Raymond Asserson, Sr., The Man Who Built WNYC in 1924: Speaking Truth to Power

Email a Friend
WNYC's  first day of broadcasting.  B.L. Davies, Public Service Operator [l] , Raymond Asserson, Chief Radio Engineer [c], and W. Stauber, Westinghouse engineer in charge of transmitter installation.

As New York City's Broadcasting Supervisor, Raymond Asserson was charged with designing and building the first WNYC facility by then Commissioner for Plant and Structures, Grover A. Whalen. Generally behind the scenes in bringing WNYC to life, Asserson made his mark publicly before the House Merchant Marine Committee on March 12, 1924. Testifying on behalf of Whalen, the former Navy engineer charged that through its patents, AT&T had stymied New York City's efforts to set up a radio station and had effectively created a radio monopoly.

"Now, we feel that this question is not one of simply local importance. We feel that it is one so important that it is above partisanship and politics and that it affects the lives of every man, woman and child in the country. We feel in the city that the telephone company is unquestionably the biggest steal that has ever been made in the history of any industry in this country, and we feel that the methods they have adopted in their ambition to secure this monopoly must mean they are playing for pretty high stakes...We feel, that among other things cherished by the people of the country, is the freedom of speech, the freedom of the press, and the freedom of the our air; that it is just as important and just as sacred as that of freedom of the seas, as far as nations are concerned."[1]

It took just over two years from the time Commissioner Grover A. Whalen got the New York City Board of Aldermen to approve $50,000 for the equipment and facilities for WNYC and its first broadcast on July 8, 1924. Some might chalk it up to inefficient city bureaucracy, a civil service mentality or some other pejorative phrase about the government bungling of public funds.  In fact, it was none of these. Whalen had a vision and he moved on it despite being undermined along the way by the communications power broker of the day, AT&T, in collusion with RCA, General Electric, Western Electric and Westinghouse. Speaking for Whalen, Asserson stated:

"New York City has wanted a broadcast station for two years. We feel there ought to be at least one station in New York City, under the control of the city, and under the control of officers elected by the people and responsible to the people. We found out after about six months of negotiations, that a policy has been determined upon by the telephone company to control the air and prevent the city from having a station."[2]

By today's lexicon it could be likened to a struggle between efforts to subvert net neutrality and the forces of free speech and innovation. In this case, a large corporation (AT&T, which owned WEAF in New York) used patents and licensing to maximize profit while maintaining power and control at the expense of the public interest, convenience and necessity. The company denied any wrongdoing, despite the findings of a Federal Trade Commission investigation supporting this conclusion [3]. In his testimony before the committee, AT&T Vice President Eugene S. Wilson said his company was willing to issue licenses to those who desire to broadcast and would not oppose federal regulation of the airwaves. [4]

The city's top radio engineer, however, charged AT&T not only refused to sell the City of New York a transmitter for a reasonable price but made it financially prohibitive to use, given various licensing and patent restrictions.

"Now, to buy a broadcasting station under such restrictions, is not to buy a broadcasting station at all; it is simply to buy a toy to play with. You might just as well buy a truck from a trucking corporation; under the restrictions you shall not use it for business ...that you shall run in second gear instead of high...that if you want to go to Boston, you shall not go; or if you want to go to Philadelphia, you shall do so only after having obtained permission from the telephone and telegraph company, under concessions which the telephone company is now operating, having a monopoly in advertising, in toll service, in power, and in the use of remote control," Asserson told the House panel. [5]

In the end, corporate efforts to monopolize the airwaves, what Grover Whalen called 'the radio trust,' were busted. Secretary of Commerce, Herbert Hoover, and Congress were in agreement about the need for federal regulation of the airwaves. In the meantime, Whalen managed to circumvent 'the trust' by locating and purchasing a second-hand Westinghouse transmitter from Brazil (below) for Asserson to install at the Municipal Building.

Broadcast transmitter at the Brazilian Independence Centenary Exhibition (1922-1923) in Rio de Janeiro. This equipment became WNYC's first transmitter. (Photo courtesy of NYC Municipal Archives)

Raymond Asserson, Sr. was a 1913 graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy. After seven years in the Navy he retired for the first time in 1920.  In 1929, Asserson left WNYC and was named Assistant Chief Engineer at the FCC's predecessor agency, the Federal Radio Commission, and then the FCC, where he served until 1942. With WWII under way, Asserson was recalled to the Navy and served as its representative to the Joint Electronic Precedence Board until 1946, when he again retired. He received a Presidential citation for this work.

[1] "Hearings Before The Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries," House of Representatives, March 11-14, 1924.  Government Printing Office. pg. 42.

[2]  Ibid., pg. 40.

[3] "Report of the Federal Trade Commission on the Radio Industry," December 1, 1923. Government Printing Office.

[4] "Radio Monopoly Charges Denied," New York Evening Post, March 12, 1924, pg. 2.

[5]  "Hearings Before The Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries," House of Representatives, March 11-14, 1924.  Government Printing Office. pg. 41.