Can the Radio Industry Police Itself Successfully?

The radio industry, like other industries, is run for profit: Yet because of its great importance for the political and social life of America, it must be concerned with more than dollars and cents. Congress has recognized the public responsibilities of radio in the Communications Act. The radio industry itself has recognized them by its own regulations. Perhaps the most important means of self-control it has developed is the “Code” of the National Association of Broadcasters.

Not all the stations and networks in the country belong to NAB-which is the chief trade association in the radio industry. Nor do all the member broadcasters follow every provision of the Code. Although NAB does what it can to see that members comply with the Code, its regulations are voluntary.

The Code provisions have been developed to meet what the radio industry conceives to be the public’s needs and wants, partly as measured by the demands of groups in the population. In working out policies covering children’s programs, for example, NAB confers with women’s, teachers’, parents’, school, and library groups. Through its efforts a Radio Council on Children’s Programs has been established. Religious broadcast policies are similarly worked out with the approval of responsible lay and church leaders of the major faiths.

Children and education

Radio is one of the many things that influence children’s ideas of what the world is like and what kinds of people they want to be. Favorable or dramatic presentation of certain characteristics, for instance, may lead some children to adopt those characteristics. According to the Code, children’s programs should “reflect respect for parents, adult authority, law and order, clean living, high morals, fair play and honorable behavior.” And as children are extremely sensitive and impressionable, the Code bans “sequences involving horror or torture or use of the supernatural or superstitious.”

Actual research indicates clearly that the less education a person has, the more he tends to rely on the radio for information and ideas. Broadcasting presents a magnificent opportunity to reach low-income, rural, and foreign-born groups, many of whom have not had the education they want and need. Even those who have had better educational opportunity need more knowledge. Radio can reach them, too.

One of the most important sources of a nation’s strength is a well-informed, intelligent population. America’s way of life will become more and more secure as our people learn what it is, how to guard it, and how to improve it.

Broadcasting can give the people the facts they must have to make the reasoned decisions that democracy needs. It can also give voice to alternative points of view, so that the people may choose among them.

The NAB Code’s provisions covering educational broad­casting urge individual radio stations to devote time to informational programs for children and adults. It suggests that they use local schools and colleges, the U. S. Office of Education, and the Federal Radio Education Committee for advice on what needs to be done and how best to do it.

Religion and advertising

“Radio, which reaches men of all creeds and races simultaneously, may not be used to convey attacks upon another’s race or religion,” but should rather “administer broadly to the varied religious needs of the community.” So reads the NAB Code section on religious broadcasts.

The Code urges stations to exercise great care in accepting as sponsors only “individuals and firms engaged in legitimate commerce.” Nor should their commercial announcements violate “fair trade practices and accepted standards of good taste.” Thus stations are asked not to sell time to anyone urging people to drink “hard liquor” or to patronize fortunetellers, mind readers, or astrologers. Matrimonial agencies, race-track sheets, and financial speculators are also disapproved as sponsors.

Advertising copy, according to the Code, ought not to make “false, deceptive or grossly exaggerated” statements. Neither should it unfairly attack competitors nor “repellently” describe any physical disorders. Commercial announcements should be limited, depending on the length and time of the broadcast. Thus a 15-minute evening program should have not more than 2 minutes and 30 seconds of “plugging” although a full hour daytime show may have 9 minutes.

Politics and controversy

Most of the argument concerning the NAB Code centers around its suggestions on broadcasting controversial subjects. The only Congressional and FCC regulation on the political use of the radio covers election campaigns. Congress has told stations that if they sell time to one candidate for a public office or to a party or person supporting him, they must sell equal time to the other candidates. Moreover, campaign speeches are not censurable by the stations.

The NAB Code, accepting the need for special treatment of party campaign speeches, has a general rule that, except at election periods, radio time may not be sold for the discussion of controversial issues. Rather, it says, stations should provide free time for such discussion as part of their service to the public.

The Code holds that the sale of time for controversial “public discussion would enable individuals and groups with great amounts of money to plead their cases far and wide and at great length. Their opponents, without ample funds, could buy only a limited amount of time and might be denied any kind of radio hearing. Further, the Code maintains, if time were sold for such purposes to anyone who wanted it, the station managers would lose control of controversial programs and could not hold any reasonable balance between all points of view.

The radio networks and stations, in this way, accept the responsibility of serving as a forum for the expression of competing ideas. The Code, in fact, makes it cleat that time can properly be sold for discussion of controversial issues on forum type programs, provided that the forum presents all sides fairly and the control of fairness is in the hands of the station or network.

Such a policy is very difficult to enforce to everyone’s satisfaction. There is the problem of the regular political commentators. They usually broadcast on paid, time and may take sides on public issues, violating the Code principle. Some networks have met the issue by forbidding commentators to express controversial personal views. Other nets try to balance their commentators by choosing a corps of commentators with different and, it is presumed, balancing views.

Are all sponsors alike?

Then there is the problem created by business organizations that sponsor programs for entertainment and are accused of plugging for their side of industrial controversies instead of advertising their products. Trade unions and consumers’ cooperatives, on the other hand, are not allowed to buy radio time to present their views and must rely only on such scarce free time as is available. They feel, therefore, that they are not given an equal chance with the businesses that buy time.

These people assert that the practical result of exclusion from time buying is to keep many discussions off the air altogether. One larger station has recently taken exception to this Code limitation, and NAB is studying possible revision of the rule.

The Code gives special suggestions regarding straight news programs. They are to be given accurately. They . are not to be biased through the selection of items or colored by the personal opinions of anyone engaged in the broadcast. The Code allows time to be sold for news programs as it does time for news commentator programs.

A final Code provision, designed to protect listeners against annoyance, declares that groups (except such recognized nonprofit agencies or good causes as the American Red Cross and Metropolitan Opera Guild) may not solicit membership on the air. The fairness of this rule has also been challenged by consumers’ cooperative organizations.

They point out that groceries, drugstores, and department stores may pay to hawk their wares and seek new customers on the radio. Cooperative enterprises desiring to increase their business by adding new customer-members should be able to advertise in the same way, they say.