"The American System": Herbert Hoover, the Associative State, and Broadcast Commercialism

Article excerpt

More than 80 years after he guided the formation of U.S. broadcasting as we know it, Herbert Hoover remains an object of scorn for many commentators. A blogger recently blamed Hoover for what he considers the sorry state of television and radio: "If you have difficulty with the pap fed you on TV and radio today, and are sick of the greater and greater amount of time filled by mindless advertising, you have no one more important to thank than ... Herbert Hoover" (Bond 2006).

Arguably, as secretary of commerce under Presidents Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge (before he became president himself), Hoover played a more significant role than any other individual in the early development of American broadcasting, so to place the blame for commercialism on Hoover is justifiable. Under the original Radio Act of 1912, the Department of Commerce had jurisdiction over the fledgling radio broadcasting industry. Although the Commerce Department's authority was limited, broadcasters and the public looked to Hoover for leadership, in particular on the question of advertising (Barnouw 1966, 155-56).

However, Hoover's reputation--deserved or not--as a conservative's conservative, an acolyte of Coolidge's aphorism "the business of America is business," a man who resisted engaging the power of government to combat the Great Depression, may lead one to assume that he deliberately set out to establish a system of broadcasting dominated by business interests and commercialism. In fact, Hoover came to national attention in the role of humanitarian when he took the lead in providing relief for war-ravaged Belgium and northern France during and after World War I, and this reputation was bolstered when he directed relief efforts following the catastrophic flood of the Mississippi River in 1927 (Barry 2005, 114-21; Smith 1984). Hoover's papers further reveal that he strongly advocated the notion that broadcasting--more than a profit-centered medium for advertising and entertainment--should serve the general public interest, and he expressly opposed "direct" advertising on the new medium.

Still, for better or worse, it is true that broadcasting went commercial on Hoover's watch. How is it--given the secretary's expressed opposition--that American radio and television audiences today are resigned to the pervasiveness of broadcast advertising? In our view, Hoover was sincere in his opposition to advertising and did not covertly direct broadcasting toward its adoption. The truth is less dramatic. Hoover's belief in the associative state, in which businesses cooperate with each other and with government through self-governing organizations to create "desired outcomes for society" (Himmelberg 2001, 34-35), resulted in a passive drift toward acceptance of a commercial system--the "American system"--of broadcasting.

Ironically, in view of the eventual outcome, Hoover spoke out strongly against commercialism, believing that, if radio became dominated by advertising, the "audience will disappear in disgust" (Hoover 1924g, 9). At the First National Radio Conference, which Hoover convened in February 1922, the secretary spoke with forcefulness against the threat of commercialism:

It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service, for news, for entertainment, for education, and for vital commercial purposes, to be drowned in advertising chatter, or for commercial purposes that can be quite well served by other means of communication. (Hoover 1922b)

Further, Hoover strongly emphasized the concept that broadcasters, receiving licenses to use the public airwaves for commercial purposes, should in return provide a measure of public service. Indeed, Hoover was the first to articulate the public interest standard of U.S. broadcasting (Krasnow, Longley, and Terry 1982, 17; Krattenmaker and Powe 1994, 8).

As a means of sorting out the many questions relating to the development of the fledgling radio broadcasting industry in the 1920s, Hoover brought together manufacturers, broadcasters, and others in a series of radio conferences--very much in keeping with the associative state philosophy. …