Radio Invades Journalism
This article originally appeared in the issue of June 12, 1935.
THANKS in part to the skill with which members of the American Newspaper Publishers' Association keep their right hands from knowing what their left hands do, the American people will get more news by radio in the future than heretofore. The news-strangulation program imposed upon broadcasters by the publishers fourteen months ago has just gone down the chute, largely because the publishers undermined their own restrictions.
The story of this somersault in the A. N. P. A. makes strange reading. To understand it, one has to go back two years to the time when radio stations were broadcasting as much news as they pleased, without benefit of the A. N. P. A. Indeed, newspaper-owned or affiliated radio stations were among the most enthusiastic broadcasters of news in those days. News broadcasts were popular and increasingly profitable. Advertisers were happy to pay thumping sums for the privilege of touting cigars or bathroom fixtures before, during, and after a program of swift-moving, vivid news stories. Sometimes they even withdrew their ads from the newspapers and allocated the major portion of their advertising budgets to radio news programs. And radio, of course, was happy to serve them. A news broadcast could be and generally was an inexpensive program. Get a raconteur with a good voice, a lively imagination, and a copy of the afternoon paper, and there was your program.
The publishers who owned radio stations (now more than one hundred) generally found news broadcasts as good business as did the other broadcasters. But the publishers who didn't own stations, or have connections with stations, got acute pains in the pocket-book nerve. They joined in violent protest. The upshot was a conference attended by publishers from the A. N. P. A., representatives of the three large news services--Associated Press, United Press, and International News Service--and representatives of the two large broadcasting systems, Columbia and NBC. The publisher representatives came to the conference armed with threats, which they brandished with great effectiveness at the broadcasters. First, they threatened to omit broadcasting programs from their columns except as paid advertising unless the broadcasters canceled their news programs. And then, just to harass the broadcasters a little more, they suggested that a Congressional investigation into the methods by which wave bands were allocated might have to be called for if news broadcasting didn't stop. Radio, already constrained to go to Washington every six months, hat in hand, for renewal of its license to operate, had no stomach for investigations. So radio, that is, the chains, surrendered.
Out of the conference emerged the news-strangling press-radio set-up which went into effect on March 1, 1934. Under that set-up Columbia and NBC agreed to abandon all their former news broadcasts (NBC had none at the time anyway), and in their stead send out two five-minute daily news broadcasts made up from the joint reports of the A. P., U. P., and I. N. S.; these agencies, it was understood, would no longer permit their news to be broadcast except through this official arrangement. Two press-radio bureaus were established, one on either coast, to make up these reports. To insure staleness, the time of the news broadcasts was set from five to eight hours after newspapers containing the same items were on the streets.
The most important provision of the agreement, however, the one which pinched publishers, press associations, and broadcasters unendurably, was that the press-radio programs could not, under any circumstances, be sold to advertisers. For despite the obvious economic stakes, the press-radio pact was touted as a great sacrificial gesture of public service, promulgated by those two old pals, the radio and the press; and of course under those circumstances the publishers had at least to act as though they were cooperating--even the publishers who owned radio stations.
But the pact was as bitter medicine for them as it was for the broadcasters who weren't publishers. For all the subscribing broadcasters it cost money to get the press-radio service, since they had to share the maintenance costs of the bureaus in addition to carrying their own transmission charges, and on this expenditure they could expect not one mill's return. Nor could they find any comfort in the news broadcasts sent out by the Press-Radio Bureau, for these were designed to discourage rather than stimulate public interest in news by air, and that purpose they certainly accomplished. As radio programs they were informative, but they were very dull.
What happened was inevitable. As soon as the press-radio pact became effective, radio news services, formed generally by ex-newspaper and radio men, and by at least one publisher, sprang up from coast to coast offering news programs which the stations could buy for sponsorship or not, as they pleased. And five hundred independent radio stations, not owned by or affiliated with the big chains, were in a position to take advantage of these services and ignore the pact entirely. Scores of them did so. Some stations went merrily on pirating their news from the local papers. Many subscribed to the new radio news services.
But the most astonishing reaction came from the radio-publishers. With other publishers they acquiesced in the press-radio pact as long as it looked as if it would drive their radio competitors out of the news-broadcasting field. (All, of course, in the public interest.) But when the pact didn't prove effective, twenty-seven of them went out and bought Transradio Press Service, the largest and best of the competitive new radio news services, for their broadcasting stations. They continued to pay lip service to the pressradio pact, and when the A. N. P. A. convened two months ago at the Waldorf in New York, these publishers voted to continue the Press-Radio Bureau for another year; but they also continued to buy and broadcast Transradio. They were thus competing with their own news-strangulation program, while the old press associations, the large broadcasting chains, and the publishers who still observed the press-radio pact held the bag.
It was the independently owned press associations which kicked over the traces. At the A. N. P. A. meeting in April the U. P. and I. N. S. acknowledged the great public service of the press-radio set-up, but they took official cognizance of the fact that a rival news service, Transradio, bade fair to preempt the radio news field as a result of their altruism. And they announced that "when and if it should become necessary [because of] competitive broadcasting of news" they might sell their news to broadcasters or advertisers for sponsorship, in controversion of the pact. One gathered that this fell development, however, was probably in the distant future, for they emphasized their opposition "in principle" to the "sale of news for radio sponsorship," and said that they would do it only under such restrictions as would "preserve the purity of the news."
The truth is, however, that even while their pious report was being presented to the A. N. P. A. convention, their representatives were in the field seeking radio clients for their services. The convention had scarcely closed when both associations announced that their news was for sale to broadcasters or advertisers, and both signed up several clients. The A. P., cooperatively owned by its 1,200 members, relaxed its restrictions at once to permit publishers who owned radio stations to make up their own broadcasts from A. P. reports--with credit. These latter broadcasts are still, as this is written, inviolate from advertiser sponsorship.
As the lid blew off the press-radio pact, several swift developments took place which must have bewildered a public that had been hearing for fourteen months that the pact was entirely for its interest and protection. Directors of the Pacific Coast Press-Radio Bureau decided that maybe the public could hear a little advertising with its news without being contaminated, and announced accordingly that three commercial "spots" would hereafter be permitted with each news broadcast. Newspaper-owned stations throughout the country bought the new radio news programs offered by the U. P. and I. N. S., and most of them sold these programs to advertisers at once. They too apparently felt that hearing a little advertising matter with radio news wouldn't hurt the public.
And finally, Transradio, the enfant terrible of the affair, swept the whole matter into the courts by charging that the press-radio pact was a "conspiracy in restraint of interstate commerce" and a violation of the Sherman Act, the Clayton Act, and the Federal Communications Act. With its usual audacity Transradio aimed this legal attack at everyone involved in the drawing up of the press-radio agreement--including the broadcasting chains, the press associations, the A. N. P. A., and approximately 1,400 publishers who are members of the latter association and of the A. P. The damages sought by Transradio amount to $1,170,000.
While the rival groups scramble for contracts, that useful shibboleth, the "public interest," has been mislaid. What has happened to the restrictions which the other press associations were going to impose on advertisers to maintain the "purity of the news"? I. N. S. has announced that it will not sell news to advertisers of laxatives and internal medicines, but this is a restriction which the Columbia Broadcasting System apparently considers necessary to preserve the purity" of any program, since it has recently proscribed all such advertising in the future. What of the United Press? It is impossible for it to contend that "competitive conditions" have made it necessary for it to waive its planned restriction, for Transradio, which has created most of the "competitive conditions," has fairly rigid restrictions on advertisers who buy its service. It permits only one 100-word commercial announcement with a five-minute news broadcast, stipulates that this announcement be clearly differentiated from the news, and provides that any attempt by an advertiser to delete or omit a news item to satisfy his prejudice will be considered grounds for immediate voidance of contract. At this distance it seems fairly obvious that the vaunted restrictions were for public consumption only, and that U. P. and I. N. S. are not likely to worry much about preserving the "purity of the news" until and unless they can force Transradio back into the corner.
Transradio, it must be admitted, has been a competitor to try the soul of the most righteous publisher. Backed in part by a publisher whose name has never been revealed, and directed by Herbert Moore, an ex-United Press man, it moved into the radio news field with intrepidity, impudence, and, to the publishers, an insupportable lack of front--all in fourteen months. It has never claimed that any part of its program was dictated by a devotion to public service. Its sponsors say they are in business to make money, and in order to do that they have to deliver news that is fresh, vividly written for radio presentation, and accurate to the last address. It claims that with its affiliate, Radio News Service, it now serves more than two hundred radio stations--more than Press-Radio--and that more than 10 per cent of its clients are the very publishers whose restrictive program gave it birth. Just before the publishers convened two months ago, it succeeded in selling its service to WLW in Cincinnati, the largest radio station in America, which had previously been broadcasting Press-Radio news. And just after the convention it added to its list of clients Station WSYR in Syracuse, New York, home of the newly elected president of the publishers' association. When the old-line press associations announced that they were back in the radio news business, Transradio stated that it was prepared to sell its service to newspapers, thus invading the press associations' home field. It now has two newspaper clients in addition to its radio clients.
Such brash impudence has, of course, sent the publishers and their spokesmen scurrying in search of noble sentiments on which to predicate their viewing-with-alarm. Roy Howard does his deploring on the ground that radio "does not have a century of journalism ethics behind it." Marlen Pew, the master rhetorician of Editor and Publisher, deprecates radio as a "medium comparable to corner gossip, subject to political licensing and manipulation, essentially commercial, and lacking the long tradition of public service that makes the newspaper's commercial side secondary.''
These comments bring sardonic smiles to the faces of the broadcasters. When men and institutions in this country rest their claim to dominance on tradition, one is reminded of the D. A. R. Herbert Moore, Transradio's sire and doubtless a somewhat irreverent commentator, has said: "It would be better for the press if it were fourteen months old as we are than a hundred years old. Its senility is too apparent. Our youth, our independence, and our fearlessness are our winning factors." Certainly the public grows ever wearier of publishers who espouse one practice "for the public good" and pursue an entirely different one for private gain.