The Freedom of the Air
With over five hundred stations, large and small, broadcasting daily programs of music, entertainment, and speech to a radio audience of probably 10,000,000 people in the United States, it is strange that the cry of monopoly should reverberate through the press in any discussion of the broadcasting problem. For there are no gateways in the air to bar the human voice. Mechanically and scientifically no power exists that can permanently block the airways of space. No development in the air, actual or projected, would justify the thought that the vast reaches of air could be confined to the range and power of any one system of broadcasting stations. The danger to free speech in the air comes from another source.
There are two fundamental schools of thought today with regard to the solution of the problem of radio broadcasting, neither of which infringes upon the freedom of the air. It is declared, on the one hand, that the solution of the problem calls for some method of payment on the part of the millions of receivers of radio programs. Broadcasting, they say, must be made to pay its own way in order to stabilize the radio industry. And it is true that the equipment and maintenance of a modern broadcasting station require an ever-increasing investment of capital and effort.
The other school of thought bases its approach to the problem on a different thesis. It is that radio has developed an industry, the success and growth of which are dependent upon an extraordinary service to the public. Without broadcasting, every receiving set in the country would be but a useless piece of mechanism. It is the duty of the industry, therefore, to supply at least the equipment and organization for such a service, and to provide an untrammeled forum in the air.
As the art progresses 1 believe that radio more and more will become the universal voice. It is the first method of communication discovered by man whereby millions of people can instantaneously and simultaneously be reached with the same thought, the same appeal, the same emotional impetus. Radio gives the human voice a limitless range. Its destiny is to bring light, education, and entertainment even to the remotest home in the country, by a method that no other system of communication has ever been able to equal.
The broadcasting station of the future, in my opinion, will be the bar at which great causes will be pleaded for the verdict of public opinion. It is vitally important, therefore, that the expressions of educators and statesmen should reach the vast radio audience uncensored and uncontrolled. So powerful an instrument of public good should and must be kept free from partisan manipulation. The same principles that apply to the freedom of the press should be made to apply to the freedom of the air. Public interest should be the sole test of admission to this illimitable forum. No political, racial, or color line should ever be drawn.
To tax the public for radio reception would be a reversion, in my belief, to the days of toll roads and bridges, to the days when schools were not free and libraries were not public.
The danger to freedom of speech by radio is not the danger that any one interest will ever be able to monopolize the air. The real danger is in censorship, in over-regulation. If the radio industry is to give to the public the greatest possible service, it must be encouraged, not harassed by government regulation; if the air is to be kept free for the public good, public opinion must determine the fitness or unfitness of those who seek to appear at its bar.