"It will profoundly change the Senate." "It will benefit media-savvy members and force the retirement of those who are uncomfortable with the new technology." These concerns were commonly heard during the early 1980s debate over whether to permit the televising of Senate floor proceedings, but they originated 60 years earlier in response to another media innovation—radio.
World War I produced significant advances in the field of radio technology. In the aftermath of that conflict, commercial radio stations began operation throughout the nation and radio pioneers explored the public service and entertainment potential of this new medium.
In the Senate, it took a new member with a background in radio to grasp possibilities for applying this emerging technology to the chamber operations. Soon after Nebraska Republican Robert Howell took his seat in 1923, he proposed establishment of a joint army-navy commission to examine the use of radio in the Senate. Howell had served as a naval submarine officer during World War I and later conducted a survey of radio uses in Europe.
The first part of Howell's proposal addressed the problem of chronically poor acoustics in the Senate Chamber by requesting technical advice on placement of an "apparatus" there to allow each senator at his desk to "individually and clearly hear, without the use of a head receiver, the proceedings of the Senate at all times in whatever tone of voice conducted." The proposal's second portion sought information on broadcasting Senate proceedings to the nation through the radio facilities of the War and Navy Departments.
Freshman Howell immediately ran into opposition from Republican Majority Leader Henry Cabot Lodge, a 30-year veteran. Citing the cost and disruption of equipment installation, Lodge concluded, "I do not at all know whether or not the Senate desires to have everything which is said here broadcasted." Other senators treated Howell's proposal as a joke, with one promising support only if the Senate voted to install a radio transmitter in the White House "so we can hear what is going on down there." Another warned about extended sessions. "We stay here twice too long as it is. If we put in a radio, we'd never adjourn."
Although the Senate eventually agreed to Howell's resolution on May 2, 1924, it took no follow-up action. Decades passed before the installation in 1971 of an effective voice amplification system in the chamber and the inauguration in 1986 of regular radio and television coverage of floor proceedings.