Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Liberating American Communications: Foreign Ownership Regulations from the Radio Act of 1912 to the Radio Act of 1927

Academic journal article Journal of Broadcasting & Electronic Media

Liberating American Communications: Foreign Ownership Regulations from the Radio Act of 1912 to the Radio Act of 1927

Article excerpt

Although foreign ownership regulations, embodied in Section 12 of the Radio Act of 1927, are most commonly associated with propaganda and broadcasting, this study shows that they targeted wireless telegraphy as a weapon of war. Archival research reveals that these rules formed part of the U.S. Navy's strategy to break the supremacy of Britain in international communications. Foreign ownership rules are only one example of provisions in the Radio Act that target telegraphy, not broadcasting, prompting us to reinterpret the Act as a hybrid legislation, designed to regulate two different uses of the same technology.


Today, when the power of the United States goes undisputed both in international relations and international communications, it is difficult to imagine that at the turn of the last century the country was struggling to liberate its communications from the influence of a foreign power. Yet, in the early 1900s, the United States played second fiddle to Great Britain in international relations, and the hegemonic transition between the two countries left its mark on domestic communications policy. Foreign ownership regulations are one of the best examples from this era of the incorporation of American foreign policy into the Radio Act of 1927.

First applied to radiotelegraphy, direct foreign ownership restrictions represent a regulatory innovation that translated American aspirations in the international realm to domestic policy. The history of Section 12 of the Radio Act of 1927 shows that the roots of this section lie in the ambitions of the U.S. Navy to propel the country to preeminence in international communications. The Navy developed foreign ownership rules to prevent the use of wireless as a weapon of war, not as a carrier of propaganda as is often assumed, and later to bring high-power transoceanic stations under American control. The Navy's geopolitical ambition prompted cooperation with private corporations to extend American influence abroad. Thus, foreign ownership rules form a link in the chain of events that connect the Radio Act of 1912, the Navy's strategy of government ownership, and the creation of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA).

Through the study of foreign ownership rules, this article demonstrates that, in order to explain the reasons behind certain communications policies, policy historians need a better understanding of international relations during specific historical periods. International relations is an essential backdrop to explain policies covering point-to-point communications, which governments and businesses used for conveying confidential information over large distances, while most broadcast legislation is more readily understood via a national framework. As a result of overwhelming emphasis on broadcasting and the lack of attention to policies connected to international relations, scholars have failed to assess adequately the origins and importance of the Radio Act of 1927. Foreign ownership regulations and the presence of other sections in the Act primarily targeting radiotelegraphy prompt us to reinterpret the Act as a hybrid legislation, striving to accommodate two different uses of radio technology.

This article traces the development of foreign ownership regulations with the help of archival research. The first section locates the initial rules in the Radio Act of 1912 and argues that the Navy anticipated trouble on the eve of war and designed citizenship requirements to prevent German-controlled companies from erecting high-power transatlantic stations. The second section chronicles a transformation in naval policy to a broader vision of liberating American communications from British control and places this transformation in the context of the changes brought about by World War I. Next, foreign ownership rules and the formation of RCA will be considered as part of the Navy's dual strategy to safeguard American independence in communications and ensure the country's expansion in the field. …

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