Anthony Rudel is author of Hello Everybody! The Dawn of American Radio.
As markets tumbled and unemployment soared recently, America's pundits and political leaders focused on a battle between the White House and radio talker Rush Limbaugh. The flap elevated radio to a level of importance not seen perhaps since the Great Depression. Of course, back then radio was the only electronic medium and it was Franklin Roosevelt who brilliantly controlled the debate Americans heard over the airwaves. But the idea of a radio talker as a political force is nothing new.
During the late 1920s and early 1930s, there were three prominent radio pioneers who entered the American political fray. In Milford, Kan., Dr. John Brinkley, the owner and operator of KFKB, made a fortune using the airwaves to promote a questionable sexual rejuvenation surgery and to sell elixirs by mail. With the American Medical Association filing charge after charge, the Federal Radio Commission eventually revoked Brinkley's license (KFKB had just been voted the nation's most popular station. Undaunted, Brinkley put his money where his mouth was as a write-in candidate for governor of Kansas in 1930. Had it not been for a backroom deal between Democrats and Republicans, Brinkley probably would have won.
In Muscatine, Iowa, Norman Baker, owner and operator of KTNT, promised cancer cures over the airwaves. Baker, a vocal proponent of the rights of independent broadcasters, formed the American Broadcasters Association in 1926 and challenged government regulation of the airwaves. Assuming Republican Herbert Hoover would be sympathetic to limiting government intervention, Baker used KTNT to support Hoover while attacking Al Smith during the 1928 presidential election. Baker went on to challenge the constitutionality of the 1927 Radio Act, claiming it limited his right to free speech. But before he could get anywhere with that, the FRC revoked his license and shut KTNT. Following Brinkley's lead, Baker ran for governor of Iowa in 1932. He was soundly defeated and eventually went to prison for mail fraud.
Another broadcaster turned candidate was the Rev. Robert "Fighting Bob" Shuler, whose KFEG in Los Angeles was his pulpit for anti-government rants and personal vendettas. In 1932, the FRC suspended his license and, while waiting for the case to be decided, Shuler declared his candidacy for the U.S. Senate, campaigning on the "Keep America Dry" plank. Shuler was defeated and also had his license to broadcast revoked by the FRC.
While illustrative, especially because they remind us that once upon a time, the FRC (later the FCC) had some real power and was not reluctant to take action, these three are not perfect parallels to the current situation. That distinction goes to a far more dangerous and divisive radio voice from that era: Father Charles Coughlin.
Like Limbaugh, Coughlin did not own a radio station and was therefore not licensed by the FRC. Coughlin was the syndicated Radio Priest who turned his pulpit into a cash cow, just as Limbaugh has done via his gold microphone. Coughlin's unchecked rants against President Hoover were important to FDR's 1932 campaign; it was Coughlin who coined the phrase "Roosevelt or ruin." And if Limbaugh's appearance at the CPAC conference seemed novel, let us not forget that Coughlin endorsed FDR at the 1932 Democratic convention. But the true danger of an uncontrolled Coughlin came after the election when Roosevelt distanced himself from the Radio Priest. Angered by the snub, Coughlin turned anti-Roosevelt and, using his National Union for Social Justice, worked to unseat the president. As the 1930s progressed, Coughlin became increasingly anti-Roosevelt and antisemitic, and his rants took on a decidedly pro-German bent. Beyond the control of the FRC, Coughlin put radio stations that carried his show at risk to an FRC less cowed by broadcasters who misused the airwaves. Eventually the Catholic Church silenced Coughlin, but he has to be credited with, or blamed for, the advent of political attack radio and its divisive nastiness.
If the FCC had not become the leaning tower of Jell-O and had the Fairness Doctrine not been abandoned, radio stations today might be more reluctant to carry highly charged political propaganda from either side of the aisle. But what radio history really explains is that, while broadcasting may build ratings popularity and revenue, it does not create viable political candidates. Clearly, Mr. Limbaugh knows his history, for if he didn't, he might put his money where his mouth is and, instead of challenging President Obama to come on his show and debate, he'd pack up his microphone, run for office, and let the voters, not ratings, decide.