The Radio Act of 1927, which began as the Dill White Bill, was passed on February 18, 1927 and signed into law by President Calvin Coolidge on February 23, 1927. It is Public Law Number 632 by the 69th Congress. The law constructed the Federal Radio Commission (FRC), which was charged with regulating radio. In doing this, the act superseded the Radio Act of 1912, which had previously given the Secretary of Commerce and Labor regulatory powers over radio communication. The Radio Act of 1927 stands repealed now due to the Communications Act of 1934, which replaced the Federal Radio Commission with the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Prior to the enactment of the Radio Act of 1927, the Department of Commerce regulated radio communication under the authority of the Radio Act of 1912. However, the Radio Act of 1912 did not allow the Department of Commerce to regulate the power or hours of radio transmission, withhold radio licenses, nor regulate or allocate radio frequencies. Though the Department of Commerce attempted to change that through litigation, a district court ruled in Hoover v. Intercity Radio Company that the Secretary of Commerce and Labor did not have the power to deny broadcasting licenses to anyone. For that reason, the radio waves went largely unregulated. Thus, radio frequencies were becoming increasingly crowded as unregulated stations attempted to be broadcasted on too few frequencies, which interfered with station reception. Therefore, the Radio Act of 1927 was passed to reinstitute order to the world of radio that had become so chaotic under the previous law.
The Radio Act of 1927 had four major impacts. First, as previously stated, it created the Federal Radio Commission, comprised of five commissioners, appointed by the President, from five geographic zones in the nation. In so doing, the act removed regulatory authority from the Department of Commerce and the Secretary of Commerce and Labor, transferring it to the new regulatory agency. Second, the act gave the FRC the authority to grant and deny licenses and assign frequencies and power levels for each licensee. The Davis Amendment to the act mandated that the FRC ensure that the allocation of radio frequencies, licenses, times of operation, station wattage, and wavelength be equally distributed across the designated geographic zones that the commissioners represented—irrespective of the fact that some geographic zones were more populous than others. Third, the act created the “public interest standard.” This standard is based on the belief that the public at large owns the radio spectrum, and that individuals are merely granted the authority, through licensing, to use a portion of the radio spectrum via radio frequencies. Thus, those who are granted a license must agree to serve the “public interest, convenience, and necessity” of the community in which they are licensed. Fourth, the act ensured that radio was a form of expression and was therefore protected by First Amendment rights. Due to its protected status, the Commission could not censor programming, but the content of radio programming could not contain “obscene, indecent, or profane language.” In practice, however, the Commission could take into consideration programming when renewing licenses, and their ability to take away a broadcaster’s license enabled them to control content to some degree. The Commission was also given the power to revoke licenses and fine stations or individuals for violations of the Radio Act of 1927.
The act only vaguely mentioned radio networks, giving the Commission only the “authority to make special regulations applicable to stations engaged in chain broadcasting” but no further regulatory abilities there. Additionally, the act did not authorize the FRC to make any rules regarding advertising except that advertisers must identify themselves.
For a full text version of the act, click here.
Campbell, R., Martin, C. R., & Fabos, B (2017). Media and Culture: Mass Communication in a Digital Age 11th Edition. Boston and New York: Bedford/St. Martin’s.
Davis, W. J. (1927). The Radio Act of 1927. Virginia Law Review, 13(8), 611-618. http://www.jstor.org/stable/pdf/1065450.pdfrefreqid=excelsior:1dedf25f2703a811e8fd833d424226cc
Peck, L. A. (2008). Radio Act of 1927. In Encyclopedia of American Journalism. (Vol. 1 pp.159). London and New York: Routledge.
Sterling, C. H. & Skretvedt R. Radio. In Encyclopedia Brittanica online. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/topic/radio
Image Attribution: The images used in this post are in the public domain
Written by Rachel Martinez, 2018.