Radio and Congress:
Connecting the House to the Home

South Carolina Representatives James Byrnes and Fred Dominick listening to the Capitol radio/tiles/non-collection/e/ex_tech_radio_capitol_james_byrnes_fred_domininck_lc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress South Carolina Representatives James Byrnes and Fred Dominick listening to the Capitol radio
The discovery of radio waves in 1887 prompted a rapid advancement in communications technology that had repercussions around the globe. Guglielmo Marconi, a young Italian scientist, conducted a series of experiments in 1889 testing the theory that signals could be transmitted through the air by using electromagnetic waves. During the next 20 years, inventors, most especially Edwin Armstrong, John Fleming, and Lee DeForest, continued to improve and advance the technology. By 1920, just 33 years after the initial discovery of radio waves, 8MK in Detroit, Michigan, became the first commercial radio station.

The radio sound room at the U.S. Capitol/tiles/non-collection/e/ex_tech_radio_sound_room_1922_lc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress The radio sound room at the U.S. Capitol
Radio also affected congressional proceedings, though Congress was slow to embrace the new technology. Up until the 1930’s, radio reporters were denied access to the House and Senate Press Galleries. Additionally, legislation aimed at implementing radio coverage of the House and Senate, initially put forward in 1922, faced stiff opposition throughout much of the 20th century. Despite the reluctance of some Members to accept the new form of communication, Capitol Hill played a significant role in the spreading influence of radio. As early as 1928, House Clerk William Tyler Page speculated that the noticeable decline in speeches mailed from the Capitol could be attributed to the increased use of radio by Representatives as a means of communicating with their constituents. Moreover, the House Chamber hosted presidential addresses that were broadcast, radio coverage of large political celebrations, and even a weekly show that highlighted the events of Congress, enabling people throughout the country to stay apprised of important political events.

Date Event
Jan. 21, 1921 First unsuccessful attempt to transmit a radio from the Capitol occurs during the inaugural address of an American President–Warren G. Harding–on the radio.
Feb. 27, 1922 Representative Vincent Brennan of Michigan introduced H.J. Res. 278, the first measure to allow radio coverage of the House and Senate. Brennan stated that it was his purpose to “enable all members of Congress as well as the country at large, to 'listen in' on the doings of the floor of the House.” His legislation failed in committee.
Dec. 8, 1922 President Harding was the first person to use the newly installed public address system in the House of Representatives for a radio broadcast when he delivered his Annual Address to a Joint Session of Congress.
Dec. 19, 1922 House debate about a constitutional amendment to abolish tax-exempt securities became the first ever congressional proceeding broadcasted on the radio.
Dec. 6, 1923 President Calvin Coolidge's Annual Address to Congress in the House Chamber reached radio stations in many major American cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, Providence, St. Louis, Kansas City, and Dallas. The radio broadcast, which covered proceedings in the House one-half hour before the arrival of President Coolidge, was so clear that representatives from a radio station in St. Louis called the Capitol to inquire about a strange noise heard during the speech. Capitol employees identified the noise as the rustling of paper by Coolidge.
1924 The public address system of the House of Representatives was abandoned due to Members' complaints that microphones produced interference, making it difficult to hear.
1924 Senator Robert Howell of Nebraska introduced legislation that would allow the War and Navy departments to control the House and Senate radio coverage. The bill passed the Senate but failed to become law when a study panel concluded the technology was too expensive.
March 4, 1925 The first national radio broadcast of an inauguration occurred when President Calvin Coolidge took the oath of office on the East Front of the Capitol. More than 22,000,000 households reportedly tuned in for the broadcast.
Feb. 22, 1927 Congress passed the H.R. 9971, the Radio Act of 1927, providing government control over airwaves, licensing, and standards. The act also created the Federal Radio Commission (the precursor to the Federal Communications Commission). President Calvin Coolidge signed the Radio Act on February 23, 1927. A year later, Congress enhanced the Radio Act with passage of the Davis Amendment, S. 2317, which expanded radio technology to rural communities.
1932 Speaker of the House John Nance Garner of Texas denied requests from Columbia Broadcasting System and National Broadcasting Company radio to broadcast congressional debates concerning the possible repeal of the 18th Amendment (sanctioning Prohibition). Broadcasters ignored the ban, secretly planting microphones near the House Chamber to eavesdrop on the proceedings.
Nov. 7, 1933 A Standing Committee of Correspondents of the congressional press galleries rejected the applications of three radio newsmen from CBS System for admission to the galleries. Samuel Bell, chairman of the committee, explained that his decision was based on existing rules governing the congressional press galleries. Newspaper reporters, suspicious of the new medium, agreed with the decision, maintaining that Capitol quarters were too cramped to accommodate additional media members. Radio reporters were relegated to writing stories in Capitol broom closets or phone booths.
March 4, 1939 More than 400 radio stations from the United States and Canada, in addition to about a dozen international broadcasters, used microphones in the House Chamber to cover the celebration of the 150th anniversary of the first session of Congress. The radio coverage was touted as the most extensive for a single event to date.
July 4, 1939 Congress established radio galleries separate from the newspaper and periodical galleries, in the House and Senate, becoming the only national legislature to divide its galleries among different forms of media. House Speaker William B. Bankhead of Alabama awarded one of the newsmen involved in the struggle for radio access to congressional procedures, Fulton Lewis, Jr., president of the Radio Correspondents' Association, the key to the new radio gallery at a ceremony in the House Chamber.
July 24, 1939 President Franklin D. Roosevelt congratulated the four radio newsmen who pressured Congress into opening radio galleries in the Senate and the House, exclaiming that the event marked "a decided step forward in the dissemination of news concerning the deliberations of our national legislature.”
Sept. 15, 1944 Representative John Coffee of Washington introduced H.J. Res. 311, which called for live radio broadcasts of House proceedings. Coffee's measure followed on the heels of a nearly identical bill introduced by Senator Claude Pepper of Florida.
1945 Charged with determining how new technologies could be adopted for congressional proceedings, the Joint Committee on the Organization of Congress was the first committee to seriously discuss the use of radios in Congress congressional proceedings.
Nov. 17, 1947 “Congress Today,” a weekday radio series detailing the significant proceedings of the House and Senate, first aired. WOL news chief and Washington correspondent Albert Warner hosted the broadcast from the House Radio Gallery.
1970 The Legislative Reorganization Act of 1970 permitted House committees to broadcast public hearings live via radio and television.
1977 The House authorized legislation allowing radio and television broadcasts of its proceedings, but disagreements about whether Congress or the press should control the operating system caused delays in coverage.
June 12, 1978 Only 16 Members were present for the beginning of the first live radio broadcast of the regular proceedings of the House. The afternoon session also broadcast live debates about a resolution condemning the Ugandan government for alleged violations of human rights, legislation to appropriate money for the Department of Transportation, and a bill to increase funding for the Office of Toxic Substances. Freshman Representative Albert Gore of Tennessee gave the first one-minute speech and used the opportunity to comment on the historic occasion. The Associated Press was the only major radio broadcaster to carry the day’s proceedings.
June 17, 1978 Speaker Thomas (Tip) O’Neill permits audio coverage of House proceedings with the stipulation that all “accredited news media will be allowed to plug into the House microphone system and to distribute full audio coverage of House proceedings for an indefinite trial period.”