July 24, 1939
The Senate Radio Gallery Opens
The Senate has had a press gallery since 1841, so why did it need to authorize a separate gallery for radio correspondents in July 1939? Other national legislatures do not divide their press galleries according to the technology by which correspondents reported. What makes the U.S. Congress different?
The answer dates back to the Gilded Age in the late 19th century, when Congress turned control of its press galleries over to the journalists themselves. Reporters had complained that the Senate and House admitted anyone who applied for a press pass, which had allowed lobbyists to infiltrate the galleries posing as journalists. Once the correspondents took over accreditation, they instituted a rule that defined a reporter as someone who filed news via telegraph to a daily newspaper. The rule closed the loophole on lobbyists who were affiliated with small weekly papers as their cover.
This system worked as long as the congressional media consisted of newspaper reporters. Then radio began broadcasting the news. As early as 1923 radio was covering Calvin Coolidge’s State of the Union message and conducting live interviews from inside the Capitol. Radio reporters lugged heavy equipment and needed space to operate, but the newspaper correspondents barred them from the press gallery unless they also reported for a daily paper. Newspaper correspondents simply did not regard any non-print reporting as legitimate.
In 1937 a reporter for Hearst’s Washington Herald, named Fulton Lewis, Jr., gave up his newspaper job in order to report on Washington radio station WOL. A fiery commentator, known as the “voice with a snarl,” Lewis later took his broadcasts national on the Mutual Radio network. He prided himself on doing his own reporting, but when he stopped writing for newspapers, the press gallery revoked his pass. The reporters who ran the press gallery figured that if a radio station wanted someone to tell the news from Washington, they could hire “a working newspaperman” to give a talk every once in a while. Outraged by this rejection, Lewis lobbied his friends in Congress to create a separate radio gallery.
Newspaper reporters dismissed Lewis’ crusade as a publicity stunt, but they had not counted on the eagerness of members of Congress to gain radio coverage. On July 24, 1939, the Senate opened a radio gallery. Radio reporters were given a few seats in a side gallery and a small room beside the press gallery. There they set up cubicles to conduct interviews and record their commentaries. When television appeared in the late 1940s, the Radio Gallery morphed seamlessly into the Radio-TV Gallery, largely because the same companies that ran the radio networks also owned the television networks. In the 1980s the Radio-TV Gallery moved to its current, more spacious location. There it operates entirely separately from the newspaper reporters who refused to let radio broadcasters into the press gallery.