Hilmes, “NBC and the Network Idea: Defining the ‘American System’”
Question 1: Balancing the Local and the National
The strategy to balance the local and national broadcasts in America stems back to the early 1920s when General Electric formed national companies, such as RCA and Westinghouse, that brought together major businesses involved in radio to coordinate radio in the United States. It was an early attempt to utilize a national presence at the helm of radio broadcasting. This “Class A” broadcasting license dominated the air waves until a plethora of individuals, non-profit organizations and small companies began using the same air waves. With the addition of these broadcasts, it forced the U.S. Department of Commerce to create a “Class B” license, which allowed approved broadcasters to operate on less crowded frequencies with the promise of having good quality performance. Those who obtained the Class B license included RCA and Westinghouse. As a result, amateur broadcasts were banished from the main airwaves and sent to the opposite end of the spectrum. This forced government and big business to come up with improved broadcasting methods that could work for everyone. Class B licenses became readily available by 1922.
The two types of licenses established not only a national but also a local principle that European nations lacked at the time. Larger U.S. cities offered several locally operated radio stations that were unaffiliated with a major network and they offered a diverse range of programming. Because the two licenses were available and the airwaves were balanced, it allowed the United States to meet its commercial mandate as well as its public service obligations. For example, it still had major corporations like NBC and RCA to uphold its commercial standard by broadcasting most of the day and garnering most of the national attention while the local station focused on community-originated news and information. The new system resulted in a productive tension between the local and the national, which differed from most other nations that had a predominantly national presence in its broadcasting industries.