Abstract: The Use and Abuse of Business History in the Development of American Broadcasting

Michael Stamm


This paper argues that history was an agent of change during the foundational era of American broadcasting. As radio became a big business in the 1920s and as the federal government searched for an appropriate regulatory structure, corporate leaders presented themselves as benevolent curators of what they claimed was a revolutionary new technology. Representatives of these new media corporations portrayed themselves as responsible capitalists and described what they did in terms often gauzy and romantic: broadcasting corporations were the product of a history of publicly spirited invention and experimentation, not profit-seeking. Critics of media corporations similarly drew upon historical arguments to persuade the public and policymakers to understand broadcasting differently. To some, radio was a method of circulating public information that made it part of a history that included the post office and the public school system, and as such suggested much different regulatory frameworks than did leading corporations. During the early broadcast era, policy outcomes were structured by participants' abilities to make historical claims in order to advance their interests. The business history of American broadcasting, in other words, was shaped by a process of accommodation between competing claims about that history.