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Deihl, E. Roderick, “South
of the Border: The NBC and CBS Radio Networks and the Latin American Venture,
1930-1942,” Communication Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 4 (Fall 1977), p.
Deihl offers readers a brief overview of the development of the NBC and CBS shortwave networks directed to Latin America and their use as political instruments. Based largely on congressional hearings and newspaper accounts, the article argues that the shortwave efforts were mutually beneficial to the networks and the nation as a whole. The government received at least the beginnings of a shortwave system for wartime use and the radio networks gained valuable experience programming for foreign markets, which Deilh believes gave American media producers a giant advantage in the postwar world and serves to at least partially explain the supremacy of American programming in Latin America. Commercial shortwave, in this light, is a case study in the development of American media imperialism that pre-dates the widely accepted onset of American supremacy in the postwar era.
One strength of the article is its analysis of the effort in Congress to establish a government shortwave transmitter in the late 1930s and the fight of the commercial broadcasters to oppose such legislation. Deihl cites material from the hearings and newspaper accounts of the controversy, though his account seems to minimize the differences between the commercial broadcasters and supporters of a government station and the larger debate over regulation and oversight of the industry. Deihl also underestimates the intentions of the private broadcasters in relation to their motives. NBC certainly believed that international shortwave could be lucrative and expected originally to realize a profit. While public service played into the effort, most notably in the networks’ rhetoric, it is wrong to assume that it was not a business decision.
Douglas, Susan J. Inventing American
Broadcasting 1899-1922. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1987.
Douglas has prepared a thorough, yet easily read, account of the development of radio in the United States in the first two decades of the twentieth century. The book covers technology, political developments, commercial initiatives, navy policies, and listening practices during these years. As Douglas explains, much of the early development of radio came from the efforts of amateur inventers and hobbyists rather than the labs of General Electric or Westinghouse. The story of how these disparate inventors struggled to find a viable commercial use for radio, and how RCA and other major electronics companies eventually subsumed most of them is told here cleverly. The US Navy also, after initial doubts as to the value of the new technology, became a major player in radio development and the formation of a domestic radio industry. Additionally, Douglas examines the treatment of the emerging technology in the popular press of the day, arguing that the press boosted radio development and the spread of the new medium through its favorable coverage. The story of radio’s adoption by the US Navy in the 1910s and the postwar establishment of RCA as a radio monopoly have been told in other older books. Yet, Douglas reexamines many of the older arguments and provides a useful synthesis and highly readable account. Also fresh to this text is a discussion of the social context in which Americans began listening to radio. In spite of the fact that behind the scenes radio was increasingly dominated by military and corporate decision making, the American public benefited greatly from technological and programming developments and took to radio like no medium before. Radio became the very symbol of progress in the interwar years.
Fejes, Fred, Imperialism, Media, and the Good
Neighbor: New Deal Foreign Policy and United States Shortwave Broadcasting to
Latin America. Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1986.
This is by far the most comprehensive treatment of the history of American shortwave radio broadcasting to Latin America. Based on extensive research in archival collections, government reports, and trade and popular press articles, Imperialism, Media, and the Good Neighbor offers a wealth of detail on these operations and the historical context surrounding them. Fejes outlines in great depth the development of shortwave technology, the initial forays into international broadcasting, attempts to garner advertising support, the role of shortwave in “public service,” negotiations between the radio networks and the government, and the actual programming of the shortwave frequencies. Fejes argues that international shortwave must be seen in the context of the New Deal. It served as a tool in the Roosevelt administration’s good neighbor policy, which Fejes sees as a policy of imperialism, cultural and economic if not military. Furthermore, Fejes sees the disagreement between corporate radio interests and the federal government less important than the cooperation between these two groups. Radio policy represents another example of the New Deal serving the interests of big business rather than the public, or radio listeners for that matter.
The strength of this book lies in its extensive research and the amazing level of detail about the development of shortwave broadcasting. Fejes offers the reader more than ample evidence to support his claims about the operation and programming of the system and the attitudes expressed by those on both sides of the debate over the role of the government in the effort. This included analysis of each of the network’s attempts to establish a shortwave service and the different factors that motivated them. Also useful here is the material from government archives that outlines the role played in this development by technical advice and other types of assistance by the federal government. Fejes’s section on the takeover implies a tacit agreement that if the government takes over shortwave, it will not hassle the networks any more than necessary in their domestic operations. International broadcasting during the war was a cooperative effort.
One drawback of the book is its lack of analysis of effects. Fejes ties the book to a larger argument that shortwave radio played a big part in helping the United States achieve a dominant position in Latin American media and culture. However, evidence is slim that Latin American listened, or if they did they were swayed in their opinions about the United States. This applies to both the prewar and wartime periods. Schulman in fact argues that radio propagandists themselves came to believe by the end of the war that shortwave was not a very effective tool. In any case, it is clear that some Latin Americans listened to US shortwave and, maybe more importantly, many local stations in the region formed partnerships with American media outlets that likely did affect the Latin American radio market in the postwar years.
Rosen, Philip T., The Modern Stentors: Radio Broadcasters and the Federal Government, 1920-1934. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Philip Rosen’s 1980 history of the battle over regulation of radio by the federal government during the first third of the twentieth century was one of the first books to make wide-ranging use of government documents and archival materials to outline the developments that ultimately led to the passage of the Communications Act of 1934. Based on records in nearly two dozen manuscript collections, including the papers of President Hoover, numerous government agencies, and many of the principle participants in the debate over radio regulation, The Modern Stentors provides an excellent overview of the issues and relationships that allowed the “American System” of commercial broadcasting to develop. Rosen’s central argument is that there was nothing inevitable about the eventual domination of the airwaves by commercial broadcasters operating nationwide network systems under a set of industry-friendly regulations and obligations. Non-commercial broadcasters, including religious, educational, military, and other groups interested in the potential of radio, were less successful than their rivals in influencing radio policy at crucial junctures in the debate, and ultimately were left on the margins.
Hoover, the “honest broker,” is the central character in Rosen’s narrative. As Secretary of Commerce under Harding and Coolidge, Hoover fought a bureaucratic struggle to wrest control of radio policy from the Navy and bring it under Commerce Department jurisdiction, with a focus on commercial development. Seeking to end the chaos developing under an unregulated broadcasting arena, Hoover worked to establish order, demanding adherence to frequency allotment and generally giving preference to broadcasters with more reliable and powerful transmitters. By the time he reached the White House, Hoover had tilted the playing field to heavily favor those intending to use radio for commercial network broadcasting, a reflection of his overall philosophy of using the power of government to encourage commercial development and economic growth for industry leaders. Though adopted under FDR, the 1934 legislation and the FCC created to implement it were based almost entirely on Hoover-era attitudes.
The book is a valuable source of information on the opposing sides in the debate over the future of radio between 1920 and 1934. Rosen outlines the arguments made by advocates of government control and the non-commercial broadcasters as well as documenting the negotiations and compromises behind the eventual system established under the 1934 legislation. Scholars writing more recently have argued more forcefully that the “American System” as negotiated by Hoover, the broadcasting executives, and the radio manufacturers represented an unfortunate marginalization of important alternatives to what has developed into an entertainment-driven, advertising saturated medium; Rosen instead tends to believe that the 1934 legislation was a “consensus” that led to a largely beneficial triumph of order over chaos. In any case, the book remains as valuable source of insight into the politics of radio regulation and “what might have been.”
Rowland, Donald W., History of the Office of the
Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs.
Historical Reports on War Administration. Washington DC: United States Government Printing Office,
This volume is the official history of the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs, headed by Nelson Rockefeller, commissioned by the US government and completed in 1947 as a documentary record of the wartime administration. The OCCIA, created in August 1940, was responsible for creating and maintaining constructive relationships between the United States and the Latin American Republics and oversaw, among a wide variety of other activities, all shortwave radio operations directed within the western hemisphere (the Office of War Information programmed shortwave radio for European and Asian broadcast). Rowland’s history provides only ten pages on shortwave, but offers a useful overview of American wartime radio propaganda. The text underplays the notion of a “takeover” by the government, focusing instead the agency’s “leasing” of the NBC and CBS facilities and the use of many of the same announcers and call signs. On the other hand, the text displays some annoyance at the condition of international broadcasting in 1940 and clearly describes the involvement of the OCCIA as a major improvement in efficiency and effectiveness.
Rowland’s text is based on agency records that were not widely available to scholars for some time after the war. Even today, many of the sources cited here (and included in the appendix) have not been published in other works on the topic, making this book valuable for researchers. Other strengths include its discussion of American news operations in the region, film propaganda, cultural exchange programs, and US efforts to provide food, medical care, and roads in the region. In spite of this, the book is limited by its lack of critical analysis of the agency’s operation. Rowland constructed this as a narrative of triumph, but did little to provide evidence of actual effects that resulted from wartime shortwave for example. The book also provides little background information on the operations of the commercial networks before the war or the political context in which they emerged.
Salwen, Michael B., “Broadcasting to Latin America:
Reconciling Industry-Government Functions in the Pre-Voice of America Era,” Historical
Journal of Film, Radio and Television, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1997, p. 67-89.
Salwen’s recent article is the most up-to-date scholarship on the topic of shortwave radio broadcast to Latin America in the 1930s and 1940s. The focus of this article is the relationship between the federal government and the commercial broadcasters who developed shortwave networks in the 1930s. Salwen explores the growing fear during this period of propaganda by radio, noting that the United States was the only major world power that did not have a state-controlled shortwave system to broadcast its messages to the world. Instead, the nation relied on several private broadcasters who attempted to develop advertising-supported programming for the Latin American market while at the same time providing the “voice of America” in the region. Salwen outlines the contours of the congressional debate in the late 1930s to establish a government owned station and the efforts on the part of NBC, CBS, and the other commercial networks to defeat these bills.
Salwen also provides a useful overview of the commercial shortwave networks as they operated before the onset of World War II. Using broadcasting trade press and newspaper article, he describes some of the programming and the public relations statements of network officials, as well as examples of disputes between the broadcasters and government officials who attempted to pressure them on programming decisions. Also useful are Salwen’s comments, based on records at the National Archives, on the OCCIA takeover of international shortwave and the establishment of “Voice of America” style broadcasts during the war. Salwen argues that the belief that commercial radio could serve as the nation’s mouthpiece in time of crisis was a “façade” and that the United States government takeover was in line with democratic principles.
Schulman, Holly Cowan. The Voice of America:
Propaganda and Democracy, 1941-1945. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
Schulman’s book is the most accessible account of American radio propaganda in World War II. She provides a good overview of the rising fear of propaganda in the 1930s, the debate in the United States over whether the nation should engage in propaganda or not, and the seemingly continual arguments over what course American propaganda should take. According to Schulman, officials at OWI felt that they could influence foreign policy. Few wartime agencies suffered more conflict and engendered more negative public opinion. Another interesting argument is that the propagandists themselves, over the course of the war, became disillusioned with the power of radio to influence public opinion. Radio had been seen as frighteningly powerful in the prewar years; after years of bloody conflict and the dawn of the atomic age, mere words were no longer seen as effective agents of power. Schulman examines the political culture of the OWI and other agencies that worked in radio during the war. She also describes the variety of messages that were conceived and directed to radio audiences around the world. Propaganda, to Schulman, is the manipulation of symbols that provide political or cultural meaning.
The book is based on extensive research in the relevant agency collections at the National Archives and in numerous personal manuscript collections of participants in the Voice of America program, including the author’s father Lou Cowan of the OWI. The book focuses almost entirely on the VOA’s activities in the European theater, and does not directly address relations with the Office of the Coordinator of Inter-American Affairs that programmed American propaganda to Latin America. Still, the book is an excellent examination of American attitudes about propaganda and the major differences of opinion that arose within the administration about the very purpose of radio and public information programs.
Schwoch, James, The American Radio Industry and Its
Latin American Activities, 1900-1939. Urbana: University of Illinois Press,
Schwoch discusses two large areas of research in this text. First, he examines how the United States government, working hand in hand with its domestic radio companies, negotiated agreements over radio frequency allocations and import/export rules for radio technology and equipment during the first half of the twentieth century. Employing government records from the Commerce Department, the Hoover presidential papers, NBC’s corporate records, and a variety of other archival sources, Schwoch documents a series of international conferences on radio policy in which the United States participated. According to this discussion, the American government was able to negotiate very favorable agreements, serving the interests of American radio companies (both in terms of set and transmitter production and programming content). This period, according to Schwoch, proved paved the way for American domination of the hemispheric radio system and media imperialism.
The second part of the book is an extended analysis of media imperialism itself and its relationship to international capitalism and United States economic and cultural policies. Schwoch argues that radio (and other media) is an agent of influence in international relations and can be a tool of national policy; radio was “a key element in the rise of the powerful American nation state.” Additionally, the spread of American style radio policy in Latin America is but one example of a larger spread of American style capitalism in the region. Schwoch makes a powerful argument for strong influence and American domination, both on a surface level and a deep structural level. The book balances historical analysis with theory in a highly readable and instructive way. Research on the failure of commercial American shortwave in the years right before World War II seems to demonstrate that US domination of the Latin American media landscape was not, as Schwoch would have it, complete in the prewar period. However, his central point that the roots of American cultural dominance (and imperialism) lie in the prewar period and were the result of active policy and planning by the public and private sector remain valid and important.
Sweeney, Michael S., Secrets of Victory: The Office of Censorship and the American Press and Radio in World War II. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000.
This text is the only recent
academic monograph to examine the Office of Censorship and its activities
enforcing “voluntary” censorship of American radio and newspapers during
World War Two. Sweeney outlines
what he sees as an enormously successful program to enlist the support of the
nation’s journalists to censor themselves.
The Office of Censorship, staffed by journalists rather than government
bureaucrats, devised a set of guidelines, distributed them to newsrooms across
the nation, and coached reporters and editors on their use.
The guidelines were drafted to allow the greatest possible freedom to
report important events and prevent unnecessary interference by the government
or military. The guidebooks were
popular and, more importantly, journalists obeyed them.
According to the book, all but one violation resulted from unfamiliarity
with the code rather than purposeful flouting of the regulations.
The heart of this success,
according to Sweeney, was the realization among the nation’s journalists that
obeying censorship policies ultimately served their best interests. The short
term gain realized from reporting a hot story would be lost through negative
public opinion and lack of access to future events. When every newspaper followed the rules, nobody had an
advantage. Journalists also
recognized, with occasional grumbles, that the guidelines were a better
alternative than direct censorship by the government.
Roosevelt and the administration also came to see voluntary censorship as
a fruitful policy. Sweeney’s
discussion of the prewar debate over censorship policy and FDR’s distrust of
newspaper publishers is valuable.
The book is well researched and
clearly written. Sweeney based his
argument chiefly on the records of the Office of Censorship in the National
Archives, material in the Roosevelt Library, and the papers of Byron Price,
director of the OC, and a wide variety of contemporary observations from the
popular and journalism trade presses. It
takes much of its shape and tone from Price’s own wartime observations,
detailed in his notebooks available in his manuscript collection at the
Wisconsin State Historical Society. Sweeney
documents some of the greatest challenges to the code, including the suppression
of stories on atomic energy, radar, the Japanese balloon bombs, and the
accidental release of military information through published letters from
servicemen. The OC fought a
never-ending battle to prevent small town newspapers from publishing the
overseas location of hometown boys or hyping the production capacity of the
local munitions plant. While it is
a stretch to imagine the enemy reading small town weekly papers from the
American heartland, the Office of Censorship maintained a “better safe than
Perhaps the greatest weakness of this book is its uncritical perspective. Sweeney paints Price and the OC in a heroic light, possibly absorbing too much of the tone of Price’s notebooks that I have examined at the State Historical Society of Wisconsin Archives. He fails to examine the degree to which wartime patriotism and national unity shaped press coverage. He also neglects to determine how “voluntary” this code really was, since it was backed, at least in theory, with an espionage law and other less dramatic, but no less compelling, means of maintaining national unity. Newspapers outside of the political mainstream were watched carefully during the war and unpopular speakers had difficulty finding time on radio networks. As George Roeder has noted in The Censored War, censorship was occasionally used to cover up embarrassing mistakes, unpleasant racial strife, waste and mismanagement, and, perhaps, sugar coat the realities of modern warfare. Still, the story of American censorship during World War Two is largely a success story. The code permitted a great deal of leeway for honest criticism of policy decisions, allowed reporters to cover the war in great detail, and earned the respect of most all of the journalists who were subject to its provisions.
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