Communications Act (1934)

President Roosevelt signed the Communications Act on June 19, 1934. The law was created to centralize regulatory authority, improve national defense, and create for “the people of the United States a rapid, efficient, nation-wide, and world-wide wire and radio communication service with adequate facilities at reasonable charges…” To implement these policies, the law created the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) [1].

The centralization of regulatory authority in the newly-created FCC was an important development, bringing order to the burgeoning communications industry (recall that broadcast radio was a major new technology of the inter-war era). The FCC took over regulatory responsibilities from the Post Office Department, the Department of State, and the Interstate Commerce Commission, and derived its “duties, powers, and functions” not only from the Communications Act of 1934, but from earlier laws and treaties, such as the Interstate Commerce Act of 1888, Ship Act of 1910, and a treaty arising from the 1932 International Telecommunications Convention in Madrid, Spain [2].

The primary duty of the FCC was the licensing of radio operators and frequencies. There were a variety of uses of radio that needed to be sorted out, such as in aviation, emergency response (fire & police), and military, as well as commercial broadcasting. The FCC assigned specific bandwidths (AM and MW at the time). Some of the earliest FCC authorizations for broadcast stations were the Garden City Broadcasting Co. in Kansas, the Monocacy Broadcasting Co. in Frederick, Maryland, Florida Capitol Broadcasters, Inc., in Tallahassee, and Golden Empire Broadcasting Co. in Redding, California.

The FCC received more applications from amateur radio operators and stations than all other types combined. In fiscal year 1936, for example, the FCC received 32,647 amateur radio applications. Counting spillover applications from the previous year, the FCC approved 21,946 applications; returned 5,851 to the applicants for more information; disapproved 5,093 due to the applicants’ failure to pass a graded operator exam; referred 519 to other federal agencies; and left 717 pending at the end of the year [3].

The FCC performed other important duties during the New Deal years. Field staff administered and enforced regulations, laws, and treaties; engineering staff studied and researched issues related to distress signal frequencies, atmospheric and sunspot effects on signals, ultra-high frequencies, etc.; top officials attended communication conferences and conventions; and, as World War II drew near, the FCC monitored communications for threats to national defense [4].

The first three chairmen of the FCC were Eugene O. Sykes (1934-1935), Anning S. Prall (1935-1937), and Frank McNinch (1937-1939) [5]. In the latter part of 1939, James Lawrence Fly became chair, a “tenacious and devout New Dealer” who would “diminish the concentrated monopolistic power that controlled the broadcasting industry and simultaneously encourage competition” [6]. He served until 1944 [7].

The FCC continues to function under the Communications Act of 1934, but today deals with new issues related to digital technology and the internet, such as net neutrality.

Sources: (1) “Communications Act of 1934,” full original text, provided by Dr. Douglas Thomas, University of Southern California, Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, http://www.usc.edu/~douglast/202/lecture20/1934act.html, accessed August 2, 2015. (2) Third annual report of the FCC, fiscal year 1937, pp. 3-5. (3) First and second annual reports of the FCC, fiscal years 1935 (pp. 5-11) and 1936 (pp. 4-9). (4) See, e.g., Sixth annual report of the FCC, fiscal year 1940, pp. 3-18. (5) See “Commissioners from 1934 to Present,” Federal Communications Commission, http://www.fcc.gov/leadership/commissioners-1934-present, accessed August 3, 2015. (6) Susan L. Brinson, The Red Scare, Politics, and the Federal Communications Commission, 1941-1960, Westport, CT: Praeger Publishers, 2004, pp. 25-28. (7) See note 5. (Annual reports of the FCC can be found at http://transition.fcc.gov/mb/audio/annual_reports.html.)