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Today’s Media Landscape Took Root a Century Ago. Decisions Made Now Could Shape the Next 100 Years

The contemporary media landscape is repeatedly upended by new technologies and innovations. The internet, smart phones, social media, and now AI have constantly reshaped modern life. Yet, in many ways, today’s media landscape remains structured by the innovations and partnerships between government and business that developed a full century ago as Americans grappled with what was then equally exciting—but somewhat foreboding—technologies: film and radio.

A century ago, Waldemar Kaempffert, the editor of Scientific American magazine, surveyed the ways that emerging communications technologies were transforming the United States. Kaempffert not only anticipated future technical innovations, such as portable radios and long-distance signal transmission, he also predicted that a new media landscape would enduringly reshape the nation. Film, recorded sound, nationally-distributed news and entertainment weeklies, and, especially radio, the technology enthusiast insisted, would produce a uniform national culture, revolutionize the practice of politics, and reshape the relations between government and mass media.

While not all of Kaempffert’s predictions turned out—the unifying effects he observed have dissolved in recent decades into an angry, fragmented cacophony—he rightly saw the 1920s as the seedtime of a new media order, an alliance between entertainment industries and the national government, and a new style of political competition that would shape American public life for generations.

First, Kaempffert observed the creation of a truly integrated, national audience. By delivering the same information and entertainment nearly simultaneously, radio made “vast numbers of geographically scattered people think in unison.” At the same time, the era witnessed the knitting together of the national economy. Advertising, movies, and songs also forged a more unified, more recognizable national style. Instead of generic goods from the cracker barrel or flour bin and locally distributed notices of sales at the neighborhood dry goods shop, Americans bought brand-name goods in familiar, nationally distributed packaging and saw the same national advertising campaigns even in remote, small-town papers. Records made popular songs widely accessible, so that Americans across the continent hummed the same Tin Pan Alley tunes.

The recent growth of another astounding new medium, motion pictures, reinforced the nationalizing, homogenizing potential of radio. After all, in relatively brief order, the “trust” (what we now call “Hollywood”) took shape. By the early 1920s, the many local, religious, and educational alternative film cultures of the medium’s early days had faded; film had become an entertainment industry, run for profit, by a handful of large corporations, lightly regulated through cooperation between business and government. Throughout the United States, the same movies thrilled Americans as they idolized the same stars. 

Even print media advanced this nationalizing trend. In 1923, Henry Luce and Briton Hadden launched TIME magazine. Summarizing newspaper reports from around the world in concise, jazzy prose, they promised “to keep men well informed,” providing the nation’s rising class of busy office workers with accessible information. They also created a vivid, compressed national style of magazine writing that became known as “Timestyle.”

Read more: A Century of Impact

Two years later, Harold Ross introduced another, very different weekly. The New Yorker, he promised, would not be “edited for the old lady in Dubuque”; it would be “sophisticated,” published “for a metropolitan audience.” Despite its title, the New Yorker aimed for—and soon achieved—a national readership. The magazine both served and reflected a cosmopolitan, middle-class mindset—attracting Americans across the continent (including some Iowa ladies) who traveled, bought imported goods, and sought advice on how to think about the great issues of the day.

Surveying the rise of new media in 1924, the editor of another national weekly affirmed, they would “do much to create a sense of national solidarity in all parts of the country, and particularly in remote settlements and on the farm.” The “'backwoods,’" he predicted with undisguised anticipation, “would cease to exist.”

What did these changes in the media landscape mean for American politics? Kaempffert anticipated the ramifications of radio turning the whole continent “into a huge auditorium.” He envisioned how the President of the United States would become a “real personality—something more than a political abstraction bearing a familiar name and harboring an official mansion popularly called the ‘White House.’” Entering American homes would do more than create an intimacy with citizens. It also would demand that candidates develop “screen personalities" and “voice personalities” similar to those on radio and in films.

The 1924 Presidential race highlighted those changes. Deliberately distancing himself from his scandal-tainted Republican Party, incumbent President Calvin Coolidge stressed his individual accomplishments and character. To do so, the Coolidge campaign constructed a modern Presidential media operation that drew on the skills of experts in public relations, advertising, and entertainment. Coolidge used film as well as the new medium of radio to communicate directly to voters. His team also carefully placed magazine stories (including features about First Lady Grace Coolidge in women’s magazines).

And, in what would become a staple of later Presidential politics, the President surrounded himself with popular entertainers. At one event, the president and first lady welcomed 30 prominent entertainers to a breakfast of sausages and hotcakes. Headlining the performance, the singer and movie star Al Jolson endorsed the president and performed an original song, “Keep Cool and Keep Coolidge.” The result? Coolidge cast himself, like the nation’s most revered performers, as a celebrity.

Read more: How Presidential Campaign Ads First Got on TV

Such political innovations reflected a growing relationship between the mass media and major players in the political sphere that also defined the terms of their cooperation and operation. The peculiar combination of commercial entertainment, industrial consolidation, and government regulation reflected the agenda of key actors in business and government. In particular, it relied on an alliance among large corporations like RCA and MGM Studios that sought to standardize and consolidate their industries and shield them from censorship, labor unrest, and public supervision; and Herbert Hoover, Secretary of Commerce from 1921 to 1929 (and President thereafter) who pursued a broader strategy of business-government association that empowered networks of professional experts (like radio engineers), frequently bringing them into many government positions.

For example, Hoover and other federal radio officials championed a technocratic approach to apportioning broadcast frequencies. But rather than seek a diversity of programming, a wide array of viewpoints, or even variety in the types of broadcasters (in the mid-1920s, approximately one-third of radio stations emanated from not-for-profit universities, churches, and civic organizations), stations that failed to use the most modern equipment and “good engineering practice” found their licenses revoked. Obsessed with eliminating interference, the government created 40 exclusive “clear channels” and granted nearly all licenses to commercial broadcasters already or soon to become affiliates of NBC and CBS (they, after all, possessed the best equipment). The federal government thus ensured that commercial stations, dominated by the networks and dependent on the government for its licenses, would rule American airwaves, a pattern that persisted for generations.

These alliances were critical for broadcasters and movie studios, because in in their early days film and radio aroused suspicion in many respectable, middle-class Americans, as well as many municipal and civic authorities. They worried these new media would be subversive. Yet, the business and government alliance shielded corporate broadcasters and film studios from censorship, from educational, religious, and other competitors, and from robust public control. Working closely with the federal government during the 1920s, major players in film and radio consolidated their power, eliminating competition, deflecting demands for censorship, and limiting the scope of government supervision.

These regulated oligopolies that came to define the American mass media over the past century simultaneously became the principal institutions through which politicians communicated with and mobilized ordinary citizens. Americans might have chosen alternate modes of licensing, programming, and supervision of content, as pursued in many other nations, that would have created a different kind of media and a different style of politics.

As Americans endure communications revolutions in the 21st century—from social media to AI—it is important to remember this moment of media and political ferment. The public square that contemporary Americans inhabit—the landscape of Big Tech and advertising-saturated content, private, for-profit media and showbiz politics—derive largely from decisions Americans took a century ago.

Bruce J. Schulman is the William E. Huntington Professor of History at Boston University. Made by History takes readers beyond the headlines with articles written and edited by professional historians. Learn more about Made by History at TIME here.

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