Theses Doctoral

Broadcasting Faith: Regulating Radio from the New Era to the American Century

Noell, David

Between 1927 and 1987, American broadcast regulators undertook a project for radio. The project pursued multiple goals: to allocate wavelengths, to hold stations accountable to the public interest, to restrict prejudicial content, to protect domestic wavelengths from international signal interference, to sustain these policies over time with the advent of new media, and to evangelize the American way of life abroad. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the State Department, as the primary institutions responsible for developing this American system of radio, addressed several challenges. Domestically, the FCC resolved the free speech questions of the time by resisting government ownership of radio stations, but regulating the airwaves in the “public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Internationally, the State Department set up radio stations to broadcast around the world. Religion played a primary role in the aims of this project - domestically, that every listener would receive uplifting faith content and internationally, that the world would know of American religiosity.
Public utility law precedent was influential on the 1927 Federal Radio Act and its implementation. The Commission treated radio as if it were a public utility. In this way, it ruled that the listener took precedence over the broadcaster - specifically that all listeners had a right to a well-rounded programming lineup, including religious content. As a result, the Commission favored variety stations over single-interest outlets in a series of rulings that hurt religious stations. The Commission preferred that listeners receive religious content from outlets offering a variety of programming. The Commission also worked to protect listeners’ religious sensibilities from attack, most notably during the surge of anti-Semitic populism in the 1930s.
The FCC and the State Department worked together to protect American wavelength sovereignty in the 1930s and 1940s. The primary source of interference came from Mexican border stations. These signals created reception problems for American listeners of domestic stations; these particular stations were ones that the Commission had favored for laudable content, including religious programming. The border outlets also featured content the Commission deemed illicit, such as astrology and quack medicine.
In the early Cold War, American international broadcasters fought the Soviet Union in a war of ideas. These broadcasters included the State Department-run Voice of America and the semi-public Radio Free Europe. In this ideological battle against Communism, America used religion to defend a liberal conception of a just society. Freedom of worship and God-given human rights were key components. Domestically, the FCC continued to regulate licensees in the public interest in the early Cold War period. For example, the Commission implemented the 1949 Fairness Doctrine, which mandated that stations not only cover critical issues, but present these issues with balance.
By the late 1980s, the American system was collapsing. In 1987, as a sign of this breakdown, the Fairness Doctrine was repealed. This system had given broadcasting a liberal role in a century of totalitarian regimes - to defend free speech and uplift American society. Religion was a primary component of the system and served to encourage Americans to become more civil and ethically grounded citizens.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
John, Richard R.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 18, 2020