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Inventing American Broadcasting: 1899-1922.

Inventing American Broadcasting, 1899-1922 Why is American broadcasting the way it is? In Susan J. Douglas's critical, functionalist view in Inventing American Broadcasting, broadcasting is an institution that, "by repeating and reinforcing certain values while ignoring or denigrating others, help[s] legitimate and perpetuate the established social order" (p. xviii). The model of radio broadcasting that emerged in the early 1920s and quickly became the standard is characterized by private corporations' disseminating over the nominally public electromagnetic spectrum entertainment programming built on and embodying the values of consumer capitalism. Douglas argues that the triumph of this model can be traced to the "pre-history" of radio, the usually neglected period between 1899 and 1922 when radio was still known as "wireless" and was conceived as a form of point-to-point telegraphic communication.

Employing a cultural history of technology approach, Douglas argues that radio is a "social construction." The development of radio did not depend simply on the invention of technical apparatuses or on the successful manufacture and marketing of them, though of course these are crucial. Just as important, the meaning and use of the technology had to be invented as well. And Douglas argues that these proceeded together. The institution we know as radio was the product of a complex interaction over time of three main players and factors: inventors and technologies, business organization and marketing strategies, and the perception and representation of radio in the popular press. Hence we learn, for example, that despite his scientific brilliance, Reginald Fessenden's inability to translate technical acumen into a viable business strategy led to the inventor's ultimate failure. Or that the American Marconi Company, achieving the preeminent position in early wireless by virtue of sound business strategy and organization (providing a cheaper substitute to undersea cables in point-to-point international telegraphic communication) and successful commandeering of the press through Guglielmo Marconi's cleverly staged wireless demonstration spectacles, lost in the end because the company had a week technical base.

The press's representation of radio intuitively does not seem as important a factor in the evolution of radio as do the inventors and technologies and the business organization and marketing strategies. But Douglas's presentation of the U.S. Navy's failure to control wireless after the First World War as an inability to control press discourse is persuasive. The navy, strongly desirous of a nationalized wireless system under military tutelage, failed to sway Congress in 1919 to continue the navy's wartime control, in large part because naval top brass could not control the public discourse over wireless. The navy ran up against the press's interest in protecting its own wireless-based news-gathering options and against an ideologically powerful "democratic" model of wireless posed by the legions of amateur wireless enthusiasts.

In the end, according to Douglas, corporate control triumphed because the corporations soon to become known as the "Radio Trust" possessed a carefully articulated bureaucratic structure that addressed the three areas of technology, business strategy, and the press. The rejection of military control of wireless meant that the technological and economic benefits of the successful centralization of the technology during the First World War devolved to the corporations brought in to facilitate the navy's designs. And public recognition of the seriousness of wireless for safety and national security purposes, stemming originally from the Titanic disaster and the subsequent 1912 Radio Act, meant that the communications corporations were able to cast themselves as appropriate caretakers of the spectrum resource.

The amateurs, who represented a very different model of communication, failed in the public arena in part because they evoked a fear of anarchy over the airwaves. The success of the amateurs in framing the discourse on the nature of the airwaves as a matter of democracy vs. government monopoly helped prevent military control of wireless. Yet, this very success contributed to the corporate control of wireless. One of the more interesting arguments of the book is that the Radio Trust essentially coopted the amateur vision of how radio should be used.

Inventing American Broadcasting is a successful, at times elegant, interdisciplinary work. Douglas combines discussions of technology and of business structure, portraits of inventors and amateurs, and analysis of internal navy organization to contruct a convincing narrative on the importance of the "pre-history" of radio. She draws from an impressive range of contemporary newspapers and technical magazines, government and business reports, and personal correspondence. This is a significant contribution to the nderstanding of early American radio.

Still, I find a somewhat jarring disjuncture between the historically specific work and the more pointed, grander, often functionalist conclusions posed in the introductory and concluding chapters. For example, not enough is presented about actual early radio programming or corporate strategies to support the otherwise plausible claim that the Radio Trust ". . . [tried] to promote cultural homogeneity, to mute or screen out diversity and idiosyncracy, and to advance values consonant with consumer capitalism" (p. 320). In the final analysis, the cultural dimension of the argument is weak. If the book succeeds in explaining how the structure of radio evolved up to the radio bloom of 1922, Douglas's explanation of the boom--and, hence, of the otherwise surprising, sudden, and widespread success of a new use of wireless, the use that establishes radio quo radio--is disappointing. Douglas offers some tantalizing tidbits exploring broadcasting as a peculiarly middleclass leisure pursuit, which she links directly to the practices and culture of the amateurs. She argues that the amateurs and their converts had, in essence, constructed the beginnings of a broadcasting network and audience, and that the radio corporations had to reorient their thinking to this circumstance. But Douglas offers no sustained argument and presents no substantial evidence on this score, and hence the reasons for the radio boom ultimately remain mysterious. In this respect, Raymond William's extraordinary scanty, but fascinating, suggestions in Television: Technology and Cultural Form (1974) that the sudden rise of radio broadcasting should be seen in the context of the dissolution of older kinds of settlement and social control, in which the new use of broadcasting served an at once mobile and home-centered way of living, still seem more salient.

Robert B. Horwitz is associate professor of communication at the University of California, San Diego. He is the author of The Irony of Regulatory Reform: The Deregulation of American Telecommunications (1989).
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Author:Horwitz, Robert B.
Publication:Business History Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1990
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