (1950, 9).

Secretary Hoover Becomes Chief Executive

Hoover's critics claim that, while he was secretary of commerce and while he was president, the federal government did not attempt to oversee or supervise any aspect of the unstable sectors of the economy during the 1920s and early 1930s (Best 1971; Hamilton 1991; Hoff Wilson 1975; Shlaes 2007; Walch 2003). However, historians have labeled the decade of the 1920s the "New Era" because it bridged the unbridled capitalism of the late nineteenth century and the regulatory policies of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal (Shlaes 2007, 34). Economist Jacob Metzer (1985, 122-26), noting that the size and spending of the federal government continued to rise during the mid-1920s and that nearly four-fifths of nonmilitary federal expenditures provided for the construction of new highways and schools. Metzer concluded that the Republican-led Congresses of the decade not only acknowledged but strengthened the connection between the federal government and the economy's infrastructure and that it was this pattern that laid the foundation for the continued spending increases of Hoover's presidential administration and Roosevelt's New Deal programs.

As president, Hoover continued to favor self-governance for broadcasting, as well as other industries. However, his warnings against monopoly extended beyond his view that government funding of broadcasting amounted to monopolistic control. In particular, Hoover sought to defend "the genius of the American boy," the amateur radio operator, against being crowded out by commercial broadcasting (Hoover 1922c; see also Barnouw 1966, 83).

The Justice Department under Hoover brought pressure against Sarnoff and RCA to accept an "open patent pool," requiring RCA to license its radio patents to other companies, considerably freeing the fledgling industry to competition. In 1931, the FRC, concerned about the appearance of monopoly, considered voiding the licenses of RCA-owned broadcasting stations, but voted 3-2 to allow RCA to retain the stations. Then, with the election of Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt seemingly imminent in 1932, RCA agreed to make its patents available to other companies (Barnouw 1966, 72; Hart 1998, 425-31). But the commercialization of radio continued unabated.

The FRC, created in 1927 while Hoover was still secretary of commerce but given permanent status as a federal agency under Hoover's presidency, consolidated the acceptance of commercialism. As previously noted, radio broadcasting started partly as an outlet for schools, churches, and public service groups, but now they complained that they were being squeezed out of radio broadcasting. Indeed, the FRC seemed to favor commercial radio. FRC member Orestes H. Caldwell held up commercial broadcasters as "models of excellence," who "sported the best service records, the most popular shows, and the most efficient equipment, and had faithfully adhered to the government's regulations." In the continuing attempt to reduce interference between stations, the FRC imposed regulations that tended to force noncommercial stations off the air (Rosen 1980, 139-40).

Conclusion: "The American System"

The degree to which one considers the commercial system of U.S. broadcasting to be satisfactory or unsatisfactory is largely a philosophical matter. Hoover can be praised for laying the foundation of a system that has served broadcasting and the public well for nearly 80 years or criticized for a lack of foresight, depending on one's point of view. As we have seen, Hoover himself was disenchanted with the commercialism that came to dominate broadcasting, and as an opponent of monopoly in broadcasting, he might well have been disappointed by the recent move toward consolidation of station ownership.

Hoover's primary influence over radio ended when Congress passed the Radio Act of 1927, but by then, the proverbial die had been cast. Commercialism was well on its way to acceptance. Ten years later, the commercialization of radio was so well entrenched that to challenge it would have been to challenge the very foundations of the nation. CBS president William S. Paley commented, "He who attacks the fundamentals of the American system [of broadcasting] attacks democracy itself" (1937, 6). In response to diehard opponents of commercialism, an FRC report mandated by Congress in 1932 strongly supported broadcast advertising, noting that, if the government limited radio sponsorship to simple announcements of support (as in indirect advertising or underwriting), advertisers might cut their use of radio and "such non-use would immediately and inevitably be reflected in a decrease both in quantity and quality of programs made available to the public" ("Commercial Radio Broadcasting" 1932).

When Hoover published his memoirs, he ruefully admitted that excessive commercialism had marred broadcasting:
 As I pointed out in my first statement in 1922, broadcasting, then
 just beginning its use of advertising, could go wild in this
 direction. It has often done so. The dignified presentation of the
 sponsor has too often been abandoned for hucksters' tattle,
 interlarded into the middle of programs and tiresomely continued at
 the end. (1952, 147) (1)

Already well into the era of television, Hoover feared a public revolt against the commercial "misuses of radio" that would result in much stricter governmental control of broadcasting (Hoover 1952, 147). What he, and many other early broadcasting pioneers, failed to foresee was the degree to which the public would become accustomed to even the most aggressive, intrusive advertising. The revolt that Hoover and others foresaw never came.

Hoover recognized early on the tendency of broadcasting to emphasize the trivial over the substantive. He had imagined broadcasting as a way to elevate the public discourse, but he was disillusioned. "It is very difficult for public men to get radio time," he complained. In 1950, he noted a movement to require each network to offer a half hour each night for public discussion without charge. "But that is not very satisfactory because someone has to choose who is going to use the half hour," he observed. He commented with interest that Australia was developing a "dual system," involving side-by-side commercial and government broadcasting systems (1950, 18).

Even when he wrote his memoirs, Hoover still instinctively saw the associative state as the answer to the problem. "They [the evils of commercialism] might be much reduced by resuming the annual [radio] conferences of the early twenties and by making an effort to develop codes of ethics to apply not only to stations, but to speakers," he said (1952, 147-48). But in this, Hoover held on to a cherished but essentially discredited belief. The National Association of Broadcasters had in place a "code of good practice" as early as 1929, half of which spoke to the excesses of advertising (Limberg 1998, 81). Not only this, but the radio conferences of broadcasters that Secretary Hoover convened in the 1920s--associationalism in action--had themselves failed to prevent the overcommercialization of broadcasting in the first place.

Still, if the commercial system of broadcasting we have inherited has its faults, it has clear advantages over systems that leave primary control in the hands of the government. Broadcast engineer C. M. Jansky, Jr. (1957, 247) gave Hoover credit for leading broadcasting away from a government-dominated system. "The choice was between a government monopoly with government-owned transmitting stations supported by license fees charged for the use of receiving sets, on the one hand, or a nongovernment system supported by other means with no government license requirements for the use of receiving sets on the other," Jansky wrote. "At this critical time, Herbert Hoover in no uncertain terms pointed the way toward the development of a broadcasting system which, while of necessity regulated by government, nevertheless is neither owned nor censored by government."

That is a strong argument on Hoover's behalf. However, in our view, Hoover appears less in command of events than Jansky would suggest. As early broadcasting historian Gleason Archer (1939, 32) observed, given the alternatives, "advertising was the only source of revenue upon which radio broadcasting could rely and still preserve its freedom."

The corporate powers RCA, Westinghouse, General Electric, and AT&T held most of the patents crucial to radio broadcasting and dominated the industry in the early years (Archer 1939, 6). In the American system of free enterprise, especially in the laissez-faire spirit of the 1920s, it indeed would have been surprising if some sort of for-profit system had not emerged. AT&T's and WEAF's experiment with toll advertising showed the way, and when RCA and Sarnoff(who, like others, at first viewed advertising with skepticism) launched NBC in 1926 and cautiously edged into commercialism (Smulyan 1994, 72-73), the question of whether to support radio through advertising soon became moot.

Hoover has been criticized for not moving to stop the emergence of the broadcast networks, although by the time NBC debuted in 1926, radio was well on the road to commercialism. Certainly, the networks led radio away from the purely local model of broadcasting and added impetus to the growing momentum of commercialism. But Hoover's concept of the public interest in broadcasting actually led him to cheer on the practice of "interconnection" as a way of improving the quality of programming to listeners across the country. In Hoover's view, this was the best way to bring the nation's best performers and greatest minds into the homes of millions of Americans. Commenting on a speech by President Coolidge that was broadcast over such an early interconnection of stations, Hoover said, "The great events in the United States occur only in one place at a time, and therefore if radio is to become a great source of serious distribution of public events, interconnection must be our first concern" (1924f).

In any case, Hoover's deep-seated belief that government should not interfere in programming content would have stopped him from opposing the networks, regardless of whether they promoted the growth of advertising. Hoover believed that the Department of Commerce had no control over the programming broadcast by each station. "I am inclined to think it would be very unfortunate if any such authority were placed in any Government Officer, as it might finally lead to a rather complete censorship," he said (1925a).

Modern observers may question Hoover's sincerity in opposing advertising. It is important to understand that it was an article of faith to many associated with radio in its infancy that advertising would be entirely unacceptable to listeners, and by opposing advertising, they thought they were acting in their own best interest. Hoover's thinking followed along those lines. His opposition to advertising was a matter of practicality as much as idealism. As Barnouw (1966, 99) has noted, many of the earliest stations were initially put on the air by newspapers, manufacturers, department stores, churches, and schools as a means of self-promotion, not as vehicles for advertising, much as many Web sites functioned in the Internet age 75 years later, before advertising took hold in the online medium. As shown earlier, even A. E. Davies, an official with Philadelphia station WIP, operated by Gimbels department store, expressed extreme wariness toward advertising on radio: "As a department store, we have ample opportunity of gathering in a great many sheckles through advertising on the radio if we felt it was the right thing to do.... But, gentlemen, I do not think it is the right thing to do, for the simple reason that I am afraid you would lose many good friends who come to your store to buy" (1922, 22).

Opponents of commercialism can legitimately criticize Hoover for not acting decisively on his opposition to advertising. "It seems to me we must leave this question to further experience," Hoover said diffidently (1924i). Characteristically, Hoover relied on associationalism to produce what he hoped would be a broadcasting system that emphasized public service and avoided outright commercialism, but, with an engineer's concern for mechanical operations, he focused most of his attention on eliminating the problem of stations routinely interfering with one another. As time went by, given the principal alternative of a government-funded system, Hoover's opposition to advertising weakened. As noted before, in a letter to Congressman White, he wrote approvingly that indirect advertising could be used "to turn broadcasting to highly profitable use" (1924d). To the last of the radio conferences in 1925, Hoover, while again warning that "advertising in the intrusive sense will dull the interest of the listener and will thus defeat the industry," gave a cautious go-ahead to broadcast advertising: "If we can distinguish on one hand between unobtrusive publicity that is accompanied by a direct service and engaging entertainment to the listener and obtrusive advertising on the other, we may find [a] solution" (1925b, 14). When the FRC was created in 1927, the authority to regulate broadcasting passed from the Commerce Department to the FRC, and out of Hoover's hands (McChesney 1991, 355-56).

Today, we take our fully formed commercial radio and television broadcasting system for granted. But during Hoover's term as secretary of commerce, broadcasting was in its infancy. The transition from radio as wireless telegraphy--of interest primarily to the military and amateurs--to broadcasting had just begun. The future, as always, was hazy. What is obvious to us now--that without government support or the largesse of major corporations, advertising would be necessary to pay the freight--was not immediately obvious to Hoover and the others who shaped broadcasting in its formative years. But it is also important to understand that this period of holding advertising at arm's length was very brief. Broadcasting as we know it began in 1920, Hoover became Secretary of Commerce in 1921, and the first of his radio conferences took place in 1922. By the end of 1924, Hoover seems to have warily accepted indirect advertising as the lesser of evils, and by the end of 1925, the last of the radio conferences gave cautious assent to Hoover's conclusion. In retrospect, it did not take very long for Hoover and others to come to the conclusion that advertising, though objectionable, was nevertheless acceptable.

Once relatively unobtrusive indirect advertising gained a foothold, and it became apparent that listeners would not revolt en masse (providing little incentive for broadcasters to reward Hoover's faith in the associative state), it was only a matter of time before all impediments to broadcast advertising would fall. "The American system" did not come about by design, but by default.


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(1.) Hoover was not alone in being appalled at the degree to which advertising took over broadcasting. Senator Clarence C. Dill, a Democrat from Washington State, and sponsor of the Radio Act of 1927, wrote, "None of us, forty years ago, could have any conception whatsoever of how the greed for profits would subvert our purpose to give the American people the use of the radio waves in the 'public interest,' simply by overcommercialization of programs" (Dill 1970, 120).


Texas A&M University--Commerce

John Mark Dempsey is Associate Professor of Radio-Television at Texas A&M University-Commerce and the author or editor of four books, including The Jack Ruby Trial Revisited and The Light Crust Doughboys are on the Air!

Eric Gruver teaches history at Texas A &M University-Commerce. He has presented numerous papers on Texas and Southern agriculture during the Great Depression.
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