Shifting Ground

in Science on the Air

Published by University of Chicago Press

Published in print October 2008 | ISBN: 9780226467597
Published online March 2013 | e-ISBN: 9780226466958 | DOI:
Shifting Ground

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During the 1920s, radio evolved from experimental technology to potentially profitable business, from a playing field open to amateurs to a closed shop controlled by national commercial networks. During the same month that NBC executive David Sarnoff so enthusiastically touted radio's potential, he and executives at AT&T, General Electric, RCA, Westinghouse, and other major broadcast companies were secretly negotiating to carve up the industry. Throughout the country, NBC and CBS were assembling networks of affiliates, and local station managers were losing control of programming. The transformation of American broadcasting—which occurred just as the scientific establishment was becoming comfortable with addressing the public via radio talks—refocused attention on the economics of popularization. Who should pay for interpreting science for the public and for advancing civic education in science—and why? To what extent should scientists cooperate with the advertisers underwriting commercial broadcasting? Each organization and entrepreneur answered these questions differently. Some rejected “commercialism” altogether; some embraced it, cautiously. Others favored civic education, whatever the venue or compromise. This disparity (and lack of coordination) in responses exemplified dilemmas that would haunt science popularization efforts for decades to come.

Keywords: radio; broadcasting industry; civic education; science popularization

Chapter.  9700 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Media Studies

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