It is 1923, hot on the heels of the Progressive era and World War I.  Radio Broadcast magazine confidently opines that the advent of radio as a popular medium “is destined, economically and politically, to bind us together more firmly.”  It might even produce “to some extent at least, unification of the religious ideas of the different creeds and cliques.”

Come forward to 2002 and scan the local radio dial—AM and FM.  A survey of the average metropolitan area will yield broadcasts in Spanish, Korean, and Russian; gardening shows; sports talk shows; Gregorian chants; country and new country; classical music; National Public Radio; soft rock, hard rock, jazz, blues, oldies, classic rock, and Christian rock; fundamentalist preachers railing against all rock music as a tool of the Devil; evangelical answer men telling listeners that they can’t lose their salvation; Jewish geologists admonishing callers to sober up and take responsibility for their pitiful lives; call-in sex-advice shows; and outraged Republicans and libertarians whipping their listeners into a froth over Democrats, moral outrages, and Big Brother.

Rather than unity, homogeneity, and equality, radio has fostered a different set of impulses: the drives to specialize, separate, and splinter.  In times of crisis, radio can disseminate needed information and direct resources, but normally it allows for an increasingly eclectic people to accommodate their varied tastes and beliefs.

Reason magazine editor Jesse Walker (full disclosure: I briefly worked with him when he was editing the Citings section) is an idealist, albeit of a left-libertarian bent.  Throughout Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, Walker surveys the current state of radio and finds it wanting.  For all the variety, he explains, certain policies have “decimated the radio dial”: “Most radio today is boring and homogenous, chains of clones controlled by an ever-dwindling handful of focus-group-driven corporations.”

In the hands of a less competent writer, the anti-corporate streak might begin to grate.  Like the poor, corporations we will always have with us.  If big business has given us the wide variety of choices described above, then where is the harm?  The book veers from descending into a tortured anti-corporate polemic because Walker is not merely an idealist; he is also a good reporter and historian.

The narrative parts of Rebel on the Air are not a formal history of the discovery of radio but of what people did with that discovery.  In the early 20th century, “the amateur operators . . . took the new technology in hand and, armed with cheap crystal detectors, formed a new community in the ether.”  These “hams”—predominantly teenage or preteen boys with a technical itch—set up in barns, homes, and odd locations and used scraps to extend the reach of their signals.  Geek contacted geek and, human nature being what it is, began to network.  They traded technical tips and gossipy news, established rough protocols, and created a new cliché: the virtual community.

It was a cohort with teeth.  Though many of the participants did not have their full set of adult molars, Walker credits the lobbying efforts of the hams for the defeat of Sen. Chauncey Depew’s Wireless Bill of 1910, an attempt to seize control of the burgeoning airwaves.  In the same year, if commercial operators wanted to use a particular part of the then-limited spectrum, it was necessary to request that the local amateurs refrain for a bit.  If the request was not polite, “often the reply would be, ‘Who the hell are you?’ or ‘I’ve as much right to the air as you have.’”  The hams’ rivalry with the Navy was legendary, with the two competing to find and relay rescue messages—and the hams often won.

Then came World War I and the total and dictatorial nationalization of the airwaves.  However, the Navy quickly learned what commercial operations were beginning to discover as well: The only way it could maintain radio communications was by hiring the previously hated hams en masse.  This guaranteed the survival of the hams after the war, even in the increasingly regulated radio environment.

During and after World War I, Congress passed restrictions, mostly to find them ignored.  Hams were theoretically required to be licensed, but the requirement was often conveniently forgotten, and the Department of Commerce could not afford to enforce it.  The military, realizing that it could not have functioned without the goodwill of these amateurs, harrumphed a bit and relaxed its position that every last bit of spectrum should be controlled by the government.

Because of this relaxation, the postwar years saw a boom in radio.  Interactive radio was curbed, but the regulations of the 1920’s were light enough that anybody could set up a formal radio station and play (or say) whatever he wanted.  Most hams decided that they could make a bigger dent by starting their own radio stations or trading on their technical know-how for others.

The resulting proliferation rubbed some large players, such as RCA, the wrong way, since it undercut their bottom lines; they lobbied the government to curb the number of stations.  Enter Herbert Hoover: Rather than let private individuals and the courts decide how to allocate the ether, the future president first created a crisis by abolishing, in effect, any legal claims to broadcast rights.  The remedy for this “crisis” was the Federal Radio Commission—forerunner to the FCC—in 1927.

Thus, in Jesse Walker’s anti-corporate parlance, Big Radio jumped into bed with the U.S. government to try to edge out small competitors and reinforce market positions—an arrangement that, as Walker makes amply clear, persists to this day.  The FCC, which is nothing more than the lengthened shadow of Herbert Hoover, continues to treat the airwaves like its very own box of toys.  As a result, the price of getting into radio has become both prohibitive and stifling: By the 1990’s, a single company was allowed to own most of the stations in a given locality.  Many of the unlicensed broadcasters—“pirates” in FCC-speak—are shut down not because they are interfering with other stations’ signals, but because they threaten the bottom lines of Big Radio.

All of this leads Walker to decry the unholy alliance between Big Radio and Big Government, which he claims is ruining radio today, and call for the FCC to be abolished.  Only then, he says, will radio realize its potential.  He may have a point.  Still, is modern radio really all that bad?  As my slapdash list above is meant to indicate, radio is packed with such a wide variety of choices that any ham transported from the 1920’s would be struck dumb with amazement.  Put another way: How did a group of thoughtless, heartless corporations manage to produce something so diverse?

The answer is concealed in the book’s title.  In each generation, rebels find new ways—legal or otherwise—of reinventing the wheel, doing new and interesting things with radio that haven’t been done before.  Corporate radio stations, eager to make a buck, steal the idea even as they seek to kill the messenger.  That may drive the idealists wild, but it does get the job done.


[Rebel on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America, by Jesse Walker (New York: NYU Press) 326 pp., $24.95]