Documentary details President Hoover and radio history

Iowa native Herbert Hoover played an important role in the development of radio.

A retired Iowa State University journalism professor has produced a new video documentary about an important part of broadcasting history and its connection to Iowa’s only president, Herbert Hoover.

The documentary entitled “Clearing the Static: Herbert Hoover and the Radio Act of 1927” was produced by Steve Coon. The act set out rules regarding licensing for what was then the new medium of radio.

Coon, who is also a past IBNA executive secretary, says he became interested in the topic while researching a possible book about Hoover and radio. He found that much had already been written on the subject, but there had never been a video documentary.

“The reason I got involved is that for decades I had a long interest in broadcasting and then being somewhat of a history buff…it just all seemed to come together nicely,” Coon said.

The 30-minute documentary includes numerous historical pictures and video, much of it from the Herbert Hoover Presidential Library and Museum in West Branch, Iowa. Coon also gathered information from several universities, and even from a trip to the Library of Congress. And, there are interviews with several historians.

Watch the documentary

Coon worked on the documentary for two years. He said one of his biggest challenges was that there were no recordings from those early days of radio. “I had to rely on scripts, pictures, and for the documentary I was able to use a few recreations,” he said. 

In the early 1900’s radio was a new medium and there were no regulations. Anyone could go on the air, on any frequency, and at any amount of power, Coon said. It was a sort of a “wild, wild west” with stations interfering with each other’s signals, he said.

That’s when the federal government stepped in to regulate radio. Herbert Hoover was the secretary of commerce at the time, and Coon said it fell to Hoover to develop rules governing the quickly developing industry.

Hoover was an engineer and his background of developing regulations for the mining industry was helpful. “He was very much interested in standardization, how you could make sure things worked, and worked properly,” Coon said.

Hoover wanted to bring that kind of standardization to radio. “When you have the unregulated growth of all these radio stations going on,” Coon said, “and no one saying, wait a minute, you can’t have everybody be on that particular frequency and not everyone can broadcast at this particular power, something had to be done about this.”

The Radio Act of 1927 established the Federal Radio Commission, which later led to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934 that regulates broadcasting.

Many of those first regulations still exist. “The basic structure of radio in terms of licensing of individual radio (and TV) stations, assigning individual frequencies that radio and television stations operate on, and a public service mandate to operate in the public interest, necessity, and convenience still has carried over to today,” Coon said.

“Clearing the Static: Herbert Hoover and the Radio Act of 1927,” is available on You Tube. Coon will be presenting the documentary (virtually) to the Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum and Library in June 2021. And, Iowa PBS will be using segments of the documentary in its programming.