Living with the FCC - a History

July 22, 2009


On June 19, 1934, the Communications Act of 1934 created the Federal Communications. Its duties took over for the Federal Radio Commission, which was established by the Radio Act of 1927 on Feb. 3, 1927. John Battison looks back on the early days of the FRC and the FCC, recalling some of the simpler times and possibly better methods of another time.

Over the years the broadcast engineer has had a rather difficult path through the intricacies of the Federal Radio Commission (FRC) and the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Starting in 1927, under the auspices of the Department of Commerce, the FRC dealt with matters of authorizing and licensing radio communications. In those days, the Commission included technically competent members such as Dr. Orestes H. Caldwell who designed the lighting system that gave the Rainbow Room at the top of the RCA building (now known as the GE building) its name. This avant garde lighting system was designed to change the color lighting of the Rainbow Room to complement the color of the dress of ladies entering the restaurant. I later met. Dr. Caldwell, and became associate editor of Teletech Magazine, which he founded and edited.

In 1934, the seven-member Federal Communications Commission took over the work of the five men of the FRC and for too short a time included at least one engineer among the commissioners. Some people may recall the names of Commissioners T.A.M. Craven and George Sterling. Since the days of the latter, engineers have been conspicuous by their absence from this ruling body, and it seems that only lawyers have determined technical matters sometimes aided by their engineering assistants.

For a long time, the FCC was housed in the old Post Office building in the old Federal triangle section of E Street NW, Washington, DC. The office buildings in the area provided homes for numerous attorneys and the relatively few consulting engineers of that period. Most of these engineers were located within a few blocks of the FCC's front door. Just prior to the commission's move to M Street the concentration seemed to increase. In the early 1960s the Munsey building on E NW Street was home to Dow, Lohnes and Albertson on the third floor, George Davis on the fifth, I was on the eighth and George Lohnes and Ron Culver were on the 10th floor. When the move to M street occurred most of the attorneys acquired luxurious offices in the newly available office space in the vicinity of Connecticut Avenue and M. Street.

At the old address, in addition to the convenience of having the FCC close at hand, there was the wonderful easy access to information from the FCC. If my memory serves me correctly the Public Reference Room was on the second or third floor. There was no restriction on entry to the building or the reference room -- a far cry from the Commission' s M street NW home, and even more so than its new Southwest Washington domicile.

The public reference room was under the command of a very helpful gentleman named George Simpkins who was also very cooperative. My recollection is that the room was not extremely busy all the time in the earlier years. Although FM had been authorized and the frequency band doubled since prewar days the majority of the traffic in the reference room concerned AM projects, and the "AM List" was the most popular reference document. This contained the pertinent information about every AM application as it was filed. Actually, in later years when Dataworld became active, its easily accessible data frequently proved to be more accurate than the FCC's! Incidentally, Dataworld first saw the light of day in the old offices of Kear and Kennedy on 18th St NW.

The normal easy access to information in the public reference room was not limited. A wonderful situation existed that I'm sure we shall never see again in these days when "security" governs every action. If George Simpkins happened to be away from his desk when a customer needed information it was not at all unusual to see the inquirer bypass George's desk and proceed straight to the file room behind George's desk where the desired material was kept. The required file would be located and used. After use the file would be placed in George's "in basket" together with a completed request form. As far as I am aware no one ever took advantage of George's gentleman's agreement. And it ran very smoothly, was very convenient and a great time saver.

These were the days of the late 1950's and early 1960's, offset printing and Xeroxing were coming into use and the completion of Form 302 involved the preparation of many pages of information. This was the era of the 10 percent rule, which generally required more maps and the miserable spaghetti map. As a result Forms 302 required still more paperwork to meet the Commission' s requirements. As has always been the case, the engineers of the Broadcast Bureau were very pleasant to work with and were always very cooperative.

This wonderful working relationship with the Commission was not limited to the Public Reference Room. It was not unknown for a Commission engineer to draw, unofficially, a consulting engineer's attention to an error in his engineering filing. And thus save him a red face -- or worse.


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The well-known engineering consulting firm of Silliman, Moffat and Kowalsky also operated a very useful printing company named Seabrooke Printing, which was invaluable to the consulting engineers in the Washington, DC, area. They supplied matts of the FCC forms at very reasonable prices and produced excellent printed applications ready for filing with the Commission.

It seems that for a long time the preparation and delivery to the FCC of Form 302 was a major factor in the industry. However as time has passed and new services have been developed the volume of applications received by the FCC has increased tremendously. Over the years some forms and applications have been deleted. The Special Temporary Authorization (STA) still does not require a form. But it is often a very important part of engineering work. This term was sometimes confused with the now obsolete Special Service Authorization (SSA).

The SSA was an amazing piece of legal legerdemain. It must have been devised by lawyers because it allowed something to be done that was completely prohibited by the rules. As its name implies it was an authorization for special broadcast service presumably based on special needs.

I first came across an SSA as an intern with Jansky and Bailey in 1946. WNYC had an SSA. When I joined ABC's engineering staff SSA's became of great interest to me because we operated WJZ in New York on 770kc as a 1A station and KOB Albuquerque full-time with 50kW was also on 770kc as a 1A station! Operation of a second station on a class 1A frequency was strictly forbidden by the rules. I can't remember the excuse given by the legal eagles for the issue of these two 1A grants on the same frequency but they covered their mistakes by issuing an SSA to KOB. SSA's were usually good for six months at a time. So for a very long time KOB existed on a series of SSA's. When the United States decided to actively participate in the CCIR Region 2 regulations the station class designations and powers changed and it seems to me that the WJZ/KOB confrontation was conveniently lost in the shuffle.

Mention of Region 2 brings to mind the memory of the four days in 1991 when the United States had a 9kc channel separation in the AM medium waveband. This occurred at the commencement of the 1981 World Administrative Radio Conference in Buenos Aires. To a certain extent the broadcasting industry had become concerned with the possibility of interference mainly through heterodynes from emerging nations as the powers of their transmitters increased. The 9kc separation used in other parts of the world meant that there was a strong probability of 1kc heterodynes occurring on many of our AM medium-wave channels. In my opinion also there was a possible hidden benefit for hungry potential broadcasters in the change from 10kc to 9kc separation because this could mean the possibility of more medium-wave AM stations in the United States.

The US/FCC delegation flew down to Argentina with orders from the FCC that our separation was then 9kc and we were to persuade the conference to agree to 9kc separation for the Americas. By Wednesday evening of that week we had persuaded the conference to agree. On Thursday morning we received instructions from the commission to revert to 10kc separation! Sanity had prevailed. So we then had to reverse all the reasons we had given for using 9kc and persuade the conference to return to 10kc. Fortunately, we were able to do so, and Region 2 reverted to the status quo. Thus ended 9kc separation for the AM band in the US.

With the passage of years Commission operations have changed. We once had to file an increasing amount of paper work. Today the Commission appears to abhor paper and now insists on receiving applications via e-mail. And it almost seems as though paper work is no longer in style. How tempus fugit!


E-mail Battison at batcom@ohio.net.



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