The first generation of professional broadcasting was marked by the Press-Radio Wars. Everywhere, newspapers worked hard to stop radio news from taking over. Newspapers attacked with political lobbying, law suits, restrictive practices and economic sanctions.
When broadcasting started, newspapers were deeply entrenched as the source of news in society. Furthermore, they had spent a century building sophisticated news gathering agencies, often called wire services. Some of these agencies were publisher-owned cooperatives, some were commercial services. Some were global, most were national. A few news agencies were government owned and controlled. Regardless of structure, news agencies spanned the world, collecting news and transmitting it to newspapers by telegraph, and later teletype.
So, along comes radio in 1920. Radio news just needed to buy content from the news agencies, right? Not so fast. Radio was attacking newspapers on two fronts. On the consumer side, radio could provide news faster, even cover it live. News on the radio seemed “free” because there was no subscription. (Or, in many countries, you paid a license fee and wanted your money’s worth.) On the commercial side, radio in many countries drew commercial advertising away from the press.
Newspapers fought back. In the United Kingdom, the press successfully lobbied government and regulators to prevent news on the BBC. Since the U.S. government had no interest in limiting radio news, publishers there used business practices and law suits to build walls. In 1922, Associated Press asked its member papers to stop allowing radio broadcast of news they collected. Newspapers also stopped printing radio program schedules, or at the very least sought compensation for doing so.
As the depression took hold in the 1930’s newspapers became alarmed. Readership and revenues were dropping and financial crisis loomed. At the same time, radio listenership and advertising was growing. FDR’s fireside chats signaled radio as the “go to” media during the depression.
Press-Radio Wars – Biltmore Agreement
In December 1933, industry leaders met at the Biltmore Hotel in New York. The three main wire services were present, as well as the National Association of Broadcasters and American Newspaper Publishers Association. Convened by William Paley of CBS and David Sarnoff of RCA, the meeting sought to reach a gentlemen’s agreement as follows. The news agencies would set up a Press-Radio Bureau which would be paid for by broadcasters. The PRB would provide radio with two five-minute news bulletins a day. These bulletins could only be aired long after newspapers were published and could not be sponsored. Radio commentators would not be able to mention news stories less than 12 hours old.
Not surprisingly the Biltmore Agreement was dead from day one, for a number of reasons. First, the train had left the station on radio news; nothing would stop it. Second, the agreement was collusion rather than a contract; it could not be enforced. Third, most American broadcasters were independent stations that had not been part of the meeting. Fourth, independent radio news agencies began to spring up. The largest of these, Transradio Press Service, became quite successful. Two of the three news agencies involved in the agreement (UP and INS) were not controlled by newspapers. They broke ranks and started serving radio. Fifth, the networks started investing in news gathering, particularly CBS. Sixth, radio stations in large cities created their own newsrooms. Seventh and finally, it proved very hard to assign intellectual property protection to news.
The combination of the restrictive Biltmore Agreement and radio’s public interest imperative forced radio stations to take news more seriously, both for listeners and for the business. Radio began to invest in news agency agreements and internal news gathering to break free of the press monopoly on news.
Press-Radio Wars – Prelude to Real War
Although with different flavors, the press-radio wars played out at the same time in most countries. The state of radio news in the mid 1930’s was like this: Radio in all democracies got its news from press news agencies. A typical radio station made 2-5 news broadcasts a day ranging form 5 to 15 minutes. Few local stations spent much time on hard news. Mostly, news was aired in the evening, after newspapers had published.
During 1934-1938, however, foreign news became more important and radio started investing in correspondents. Events such as the Spanish Civil War, King Edward’s Abdication, the Hindenburg crash and Hitler’s rise got everyone’s attention. By 1938, the height of the Munich Crisis, radio news had increased from 1-3% of programming at the beginning of the decade to 10%. BBC and others started to broadcast news during the day. If you added in coverage of special events, radio news and public affairs programming rose above 15%.
When the Press-Radio Wars ended in 1938, no one really noticed. A real war was about to begin. By 1939, radio was ready for news as it happens from where it happens.