Regulating the Government's Airwaves: Creation of the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC)

Article excerpt

As new media technologies evolve, many become necessities--telegraph, telephone, and undersea cable in the 19th century, for example, and radio, television, cable, and satellite television in the 20th. Today, the Internet has joined this growing list of indispensable media. As the history of these shows, societies develop ways to manage, control, and exploit media as they grow and disperse. Individuals, businesses, and government bodies jockey for domination of the new entity, and clashes often occur from the unequal positions of power each interested party has vested in the new technology. Ultimately, "winners" rise from the disputes, and protocols, technical standards, and common regulations arise for the new technology.

In the United States, when radio waves emerged as a new wireless technology at the turn of the 20th century, initial regulation was minimal. No one knew how, or if, wireless would develop and if it would become one of the crucial media necessary for modern life. By 1930 several indispensable, distinct uses for wireless had materialized, including radio broadcasting to the American public and government inter- and intra-agency communication for public safety, national security, and other government needs. Spectrum was allocated to both broadcasting and government, and today government usage commands nearly half the spectrum allocated to the United States through international agreement. In the 1920s, no one knew that this division between government and nongovernment uses of spectrum would arise, nor did any one realize that separate regulatory bodies for effective technology and spectrum management would ultimately be required.

Thus, in the 1920s and 1930s, the interaction among individuals, government bodies, and industry organizations set regulations for all radio services in the United States, private and governmental. As spectrum was allocated, however, each entity operated from different positions of strength. Large corporations, for instance, wielded great influence over allocations for broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s, as McChesney (1993) and others establish, and, as this article illustrates, they also exerted considerable sway as spectrum was allocated for government use. During these decades government agencies also discussed providing programming and setting up a government-operated network for the United States, choices ultimately rejected as commercial broadcasting developed.

How those options emerged, were discussed, and then set aside illustrates how commercial interests and unequal power among government departments dominated the institutionalization of radio policy in the United States. In 1922 this struggle formed the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee (IRAC), the agency responsible today for regulating the government's spectrum allocation in conjunction with the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA). The story of IRAC's formation also helps explain how commercial interests and government-sponsored radio endeavors diverged in the 1920s so that no viable government-owned radio operation emerged to compete with, or to complement, commercial radio. In addition, as no complete history exists of the Interdepartmental Radio Advisory Committee, this article begins that chronicle through reviewing IRAC's formation and early years to passage of the Radio Act of 1927, when the split between government and private uses for radio truly took hold.

Government Radio to 1920

Government "broadcasting" began in 1904 with naval telegraphic transmission of weather and oceanographic reports through 30 radio telegraphy stations set up along the coasts. These stations radioed information to Navy and commercial ships alike. Private commercial stations and government stations, however, interfered with each other. President Theodore Roosevelt set up a board to deal with this interference, but its recommendations were never officially adopted. …