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Radio Days

May 2, 1924

Senator Robert Howell of Nebraska

"It will profoundly change the Senate." "It will benefit media-savvy members and force the retirement of those who are uncomfortable with the new technology." These concerns were commonly heard during the early 1980s debate over whether to permit the televising of Senate floor proceedings, but they originated 60 years earlier in response to another media innovation—radio.

World War I produced significant advances in radio technology, and by 1920 radio pioneers were exploring its entertainment and public service potential. On May 2, 1924, Senator Robert Beecher Howell of Nebraska, a former chairman of a national radio commission, proposed that the Senate broadcast its proceedings on the radio. When research indicated that a whopping $3.3 million would be needed to implement his plan, the proposal died. It wasn’t just sticker-shock that killed the idea. Senators also wondered if they would have an audience. Some debates “arouse as much public interest as a championship prize fight,” commented one skeptic, but no one “wants to listen to the monotonous dronings that make up the typical legislative day.”

Other proposals followed. Senator Gerald Nye hoped to build a 50,000-watt “superpower station” on Capitol Hill to produce an audible Congressional Record. Clarence Dill, a cost-cutter, suggested broadcasting over commercial networks. Those proposals also died. “The chief drawback here is the attitude of the Senate itself,” explained the Washington Post in 1929. “Most of its members are … constitutionally opposed to the idea of broadcasting its proceedings.” The idea surfaced again in 1944, following the successful broadcast of the two party conventions. On August 15, Senator Claude Pepper called for radio coverage of congressional debate. If the people of the country “could by the marvel of the radio … be witnesses of the deliberations of their Representatives and Senators in Congress" he argued, "I believe it would be in furtherance of the democratic process.” Pepper’s efforts also failed.

Finally, in 1945, Congress hit the airwaves with “Congress on the Air,” a weekly program broadcast at 8 p.m. on Sundays. Competing against the popular Fred Allen Show and the mystery series Crime Doctor, the half-hour program featured members of Congress discussing major issues of the day, such as the October 9 debate between Senators Carl Hatch and Alexander Wiley on the proliferation of atomic weapons.

A modest success, this program led to other ideas, including “Congress in Action,” a proposal to air Senate floor debates every Wednesday. Such programming could be very popular, argued proponents. People could “tune in their congressmen the way they do baseball games, Frank Sinatra’s voice, or Jack Benny’s jokes.” But radio-shy members wondered, who would decide the topic of debate, and how to avoid just “putting on a show” for the listening public?

Although the friends of radio failed in their attempts to broadcast floor proceedings, they had some success with committee action. Radio microphones became a familiar sight in congressional hearings. By the late 1940s, resistance to radio coverage of the Senate was diminishing, but the change in attitude came too late. By then, a new phenomenon had captured the American imagination, and discussions of radio broadcasts from Capitol Hill soon fell victim to the excitement over television.

“Today we catch up with the 20th century,” Majority Leader Bob Dole told the C-SPAN audience on June 2, 1986, as Senate television coverage began. “No longer will the great debates in this Chamber be lost forever.” No doubt, that’s exactly what Nebraska’s Robert Howell had in mind—back in 1924.