‘Cooperation’ falls apart but leaves a lasting habit
In the fall of 1932, the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education (NACRE) took to the air with the biggest experiment in educational broadcasting yet tried in America. Claiming that educational radio could be saved only by Cooperation between educators and commercial operators, NACRE presented more than a dozen series on airtime donated by the networks.
The experiment flopped. By the fall of 1934 NACRE Director Levering Tyson was lamenting the “pitifully small audiences” attracted by the NACRE shows and laying the blame on educators who scorned the medium’s special demands. Tyson’s recriminations echoed the litany that ran through the literature of Cooperation in the 1930s: Commercial broadcasters would be happy to help the cause of education, but the teachers refused to meet them halfway.
Yet Tyson knew well that the commercial radio hosts for NACRE programs had much to do with their failures. From the beginning, NACRE series held airtime on the sufferance of skeptical network managers. Within less than a year, NBC was undermining even the best of NACRE’s efforts, You and Your Government. In December 1932, reneging on its promises of undisturbed time, NBC sold the series’ Tuesday time period to the Eno Crime Club and offered a less desirable hour in its place. Tyson and the sponsoring committee protested to no avail. Tyson later bragged to NACRE Vice President Robert M. Hutchins that he had turned this defeat into a triumph, by obtaining ironclad pledges against future time shifts. But in the spring of 1934, NBC again sold out You and Your Government, this time to Gillette’s Gene and Glenn. That summer, the program’s half-hour was cut in half.
Other unilateral time shifts followed, while local NBC outlets increasingly balked at running You and Your Government, and network executives showed no interest in bringing them into line. Finally, NBC killed the series in 1936 on the grounds that it had gone stale.
The NACRE group that produced You and Your Government, the Committee on Civic Education by Radio, declined to die gracefully. In a post-mortem statement on its four years of Cooperation with NBC, CCER concluded that it was “useless at this time to attempt systematic education by national network broadcasting.” CCER exhaustively documented the time-shifts and deceptions that had crippled its works, including its plans to achieve financial independence by outside fundraising. Drawing the moral, the Committee cited “a conflict between the commercial interests of the Broadcasting Company and the educational uses of the radio which threatens to become almost fatal to the latter.” The group not only recommended that NACRE withdraw from national programming, but voiced some heretical praise for Midwestern university stations.
Even after these run-ins with NBC, Tyson refused to pick a quarrel with the industry, whose generosity he continued to praise. But by 1934 the NACRE consensus on Cooperation was crumbling.
The organization’s prize spokesman, President Hutchins of the University of Chicago, betrayed his own growing restlessness in a paper given at the NACRE assembly of October 1934. Charging that commercial broadcasters had caught from their advertisers “the delusion that a mass audience is the only audience,” Hutchins declared that radio would never educate “if the sole test of every program is the number of people gathered around the receiving sets.” The industry had been using “its so-called educational programs either for political reasons — to show how public-spirited they are — or as stop-gaps in the absence of paying material.” Hutchins called on commercial broadcasters to prove their good faith by providing academic broadcasters with subsidies as well as airtime. Educators could not be expected to produce good material until they had both secure hours and adequate budgets. It was no longer acceptable, Hutchins said, to rely on “professorial volunteers, dragooned into speaking by Mr. Tyson or the administrators of their universities.”
Hutchins’ acerbic candor signaled that NACRE’s grand experiment in national Cooperative broadcasting was on the skids. The educators accused the commercials of hypocrisy; the commercials charged the educators with incompetence. But both NACRE partners stood by the Cooperative idea — the networks because they still needed a service record that would play well before regulators and critics, the educators because they had no alternative. For his part, Hutchins emphasized that he had no basic quarrel with the broadcasting industry, provided that the industry furnished the facilities that university radio projects required. To an executive of the University of Wisconsin’s WHA, Hutchins archly remarked, “I assumed that nobody wanted to operate a radio station at a university unless he had to.”
NACRE wasn’t able to make Cooperation work, but the rhetoric of Cooperation survived.
Ironically, NACRE played its biggest advocacy role precisely while NACRE leaders were starting to admit the inadequacies of their broadcasting experiments.
Early in 1934, the Roosevelt Administration floated a proposal for a new commission to replace the FRC. Senators Wagner of New York and Hatfield of West Virginia suddenly threw a wrench into the approval machinery by offering an amendment that would require the new agency to reserve 25 percent of all radio frequencies for nonprofit broadcasters — the old Fess principal, long promoted by the National Committee for Education by Radio, plus an extra 10 percent.
The Wagner-Hatfield amendment was a last hurrah that had scant chance of becoming law. But it threatened to delay the creation of the Federal Communications Commission. To mollify backers of Wagner-Hatfield, the Senate approved another amendment — Section 307(c) of the Act — directing the FCC to carry out a formal study of the fixed percentages proposal. The Wagner-Hatfield amendment was then defeated and the Communications Act of 1934 was passed.
Back to the FCC
The new FCC carried out the mandated study in October and November 1934. A month of hearings piled up nearly 14,000 pages of testimony.
Once again, the key questions about nonprofit broadcasting were raised: Should the nonprofits receive government protection and aid? Or should they be left to fend for themselves in the free market, operating Independent stations where they could, relying on commercials’ concessions where they had to?
Once again, Cooperators and Independents hastily mobilized, as they had done when the Wilbur Committee convened five years before. The National Committee on Education by Radio (NCER) managed the case for the Independents, mixing arguments for reserved channels with general appeals for government assistance.
The commercials countered with statistics showing that they were already devoting huge proportions of their airtime (Paley of CBS estimated 70 percent) to public-interest broadcasting. NBC President Merlin Aylesworth introduced Freeman Gosden (Amos) and Charles Correll (Andy) to the FCC as “philosophers to the American people,” and the pair dutifully testified that they instructed their fans with tips on taxes and tooth care.
For the networks and the National Association of Broadcasters, the FCC hearings held one hellish moment. Floyd W. Reeves, director of personnel for the Tennessee Valley Authority, stunned observers by recommending that the federal government “own and operate a national system of radio stations,” chiefly for the purposes of adult education. Here was the commercial broadcasters’ nightmare: a proposal for an American BBC, coming from a government agency that competed with the power industry, a major patron of the broadcasting business. But that subversive specter quickly dissolved when the TVA chairman wired the FCC to repudiate Reeves’s testimony. The agency backed the use of radio for education, the TVA chairman explained, but it believed that “all such programs should be under non-governmental and nonpartisan control and direction.”
Finally, the FCC appeared less impressed by visions of government networks or the philosophy of Amos ‘n’ Andy than by the potentials of Cooperation. Back in 1929, when federal regulators had last showed any signs of wanting to protect radio education, Cooperation had been more a promise than a practice. By contrast, the 1934 inquiry heard abundant testimony on Cooperation as a vital force in the broadcasting world, most of it presented by NACRE, the rest by industry spokesmen. Tyson and his colleagues made no attempt to whitewash commercial broadcasters, but neither did they reveal the record of behind-the-scenes frictions that were then eroding the NACRE experiments in Cooperative programming.
In effect, the NACRE presentations neatly “balanced” the critical testimony of the National Committee on Education by Radio. The net result of the 1934 hearings was to picture Independent educational broadcasters as sincere but disorganized idealists, skirmishing on the fringes of the industry, while portraying Cooperation as the disciplined march of the future.
This, in any case, was the way the FCC interpreted what it had heard. In its report to Congress, dated January 1935, the FCC observed that many educators had spoken against reserved channels “hoping thereby, to protect the present cooperative effort being carried on between the commercial stations and nonprofit organizations.” Concluding that “the interests of the nonprofit organizations may be better served by the use of existing facilities … than by the establishment of new stations,” the FCC pledged to promote “cooperation in good faith by the broadcasters.”
NCER Secretary Tracy Tyler called the FCC report “a ‘straddle’ — a device for killing time while the commercial interests become more firmly entrenched.”
Whatever the FCC’s motives, clearly NACRE and Cooperation had carried the day. Instead of intervening in defense of educational stations, the federal authorities would take up the NACRE mission of matchmaking between educators and commercials. To that end, the FCC created a 40-member Federal Radio Education Committee (FREC) under the chairmanship of Commissioner of Education John W. Studebaker. Levering Tyson helped arrange funding by the Rockefeller Foundation and NACRE’s chief benefactor, the Carnegie Corp. Carnegie had special reason to hope that the FREC would be friendly to its ideas: Studebaker had first made his mark in adult education with a Carnegie-funded project he had engineered while he was superintendent of schools in Des Moines.
Harold McCarty of Wisconsin’s WHA, president of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, reflected the Independents’ skepticism about the new FREC when he told a colleague that the first meeting “was pretty disappointing and discouraging. Discussion veered away from what I regard as some of the vital issues calling for Cooperation and centered upon some things that are fairly harmless and not of pressing importance.”
Defeated and exhausted, the militant founders of NCER gave up the reigns to new officers. Under the leadership of Arthur Crane, president of the University of Wyoming, NCER briefly championed a “parallel public broadcasting system,” to be operated by the government, that would “supplement, not supplant” private industry. But this proposal was resisted by conservative Independents, like officials at Ohio State, who argued for going along with the FCC’s new emphasis on Cooperation. Crane gave in.
NCER renounced the confrontational tactics of the early 1930s and lobbied politely for an innocuous system of councils to produce programs for airing by existing stations — a plan not likely to upset anyone in the industry. Harold McCarty told Crane that he was “disappointed to see how the objective of supporting the effort to acquire educational broadcasting facilities has been subordinated” in NCER’s program.
But the new wave proved irresistible. NCER’s official historian noted that the organization finally “accepted the status quo in broadcasting, and stood ready to cooperate both with the FREC and the commercial broadcasters in constructive measures for the improvement of the American System.” It was a measure of NCER’s retreat from its origins that this historian, hired by NCER shortly before it folded in 1941, was Frank Ernest Hill, a writer who had long been affiliated with NACRE.
The new accent on accommodation was celebrated in a National Conference on Educational Broadcasting, organized by NACRE but co-sponsored by NCER, FREC, and other groups in December 1936. W.W. Charters, a veteran of the Wilbur Committee, applauded the “spirit of good will” that reflected the promoters’ desire “to avoid controversial issues.” Commissioner of Education Studebaker extolled the networks for their contributions to the latest Cooperative experiment, a Washington-based Federal Radio Project that would produce several impressive series over the next few years.
In Chicago, the fortunes of Cooperation were revived by a University Broadcasting Council that pooled the resources of seven local stations with those of the University of Chicago, Northwestern and DePaul. Operating on Rockefeller and Carnegie grants, the Council was broadcasting 30 hours per week of educational programming by the spring of 1937. Meanwhile, the FREC was planning a series of expensive research studies and busily advocating reconciliation between educators and commercial radio.
All this upbeat activity was deceptive. The FCC verdict of 1935 gave the decision to Cooperation. The true victors were the commercials. With the threat of government intervention finally dispelled, the rising creed in educational broadcasting placed less emphasis on Cooperation than on the glories of “the American System,” anchored in private control of broadcasting facilities.
Happily contrasting the free enterprise basis of American radio with European state ownership, RCA President David Sarnoff told the 1936 National Conference that “we cannot have a controlled radio and retain a democracy.” William Paley of CBS virtually repeated Sarnoff’s speech at the 1937 National Conference, warning that “he who attacks the fundamentals of the American system attacks democracy itself.” It remained for the FREC to swell this self-congratulatory chorus by explicitly identifying Cooperation with “The American Way,” rooted firmly, as Studebaker noted, in private property.
In 1939, Harold Engel of Wisconsin’s WHA complained to a colleague that “the propaganda campaign carried on by the ‘industry’ to entrench the ‘American System’ ” was “aimed at an ultimate commercial monopoly.” Whether or not there was conspiracy afoot, during the late 1930s patriotic capitalism swallowed Cooperation, and the FREC found itself tagging along behind the flag-waving networks.
The networks made some notable strides in public affairs programming, but most of them were in-house initiatives rather than Cooperative projects shared with independent educators. NBC introduced the Town Meeting of the Air, a lively debate show, in 1935. Three years later CBS invented The People’s Platform, a lighter version of the Chicago Round Table in which experts talked issues with celebrities and “men-in-the-street.” In 1942, NBC upped the ante on the old American School of the Air by launching a University of the Air. The networks also ornamented their staffs with prominent educators. NBC landed the services of James Rowland Angell, ex-president of Yale, as its “educational counsellor” in 1937; CBS hired the adult educator Lyman Bryson in 1938.
But none of this changed fundamental network attitudes toward educational programming. According to Bryson, the CBS Board of Adult Education had many first-rate members (including several ex-directors of NACRE), but met only once a year and eventually “died of inanition.” One of the CBS Board’s few achievements was to propose a highbrow Great Books program called Invitation to Learning, which went on the air in 1941. Bryson recalled that when the program’s first moderator, a college president, quarreled with the CBS program department on scholar vs. showman issues, “naturally the showman had to win.” Eventually Bryson, a CBS employee, took over as the program’s director.
The truth was, Tyson later admitted, that the industry had “won a smashing victory” in 1935, a victory that supposedly committed it to cooperate with educators but actually freed it from FCC pressure to honor its commitments.
The heady toasts to a new era of mutual understanding prefaced many speeches but few on-the-air accomplishments. One by one, the organs of Cooperation faded from the scene. Chicago’s University Broadcasting Council fell apart in 1938 when the University of Chicago decided that its partners weren’t pulling their weight. The Federal Radio Project produced some well-crafted series on NBC and CBS, despite scheduling shifts like those that had plagued NACRE shows; but Congress killed the Project’s appropriations in 1940. The second National Conference on Educational Broadcasting, held with much fanfare in 1937, proved to be the last one. The FREC sponsored pioneering radio research, but as George H. Gibson has remarked, it “never got around” to its primary task of fostering more Cooperative broadcasting. Critics charged that by creating the FREC, the FCC merely pigeonholed its responsibility for overseeing educational radio. In any case, the FREC failed to survive World War II.
The ultimate fate of Cooperation might have been read in the rapid denouement of NACRE. With its Carnegie support running out and the FREC pledged to pick up the torch for Cooperation, NACRE scaled down its program in 1936. Tyson, by now thoroughly disillusioned, recommended that NACRE quit national production work and instead stick to informational services. A half-year later he submitted his resignation and urged that NACRE turn over its portfolio to the FREC. By the start of 1938, Tyson was installed in a college presidency (the ceremony was carried over NBC) and NACRE was a collection of forgotten files.
Freed of his duties as a go-between, Tyson revealed an unexpected candor. He continued to tread lightly on the industry and to flog NCER. In a preface to a NACRE sponsored survey of educational stations that came out in 1937, Tyson pinned the blame for the Independents’ troubles on a Philistine public: “If the American people have not risen to a level where they regard broadcasting as a cultural opportunity, they cannot expect either an industry or their government so to regard it.”
But in the same year, Tyson began to criticize the FCC as well. Declaring that only a “royal commission” of elite citizens could set American educational radio on a firm footing, Tyson implied that it was already too late for the conciliatory policies of a NACRE to have much effect.
During the period 1930-1936, Tyson told the soon-to-expire NACRE Board, “habits were formed in American radio and patterns were set. If during these evolutionary stages foremost educators in this country could have been a party to the formation of plans and had been welcomed in the councils of the broadcasters, and vice-versa, there is no doub t. . . that the structure of American radio would be different today from the form we now observe.”
What Tyson neglected to say was that NACRE had been organized precisely to foster joint planning by industry and academy. Failing in that function, but sticking by its rhetoric, NACRE covered up the fatal inertia in American educational radio and thus helped to fashion the status quo that Tyson deplored.
As Cooperation was coming to a dead end, the movement for Independent educational broadcasting showed fresh signs of life. James L. Fly, an antitrust crusader who had been general counsel of the TVA, brought vigorous pro-education views to the chairmanship of the FCC. In January 1938, the FCC suddenly reversed its past policies by reserving for educational stations 25 high-frequency AM channels. Two years later, impressed by testimony marshalled by Commissioner of Education Studebaker, the FCC reserved five of the new FM channels for educators. Only a few school boards and colleges had applied for FM licenses before Pearl Harbor disrupted planning for new outfits. But even during the war, Fly and Studebaker exhorted educators to take advantage of the bountiful vistas that FM would open up for educational broadcasting when peace returned. In January 1945, Tracy Tyler, now editor of the Journal of the Association for Educational Radio, reminded his readers that they had “missed the boat in the early days of AM broadcasting” and pleaded with them not to squander this second chance. Finally, in 1945-1946, the FCC reaffirmed its faith in noncommercial radio by reserving 20 FM channels for educational stations.
After the war, academics moved with growing confidence into FM radio, and then into the new domain of television. A generally supportive FCC, the postwar passion for schooling, and vigorous lobbying by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, all contributed to this expansion. Cooperation with commercial stations was neither trusted nor needed any longer. The future of educational broadcasting clearly lay with the hundreds of Independent stations that then occupied channels in the enlarged broadcast spectrum.
Yet, aftereffects lingered from the dalliance with Cooperation. The FM frontier and friendly regulators gave educational broadcasters new homesteads, but they could not recover the ground that had been lost to the commercials under the aegis of Cooperation. “The industry” emerged from the war commanding the lion’s share, not just of broadcasting resources but of the power to define the medium’s purposes and potentials in the public mind. An opinion survey conducted for the NAB by Paul Lazarsfeld in 1946 confirmed the commercials’ ideological triumph. The American public liked commercial radio as it was, Lazarsfeld concluded, largely because it was so well adapted to the nation’s “general stage of intellectual development.”
The challenge of advancing listeners’ “intellectual development,” of inviting them to learn, would be left to the noncommercials. But the noncommercials would remain a sideshow to the business Big Top. Levering Tyson was right. The heyday of Cooperation, the early 1930s, fixed the essential “habits and patterns” of American radio — habits and patterns that consigned public broadcasting to the underfunded idealism that has been its hope and its cross ever since.
81. Tyson to Hutchins, Jan. 14, 1933, Hutchins Papers Addenda, Box 99, University of Chicago Archives; Reed, “Report of the Committee on Civic Education by Radio,” p. 123; Reed, “Civic Education by Radio,” Radio and Education: Fourth Assembly (1934), p. 217; Four Years of Network Broadcasting, pp. 50-52.
90. Reminiscences of Lyman Bryson, Radio Pioneers Project, Oral History Collection, Columbia; correspondence between Lyman Bryson and Morse Cartwright, 1932-33, in Lyman Bryson Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.
93. Crane’s new, softened program for NCER was presented in “An American Public Radio Board Plan,” Education by Radio 6 (May 1936):13-15. McCarty’s complaint appears in a letter to Crane, Jan. 6, 1938, in NAEB Papers, Box 1, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
95. Charters, Introduction, Educational Broadcasting 1936: Proceedings of the First National Conference on Educational Broadcasting, December 10-12, 1936, ed., C.S., Marsh (University of Chicago, 1937), p. ix; Studebaker, “Radio in the Service of Education,” Educational Broadcasting 1936, pp. 21-34.
96. Hill, Listen and Learn, pp. 94-95; “The University Broadcasting Council: A Cooperative Experiment in Educational Broadcasting,” June 1938, Allen Miller Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin.
97. David Sarnoff, “Broadcasting in the American Democracy,” Educational Broadcasting 1936, p. 154; William S. Paley, “The American System of Broadcasting: The Viewpoint of the Radio Industry,” Educational Broadcasting 1937: Proceedings of the Second National Conference on Educational Broadcasting, November 29-December 1, 1937, ed. C.S. Marsh (University of Chicago, 1938), p. 6; “The FREC: What It Is, What It Does, Its Policy,” Papers of the American Association for Adult Education, Division of Manuscripts and Archives, New York Public Library. On the aims and atmosphere of the FREC, see also The Service Bulletin of the FREC, the first number of which appeared in November 1939.
102. On the demise of the University Broadcasting Council, see Minutes of Radio Committee Meeting, Feb. 14, 1938, Allen Miller Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin; and Judith C. WaIler, Radio: The Fifth Estate, second edition (Houghton Mifflin, 1950), pp. 303-304, For criticism of the FREC, see George H, Gibson, Public Broadcasting: The Role of the Federal Government, 1912-1976 (Praeger, 1977), pp. 33-35, and Hill, Listen and Learn, pp. 137, 200.
105. Studebaker’s role in organizing support for reserved FM channels is described in The Service Bulletin of the FREC 2 (April 1940):1-2. The statement by Tracy Tyler is from “New Radio Developments Challenge Educators,” Journal of the Association for Education by Radio 4 (January 1945):61. Gibson, Public Broadcasting, gives the fullest account of the events that turned around FCC policy on reserved channels in the period 1938-1946.
106. Paul Lazarsfeld and Harry Field, The People Look at Radio (University of North Carolina, 1946), pp. 72-73.