When we talk today about the origins of public broadcasting we often talk about spectrum scarcity. And it’s true that part of the reason public broadcasting was created was because radio frequency spectrum was finite, and there needed to be a way to divide it up.
But the people who founded public broadcasting had grander ambitions. They saw broadcast radio as an opportunity to support the health of democracy, and they designed public broadcasters to be key institutions helping societies be well-informed, politically engaged and socially cohesive.
To understand the genesis of public broadcasting, it’s useful to look at the history and founding of the British Broadcasting Corporation. It was the first public broadcaster, and is still probably the most prominent and respected.
The BBC was established in 1922 as a private corporation by a consortium of radio manufacturers, and in 1926 a Parliamentary committee recommended it be converted to being publicly owned and accountable to Parliament through the Postmaster General. Broadcasting “carries with it such great propaganda power that it cannot be trusted to any person or bodies other than a public corporation,” the committee wrote.
The people who advocated establishing the BBC as a public company – a mix of politicians, businessmen and civil servants – believed that broadcasting needed to serve the public interest. They believed an informed citizenry was essential to a healthy democracy, and they were living in a period when public faith in government and media had been badly shaken by World War I. They wanted to build social cohesion, and they wanted the poor to have access to education and culture.