February 1939 Radio-Craft
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics.
See articles from Radio-Craft,
published 1929 - 1953. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
Dr. Lee de Forest might have
had something like National
Public Radio (est. 1970) in mind when he penned this article in 1933. In it,
the famous vacuum tube amplifier inventor lamented and criticized the commercialization
of broadcasts because of all the paid product announcements (aka commercials) that
had been steadily increasing over the years. He also was critical of the "hit-or-miss,
higgeldy-piggeldy mélange program basis" of programing; i.e., the same station playing
a mix of jazz, opera, swing, syndicated story-telling, etc. The good doctor did
not elaborate on where funding for such dedicated, uncorrupted broadcasts would
originate if not from paying advertisers, and I do not recall ever reading about
a de Forest Radio Network paid for by his vast fortune. I don't like commercials
any more than the next person, but a company deserves time to pitch its products
and/or services if it helps deliver a source of entertainment to you that you evidently
desire to have.
FYI, the National Educational Radio Network (NERN) preceded NPR, having run from 1961 through 1970. Before
that, the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) ran from 1925 through 1973.
Broadcasting - As I Imagined It ...
Lee de Forest
On his 65th birthday, the inventor of the vacuum tube which made modern radio
possible, looks back down the years and comments: "I seldom tune in ... The programs,
all swing and croon, are not only poor, but the interruptions for commercial announcements
are maddening ... Isn't it sickening? It isn't at all as I imagined it would be."
(Quotation is from Time magazine.)
This article is special to Radio-Craft
Dr. Lee de Forest as he appeared in 1907 with his first wireless
(radio) telephone. Broadcasting - as America knows it today - may be said to have
had its birth early in that year when Mr. de Forest constructed the first means
of modulating an arc transmitter with voice impulses and began sound broadcasting
from atop the 12·story Terminal Building in NYC.
In season and out, from the early days of commercial broadcasting, I have seldom
missed an opportunity to criticize the quality of the average radio program and
to inveigh against the crudities, lack of showmanship, and plain bad manners of
the majority of the commercial advertisers or their program directors.
In 1930, when, I was President of the Institute of Radio Engineers, my Inaugural
and Farewell Addresses were devoted in large part to this aspect of radio which,
on account of its extreme public interest, has received unfortunately all too little
attention from the radio engineering profession. Like most engineers, we assume
that if we perform our technical duties to the best of our ability we have fully
discharged our public and civic obligations, a narrow minded and selfish attitude
which is not particularly creditable to the noble profession of Engineering.
In some of my early interviews or articles on the subject of radio programs I
outlined what appeared to me a happy solution, while fully realizing that in the
United States there is at present no possibility of introducing such a reformation.
Briefly the idea is as follows: In every metropolitan district a certain station
should be devoted to a definite type of program. For example, one to a higher class
of music - symphonic and opera; another station to more popular types of music,
with certain definite hours devoted to dance programs; another station to drama,
serials and the like; one station devoted wholly to crime suppression stories, bedtime
thrillers, and miscellaneous hysteria; another to educational themes of popular
interest and adapted to popular presentation. This latter station could appropriately
be the news outlet for the district, with news bulletins every two hours or so.
This station might appropriately be devoted to political harangue, during the open
season for candidates. Another station (and this would undoubtedly be the most popular
of all) devoted wholly to crooners, jazzers, swingers, and jitter bugs. And finally,
one station devoted wholly, 100 per cent, to undisguised, unadulterated advertisements!
I do not believe that very short sponsoring announcements introduced every half-
or quarter-hour into any of these programs would be seriously objectionable provided
these under no conditions exceeded 30 or 45 seconds in length.
Dr. Lee de Forest (right), inventor of the vacuum tube, as he
is today. He is shown with Mr. McMurdo Silver in Chicago (attending the Braddock·Louis
fight) where the degree of Doctor of Engineering was conferred upon him by the Lewis
Institute. Mr. de Forest is 3 times a "Doctor." holding the degrees of Ph.D. and
D.Sc., previously. He was born in Council Bluffs, Iowa, August 26, 1873.
Picture what a relief to the radio listener's nerves such an arrangement as I
have above outlined would afford. If any listener wished to hear a certain class
of entertainment at practically any time he would know exactly where to dial to
obtain it, and he would be certain of obtaining that kind of entertainment from
that station so long as he cared to listen. He would not, as at present, having
after considerable patience found a pleasing program, seat himself to enjoy same
only to have to get up at the end of 15 minutes at most to twirl his dial to find
relief from the altogether different material to which the original station had
unceremoniously switched. After one does this several times and is more or less
maddened by the blatant commercial plugs which he is forced to listen to, he turns
off the "relief" switch in disgust, and that is the end of his radio for the evening.
Undoubtedly he thereby misses a lot of good entertainment which he would have been
delighted to hear had he been freed from the infernal necessity of repeated explorations
of the dial to find same.
When one goes to a theater he knows in advance exactly what he is going to see,
or to a concert or public address, to hear. If he elects to go to a Catholic church
he is quite sure that he will not hear a sermon on Baptism, nor find himself in
a congregation of vociferous Holy Rollers. Why then should radio be run on the present
hit-or-miss, higgeldy-piggeldy mélange program basis? Montage is frequently very
thrilling and effective in a motion picture, but it does not follow that the present
audible montage of American radio broadcast is either thrilling or pleasing.
As stated above, I do not believe that such an arrangement as I have outlined
could he put into effect in these United States without Congressional legislation,
accompanied probably by Government subsidy. Such is conceivable however, and I daresay
that there are at least a million radio listeners in the United States who would
prefer to be reasonably taxed for their radio entertainment provided this was consistent
and predictable, rather than to endure the present situation.
I believe that such a situation would result in a great increase in listening
hours throughout the United States; to the everlasting benefit of the average American
nerves, peace of mind, contented home life - and the radio industry.
But I may be wrong.
Posted December 9, 2020
(updated from original post on 12/5/2015)