Introduction

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On December 1, 1939, advertising representatives from the United Fruit Company gathered at the NBC studio in New York City to listen to “El Mundo al Dia,” the first regularly scheduled, commercially sponsored program on the NBC shortwave network.  The daily fifteen-minute evening broadcast presented American news in the Spanish language to listeners in Latin American nations.  Targeted as a “good prospect” to be “sold on radio advertising” due to its extensive business interests in the region, United Fruit was among the first corporations contacted by NBC as it began to seek sponsors for its newly commercial network.[1]  While celebrating the inaugural newscast that evening, United Fruit expressed that it was “pleased” with the result and “hoped to expand” the relationship.[2]  After years of planning, expense, and lobbying federal authorities, commercial shortwave radio broadcasting to Latin America appeared to represent the wave of the future. 

In spite of the economic dislocation of the Depression, national radio networks had proven extremely profitable during the 1930s as Americans turned to radio for news, entertainment, music, and other diversions.  After initial hesitation, advertisers flocked to the airwaves to sell their products through sponsored programming.  International broadcasting seemed to offer the next logical step.  Moreover, radio networks increasingly promoted themselves as the representatives of American business and cultural interests abroad, arguing that commercial broadcasting would fulfill the nation’s public policy objectives without involvement by federal authorities or the establishment of state broadcasting system along the European model.  What United Fruit, NBC, and the other advertisers and broadcasting systems planning shortwave networks could not know was that the effort would end in failure.  For a variety of reasons, commercial shortwave proved to be both unprofitable and unable to serve the interests of the nation during wartime.  When World War II began, the system was quickly taken over by the United States government and programmed to promote American interests and ideas abroad; the networks never sought to reestablish international shortwave as a significant portion of their commercial enterprise.

The United States has taken an active interest in the affairs of its Latin American neighbors for nearly two centuries.  American interests fall into two general and related areas.  First is a common belief in the United States that American security is closely tied to security in the hemisphere.  One major foreign policy goal has been to foster close relations, by force if necessary, with Latin American nations while dissuading European influence and alliances in the region.  To an even larger degree, this interest has been economic.  Americans have traditionally viewed their neighbors to the south as underdeveloped and backward, yet potentially strong trading partners.[3]  Trade between the two regions began to mushroom in the late 1890s as American business turned its eyes south in search of raw materials and markets.  The United States government, working closely with private corporations, went to great lengths, ranging from diplomatic wrangling to military occupation, to create and maintain a favorable environment for trade.  American imports and exports to Latin America expanded, but in the 1920s and 1930s were also subject to both increasing competition from European nations and practical limitations put in place by wary Latin American governments.  A significant change in philosophy, President Franklin Roosevelt’s Good Neighbor policy of the 1930s emphasized reciprocal trade and cultural exchange, rather than threat of force or military occupation, as the most effective means for achieving favorable trade policies while at the same time cultivating inter-American alliances and mutual trust.[4]  This “soft approach” relied on negotiation and, equally important, the positive appeal of American culture and consumer goods to engender good relations.[5] 

            One important element of the plan to bolster trade and good relations through the entire inter-war period involved communications policy.  In addition to being a potentially profitable business for broadcasters and manufacturers of radio equipment as well as companies selling products in Latin American markets, the communications industry serves as a link between the United States and Latin American nations, a valuable tool that has traditionally been used to spread American culture, news and opinion abroad.  Because of its unique ability to travel across national boundaries, radio became the primary means of projecting both commercial and national agendas to the distant region.  The inter-war period represent the genesis of radio broadcasting, the first truly international mass medium, and the full recognition of radio’s strategic value.  Radio became an American strategic interest, seen by the Navy Department for example as vital for defense.  Communications policy in this era is an important area of study because it represents a clear example of cooperation and shared goals, as well as continual negotiation of differences, between a variety of corporate, military, and diplomatic interests. 

            This paper will be a history of American radio broadcasting to Latin America in the period between World War I and early World War II, with a particular focus on efforts by the National Broadcasting Co. (NBC) and other domestic broadcasting companies to establish commercially viable international shortwave networks.  The paper will examine how and why radio broadcasting became a central part of United States interests in Latin America.  It will present a study of the relationship, marked by both cooperation and contention, between the US government and the private companies, NBC in particular, empowered to serve these interests.  Another topic will be different articulations of “national interest” in this context; international broadcasting is one area where the “American System” of private, commercial broadcasting was questioned and alternative methods were proposed and eventually implemented.  Finally, it will explain how events prompted the American government, after the onset of World War II, to assume increasing, and eventually total, control over these networks to ensure that wartime objectives were realized.

The main purpose of this paper is to offer historical background on the subject of international broadcasting and to detail the efforts of the American commercial broadcasters and the federal government to create a viable inter-American broadcasting system.  Another related goal is to argue that the American position in Latin American mass media has not always been one of domination.  Historians who have studied the development of American radio during this time have often concluded that the United States achieved domination over Latin American media systems during the 1920s and 1930s, and that this commercial influence extends to the present day.  For example, in his analysis of shortwave as an agent of cultural and political imperialism, Fred Fejes has argued, “by 1945, United States hegemony in hemispheric communications was complete.”[6]  James Schwoch has written that United States efforts “culminated in the 1930s with American dominance over the international decision-making process concerning the electromagnetic spectrum and the world system of electronic communications.”[7] Analysis of the actual broadcasting practices of the American networks will demonstrate that for various reasons United States broadcasting did not dominate the market of radio listeners in Latin America and that the federal government assumed control of shortwave due to a position of weakness and inability to compete.

Another purpose is to place the commercial shortwave effort within the framework of the domestic debates over ownership, control and regulation of radio broadcasting.  Historians Robert McChesney[8] and Susan Smulyan[9] have argued convincingly that radio network executives were able to consolidate their power and ensure that federal legislation and regulation of broadcasting would support the “American” model of commercial, entertainment-centered programming.  This interpretation, while true, tends to neglect the continuing concern among radio professionals and network executives that their industry was threatened by increasing federal oversight and regulation.  As Douglas Craig has recently noted, “although they had little to fear from the FCC,” broadcasters “remained wary of the potential power” of the federal government.[10]  During the late 1930s, radio networks were involved in negotiations with the FCC and Congress over key issues involving chain broadcasting, FM licensing, television, and the status of broadcasting under wartime conditions.  Industry rhetoric repeatedly framed international broadcasting as a public service endeavor, a demonstration of the broadcasters’ goodwill and dedication to the national agenda and American interests in the hemisphere.  The international broadcasting systems played a role in deflecting criticism and demonstrating a public service philosophy that provided leverage in these policy debates.


 

[1] Mark Woods to R.C. Witmer, NBC internal memo, 1 March 1939.  Box 73, Folder 17, NBC Collection, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison. (hereafter NBC)

[2] Charles Caravajal to Frank Mason, NBC internal memo, 2 December 1939, Box 73, Folder 17, NBC.

[3] James William Park, Latin American Underdevelopment: A History of Perspectives in the United States, 1870-1965 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1995) p. 63-66, passim.

[4] Paul A. Varg, “The Economic Side of the Good Neighbor Policy,” Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 74, No. 3 (Autumn 1975), p. 47.

[5] Frederick B. Pike, FDR’s Good Neighbor Policy: Sixty Years of Generally Gentle Chaos (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1995) p. 199.

[6] Fred Fejes, “The U.S. in Third World Communications: Latin America, 1900-1945,” Journalism Monographs, No. 86 (1983), p. 3.  See also Fred Fejes, Imperialism, Media, and the Good Neighbor: New Deal Foreign Policy and United States Shortwave Broadcasting to Latin America, (Norwood, NJ: Ablex Publishing, 1986).

[7] James Schwoch, The American Radio Industry and Its Latin American Activities, 1900-1939, (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1990), p. 7-8.

[8] Robert W. McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for Control of US Broadcasting, 1928-1935, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[9] Susan Smulyan, Selling Radio: The Commercialization of American Broadcasting 1920-1934, (Washington DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1994).

[10] Douglas B. Craig, Fireside Politics: Radio and Political Culture in the United States 1920-1940 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2000), p. 93.

 

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