Radio Days and the FCC: Breaking up Broadcast Monopoly

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Radio Days begins in the fall of 1938- the Federal Communications Commission is holding hearings on what to do about the perceived monopoly power that the major radio networks – NBC and CBS – exercise over their affiliated stations. Infused by New Deal ideals, some members of the Commission want to fundamentally reshape and democratize the radio industry, but others are wary of further regulation from Washington. Many stakeholders will testify at the hearing: NBC and CBS executives; representatives of regional networks who have a love-hate relationship with the big networks; progressives who seek a variety of reforms, including mandated airtime for educational programming and an easing of work rules that give the networks power over where radio actors and musicians can work. Students take on roles of FCC commissioners, radio network executives, independent business people, representatives of public interest groups, journalists who cover the hearings, and President Roosevelt, who is an observer at the hearings but plays a behind the scenes role. Game sessions involve witnesses taking testimony on a series of six questions before the Commission. Debate proceeds from the least to most consequential question, culminating with a final, decisive vote on all the six issues during the final hearing session. Students wrestle with profound questions that have long animated American politics and government: what is the proper role of the federal government in economic and social life? How much regulation does the free market need to function fairly and efficiently? What role should the government play in promoting the public interest?

About the Authors:

Dr. James R. Schiffman (james.schiffman@gcsu.edu) is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at Georgia College & State University, the state’s designated public liberal arts university. Dr. Schiffman teaches courses in journalism, media history and media analysis. Prior to joining the faculty at Georgia College, Dr. Schiffman worked as a journalist, beginning as a reporter for United Press International and later joining The Asian Wall Street Journal and working as a reporter in Hong Kong, Seoul, and Beijing. He returned to the United States with The Wall Street Journal in Atlanta, and subsequently joined CNN, where he worked mostly for CNN International, closing his career there as chief copy editor.