The media reformer and scholar Charles Siepmann (1899–1985) is all but forgotten today, but his legacy holds important implications for public media’s future. Siepmann represents a policy orientation that focuses on tensions and confrontations between democratic ideals and commercial imperatives in the American media system. During his long career, he always insisted that media institutions should be accountable to the communities they serve, arguing that an unchecked commercial media system could never provide for all of a democratic society’s communication needs.
Drawing from a longer study, I briefly summarize Siepmann’s media policy scholarship and advocacy while emphasizing some of his core arguments for why a strong public-oriented media system is essential for a democratic society. Reclaiming and foregrounding such democratic values could bolster rationales for protecting — and even expanding — public media into the digital future.
A British-born, American-naturalized policy advocate, Siepmann played an instrumental role at the BBC in its early days. As programming director in the 1930s, he left a lasting imprint by pushing the BBC to broaden its appeal to diverse communities and to experiment with new formats and lively public service–oriented radio fare. (For example, he hired his friend Alistair Cooke to host what would eventually become the famous program Letter from America, which aired until 2004.)
He moved to the U.S. in 1939 to lecture at Harvard and then worked for the Office of War Information during World War II. In the mid-1940s, the FCC commissioned him to author its controversial “Blue Book,” which mandated that broadcasters devote a certain amount of time to local, experimental and advertising-free programming. The commercial broadcast industry aggressively fought back against these measures, accusing Siepmann and the FCC of trying to “BBC-ize” American radio.
Although the Blue Book was ultimately unsuccessful (largely due to Red-baiting), Siepmann never gave up fighting for media reform, even as he took refuge in the academy amidst growing Cold War–era repression in Washington, D.C., and across the nation. In 1946, New York University hired Siepmann to become the founding director of one of the first doctorate-granting communication programs in the country.
Mentoring dozens of media scholars and practitioners and authoring a number of influential books, Siepmann remained engaged with media policy debates throughout his academic career. His policy activism extended to Canada, where in 1949 he led a comprehensive survey of Canadian broadcasting for the Royal Commission on National Development in the Arts, Letters, and Sciences (the “Massey Commission”). However, most of his efforts were focused on American media policy, where for over three decades he fought tirelessly to establish public-interest broadcasting. While advocating for a more socially responsible commercial media system, he also pushed for nonprofit educational programming. For example, he advised the National Educational Television Center (NET) during its struggle to define an American vision for educational/public broadcasting. He also was a key adviser on educational broadcasting for the Ford Foundation, which played an instrumental role in establishing American public broadcasting in the late 1960s.
Siepmann carried with him BBC-inspired assumptions about media’s role in a democratic society. Drawing from his 1959 FCC testimony on television’s future, he argued in a piece titled “Moral Aspects of Television” that broadcast media could enhance democracy only if public-interest policies were implemented. Otherwise, it was doubtful that an unregulated commercial broadcast system could carry out this task since purely market-driven values were antithetical to public service.
Speaking before the FCC in the late 1940s during debates that would culminate with the Fairness Doctrine, Siepmann called for a “liberty more precious” than broadcasters’ freedom to seek profits: “the freedom of the people to hear all sides of controversial issues.” He concluded that “Freedom of speech is a cherished privilege in a democracy. But there are other freedoms … which have to be accommodated,” especially “the freedom of the public to learn … all that may be learned in the free market of thought.” Commercial broadcasters, however, had little incentive to pursue this goal, because a “broadcaster’s prime interest is in profits.”
Arguing for a public right to access a diverse media system, Siepmann, in an activist pamphlet titled The Radio Listener’s Bill of Rights, urged listeners to engage in radio policy, reminding them that the “wavelengths of the air belong to the people of America.” Since AM radio was already dominated by a handful of media corporations, Siepmann believed that FM radio represented a “second chance” to establish public-interest programming. “Millions of us are dissatisfied with radio’s contribution to public service” and the “frequency of advertising,” he wrote. “What do we do about it?”
Siepmann’s social-democratic orientation had British roots but was ideologically aligned with the American New Deal project, as well as the Popular Front coalition of radicals and liberals, which lasted until the late 1940s. But as the political landscape rapidly gave way to anti-communist hysteria, these politics were cast outside the mainstream. Siepmann lost influence as his fellow media reformers were pressured to leave D.C., but he kept his progressive ideals alive as a scholar-activist within the new field of communication research. He continued to intervene in media policy debates throughout the ’50s and ’60s.
Siepmann’s policy approach saw value in a structurally diverse media system, a “mixed system” involving government protections, subsidies and active community engagement, while allowing both commercial and noncommercial media to flourish. This social-democratic orientation recognizes that critical services and infrastructures that are vital for a healthy democracy — including media institutions —should not be left entirely to the market.
Recovering Siepmann’s vision
Now is an opportune time to reacquaint ourselves with Siepmann’s social democratic logic. With American journalism in free fall as the newspaper industry collapses and as revenue-deprived digital journalism is often cluttered with invasive and deceptive ads, this critical juncture should be public media’s moment to step in where commercial news media have failed.
Unfortunately, for too many people, the notion of public media seems anachronistic. The internet seems to provide a proliferation of news sources, and radio is too often dismissed as a dying medium. Casual viewers may fail to discern the distinctions between PBS, with its “enhanced underwriting,” and commercial television. Moreover, public media is under constant political and economic pressure. At a time when the need for public media should be most self-evident, conservative politicians routinely target public broadcasting for proposed budget cuts. Concurrently, market pressures are further weakening public media, as dramatically exemplified with Sesame Street, one of PBS’s most celebrated shows for over 40 years, now airing first on HBO. Nonetheless, survey data consistently show high levels of support for public broadcasting, despite its compromised state, suggesting that Americans might accept arguments for increased subsidies.
With professional for-profit journalism withering away and cable television infatuated with Donald Trump, we may consider what a less commercial and more public media system might look like. Journalism produced within a public media model might be liberated from the relentless pursuit of ever-diminishing profits and could focus more on areas vacated by the commercial press, such as local, state-level and international news coverage. Community and public broadcast stations could transition into multimedia centers (as many already are) to create digital media across multiple platforms and support community-level investigative reporting, thereby expanding public media’s capacity, reach, diversity and relevance. Indeed, stepping in where the market fails is a natural role for public media. The BBC recently moved in this direction by announcing that it would fund 150 reporters at news organizations throughout the U.K. to focus on local journalism.
For American public media to follow suit would require increased subsidies. Unfortunately, and in stark contrast to global norms, our public media institutions remain impoverished. The U.S. is an outlier among leading democratic countries with its meager funding of public media from local, state and federal government: less than $4 per person per year. This is especially disheartening considering that research has shown how strong public media systems correlate with higher political knowledge.
Whether it’s nonstop sensationalistic election coverage or “clickbait” stories that privilege facile narratives with catchy headlines, excessive commercialism leads to various kinds of market biases and omissions. These tendencies in commercial media necessitate a public media alternative — a public option that pushes for-profit media to be more responsible and provide a wider selection of media fare as well as actual journalism.
Facing similar challenges decades ago, Charles Siepmann understood that we must rescue media’s democratic potential from commercial capture. Today’s public media advocates could follow his example by stressing democratic values while being clear about commercial media’s constraints. Given the problems facing our nation and our planet, we need public media more than ever before.
Victor Pickard is an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication. His research focuses on the history and political economy of media institutions. He is the editor (with Robert McChesney) of Will the Last Reporter Please Turn Out the Lights and the author of America’s Battle for Media Democracy: The Triumph of Corporate Libertarianism and the Future of Media Reform. Follow him on Twitter.
This commentary appears as part of Rewind: The Roots of Public Media, our series of historical essays about public media created in partnership with the Radio Preservation Task Force. The RPTF is an initiative of the Library of Congress. Josh Shepperd, assistant professor of media studies at Catholic University in Washington, D.C., and national research director of the Radio Preservation Task Force, is Faculty Curator of the Rewind series. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org