Federal Communications Commission (FCC)
FEDERAL COMMUNICATIONS COMMISSION (FCC)
The Federal Communication Commission (FCC), an independent governmental agency, has the responsibility of regulating both wired and wireless communication in the United States. Created in 1934, the FCC took over responsibilities that had been divided between the Interstate Commerce Commission, the U.S. Post Office and the Department of Commerce. Its broad mandate gave it jurisdiction over radio, telegraph, wire, and cable operations and, by extension, made it responsible for television and other forms of new communication as they appeared on the scene in ensuing decades. It replaced the Federal Radio Commission, set up by the Radio Act of 1927, and was charged with the orderly development of broadcasting—but not censorship of content—as well as with ensuring telephone and telegraph services at reasonable rates. It also was given supervision of the National Emergency Broadcast system, a coordinated effort to use licensed communications services for national defense purposes.
The importance of radio during the Depression helped lead to quick passage of the legislation establishing the FCC. There was widespread agreement that the Radio Commission had failed to solve technical, economic, and political questions involved in broadcasting and that unified regulation of communications was needed. President Herbert Hoover, who had been behind passage of the 1927 legislation, however, blocked a more comprehensive act with a pocket veto in 1933. Soon after taking office, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established a committee to study communication issues. It recommended in January 1934 that a federal agency be set up to ensure competition, regulate charges, extend services, and oversee mergers in the communications field. In a message to Congress on February 26, 1934, Roosevelt proposed transferring existing regulatory functions to a new federal commission.
The president's position was in line with New Deal policies on regulation in general. Under his leadership Congress established three other regulatory bodies, the National Labor Relations Board, the Civil Aeronautics Authority, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. Including the FCC, these bodies were vested with wide-ranging discretionary power limited only by narrow judicial review. Their aim was to provide a forum in which the clash of business and governmental interests could be resolved peacefully in the depths of the Depression. The establishment of these agencies showed New Deal interest in regulating combinations of businesses rather than protecting individual small businesses. In the case of the FCC, Congress acted, in effect, to permit a concentrated radio system, which became increasing dominated by commercial networks, as radio grew in political, economic, and social importance during the 1930s.
The FCC came into existence when Congress passed the Communications Act on May 31, 1934, and Roosevelt signed it into law on June 19. Passage came after David Sarnoff, president of the Radio Corporation of America (RCA), and other industry leaders testified at congressional hearings that consolidated regulation was essential for establishment of effective national communication policy. Under the act, the Congress vested almost unlimited discretion in the FCC, giving it authority to allocate the airwaves by issuing licenses to broadcasters for a period of three years. The commission was directed to take into account public convenience, interest, and necessity.
The legislation called for a bipartisan commission of seven members appointed by the president with the consent of the Senate to serve for seven years each, with one member to be named chair. The commission held its first meeting in Washington on July 11, 1934, and voted unanimously to continue the status quo in broadcast regulation put in place by the Federal Radio Commission. Herbert L. Pettey, who had been named secretary of the radio commission after serving as radio director of Roosevelt's 1932 presidential campaign, was appointed FCC secretary, and other employees of the radio commission also moved over to the FCC.
The agency was organized into four main operating divisions. The common carrier bureau regulated communications services; the broadcast bureau licensed radio stations; the safety and special radio service bureau supervised aviation, emergency, taxi, and amateur communications; and the engineering bureau conducted licensing examinations. Established with a budget of $1,146,885 and a staff of 442, the FCC initially oversaw about eight hundred commercial and educational radio stations.
In following years, a multitude of technical and political issues confronted the FCC as television, computers, and satellite communication emerged. Critics contended the FCC was too responsive to business and not attuned to educational interests. Nevertheless, the wide-ranging and vaguely defined powers given the commission in 1934 allowed it to deal with enormous changes in communication in the twentieth century.
Barnouw, Eric. The Golden Web: A History of Broadcasting in the United States, 1933–1953, Vol. 2. 1968.
Emery, Walter B. Broadcasting & Government: Responsibilities and Regulations. 1971.
Federal Communications Commission Annual Reports, 1935–1940.
Herbert L. Pettey Collection. Library of American Broadcasting. University of Maryland, College Park, Maryland.
Rosen, Philip. The Modern Stentor: Radio Broadcasting & the Federal Government. 1920–1934. 1980.
Schwartz, Bernard, ed. The Economic Regulation of Business and Industry: A Legislative History of U.S. Regulatory Agencies, Vol. 4. 1973.
Taishoff, Sol. "Radio Status Quo as FCC Convenes." Broadcasting 6, no. 1 (1934): 30–31.
Maurine H. Beasley