Tuning out education, Chapter 2

Print More

It would have been a boost for public radio — but the report fizzled

The years 1929-30 were momentous for educational radio in the United States. Two foundations brought new money, ideas and organizational drive into the field. The obscure Payne Fund picked up the banner of independent radio educators; the prestigious Carnegie Corp. backed the creed of educator-commercial Cooperation.

Frederick Keppel

Frederick Keppel, president of the Carnegie Corp. philanthropy that later endorsed the expansion of nonprofit public broadcasting, held a different view in radio days, backing the doctrine of Cooperation: that private enterprise was best equipped to put education on the air. (Photo: Carnegie Corp. of New York.)

Skirmishing between Independents and Cooperators climaxed in an intriguing might-have-been: a panel that came remarkably close to endorsing federal support for public broadcasting before World War II. That possibility flickered and died, but the issue between independents and Cooperators remain unsettled.

By the beginning of 1931, each side had its own pressure group: the Carnegie-funded National Advisory Council on Radio in Education (NACRE) and the Payne-bankrolled National Committee on Education by Radio (NCER).

Founded by a wealthy Cleveland family, the New York-based Payne Fund sought to harness the new mass media for the benefit of public education and young people. It was best known for sponsoring 12 studies of the movies’ impact on audiences, carried out in 1929-32 under the direction of W.W. Charters. As early as 1921, the Fund turned its attention to radio, urging the U.S. Commissioner of Education to promote national school broadcasting. But the Fund’s sustained involvement in educational radio did not begin until its president, H.M. Clymer, traveled to England to inspect the educational program of the BBC in December 1926. The following year, the Fund hired Ben Darrow, formerly schoolmaster (“Uncle Ben”) of WLS’s Little Red School House in Chicago, to conduct a national survey of educators’ interest in radio and to “develop the possibilities of broadcasting for schools . . . under the guidance of organized educational authorities.”[13]

In January 1929, Darrow launched a Payne-financed demonstration project: The Ohio School of the Air, a daily hour of talks, readings, “playlets” and “dramalogs” designed for classroom reception. Officially sponsored by the Ohio Education Department, the School was broadcast over the facilities of the state university station WEAO [now WOSU] and the giant Cincinnati station WLW. The demonstration worked. More than 100,000 students regularly tuned in the programs in 22 states. In the summer of 1929, the Ohio legislature appropriated $40,000 to support the School for two more years.[14]

Meanwhile, the Carnegie Corp. was getting into educational radio through a subsidiary, the American Association for Adult Education (AAAE), created in 1926.

Backed by Carnegie grants and overseen by Carnegie President Frederick Keppel, the AAAE aided a broad range of projects for out-of-school adults. It could hardly ignore radio.[15]

But the AAAE was unimpressed by the unprofessional work of many educational stations. It concluded that radio’s full potential for adult learning could be realized only by the commercial industry. In contrast to the Payne Fund, with its roots in Ohio and its commitment to public education, the Carnegie Corp. was fully at home on Wall Street and comfortable with private initiatives in education. From the outset, Carnegie and the AAAE threw their support to the Cooperation principle and its backers in the industry.

Industry enthusiasm for Cooperation rested on both principle and prudence — the second rapidly gaining on the first. Speaking at the Third Washington Radio Conference in 1924, before radio advertising became highly profitable, David Sarnoff of RCA grandly proclaimed that the radio industry “must secure cooperation of the established elements that have long served our national culture in order that the air may carry the supreme music, education and entertainment of the country.” Commercial stations should not only broadcast but also pay for programs “contributed by public and educational interests.”[16]

Haunted by a nightmare: the BBC

Five years later, industry motives for Cooperation flowed less from noble dreams than from a recurrent nightmare: that mounting criticism of radio hucksterism and monopoly might combine with the example of the new British Broadcasting Corp. to bring about radical federal intervention — either a competing government network or outright nationalization of the airwaves.

That fear was expressed in a drumbeat of nervous dismissals of the BBC model by industry spokesmen during the late 1920s and early 1930s. Sarnoff’s notion of subsidizing nonprofit broadcasters was quietly forgotten, but the strategy of buying goodwill by cooperating with educators gained adherents in the industry. NBC, central target of antitrust critics, grew especially eager to display its altruism.[17]

Early in 1929, negotiations between AAAE and NBC produced a plan for a Carnegie-AAAE-NBC alliance that would form the vanguard of educational radio. A memo ofunderstanding drafted by AAAE Director Morse Cartwright called for a survey of educational broadcasting and tests of various on-the-air techniques. In these activities, the memo declared, “It is probable that the interests of the industry would be adequately represented by the National Broadcasting Co., the educationalists by the AAAE, and the consuming public might be represented in the financial participation of the educational foundations.”[18]

Actually, it was much less than probable that the whole industry would accept NBC as its surrogate. It was downright doubtful that “educationalists” would agree to be represented by AAAE, which had no ties with NEA, educational radio stations, or other interested parties in the academic world. Plainly, the outlined Carnegie-AAAE-NBC entente was designed to sidestep the Independents and establish educational radio on a new Cooperative footing, with NBC stealing a march on the rest of the industry.

The plan was quickly approved by AAAE and NBC officials and by the Carnegie Corp., which granted $15,000 to get it started.

By the spring of 1929, then, two competing drives to reorganize educational broadcasting were underway.

The Payne Fund championed all forms of serious radio education, especially broadcasting for schools, and favored Independent stations. The Carnegie coalition concerned itself chiefly with radio education for adults and assumed that commercial stations were best equipped to do it. But the key difference between the two lay in their attitudes toward public and private enterprise.

Corporate liberalism

The Carnegie group was an alliance of private interests that espoused what scholars have dubbed “corporate liberalism”—the code of capitalism with a conscience. Corporate liberals held that enlightened private enterprise, if left to itself, could guarantee the general welfare. Applied to broadcasting, this code suggested that commercial stations could adequately serve the whole listening public, leaving no role for public agencies.[19]

For its part, the Payne Fund did not rule out Cooperation with commercial operations — provided that programming remained in educators’ hands. Writing to a colleague in June 1929, Payne Fund President H.M. Clymer reported a conversation with a CBS executive who was “fully steamed up for national educational broadcasting.” The proper response, said Clymer, was “to utilize the facilities which have been offered to education and also to prevent their being utilized under commercial auspices… Let’s keep them in line with our national educator-planned effort.” But in the tradition of Midwestern progressivism, Payne officers believed that public ends had to be served by public authorities. Their strategy was to enlist government both to check the power of private broadcasters and to offer radio services that commercials would not carry. Convinced that only vigorous government intervention could save noncommercial broadcasting, the Payne Fund took its crusade to state capitals and to Washington.[20]

The Federal Radio Commission had consistently refused to protect or promote educational radio. But prospects for federal support improved dramatically when the Department of the Interior — which then included the Bureau of Education — suddenly entered the fray. In early May 1929, the success of the Ohio School of the Air prompted a unit of the National Education Association to call for a conference on national school broadcasting.[21]

Interior Secretary Ray Lyman Wilbur raised educators’ hopes with a 1929 study. (Picture courtesy of U.S. Department of Interior.)

NEA’s plea got a sympathetic hearing from Interior Secretary Ray Lyman Wilbur. As president of Stanford, Wilbur had held high expectations for his university’s station and seen the station fail for lack of funds in 1925. (Later Wilbur became vice president of the Pacific Western Broadcasting Federation, a Los Angeles group attempting to create an elaborate nonprofit network).[22]

Acting quickly on the NEA petition, on May 24, 1929, Wilbur convened a meeting of Federal Radio Commission members, network officials and educators to examine the condition of American radio education. William Paley of CBS and John W. Elwood of NBC declared the networks’ readiness to collaborate with the NEA and the Bureau of Education on national educational broadcasting. The two Commissioners at the meeting split — one endorsing reliance on commercials for educational work, the other warning against that plan.[23]

Leaving all options open, Wilbur appointed an Advisory Committee on Education by Radio (ACER) chaired by Commissioner of Education William John Cooper, charged with executing a “thorough fact-finding study.”[24]

Factions divide the Wilbur Committee

The appointment of the “Wilbur Committee” triggered an intense scramble among parties interested in radio education. Involvement by an aggressive Cabinet officer abruptly raised new possibilities for federal action. Both Carnegie and Payne immediately got in their oars by giving the ACER grants.

The Committee itself included several partisans of Cooperation, including CBS’s Paley, NBC President Merlin Aylesworth, and leaders of two organizations that had been given airtime by NBC. On the whole, though, the Wilbur Committee’s composition seemed to favor the Independents. One appointee was Judge Ira Robinson, educational radio’s solitary friend on the FRC. Two other committee members, J. L. Clifton and W. W. Charters, had close ties with the Payne Fund and the Ohio School of the Air. Another appointee was H. Robinson Shipherd, an adult educator sympathetic with Payne ideas, a member of the NEA radio committee and a voluble advocate of a nonprofit “university of the air.” For its field investigator, the ACER hired Armstrong Perry, a veteran radio writer and a Payne Fund staff member. Shipherd became the chair of the Wilbur Committee’s workhorse subcommittee; he and Perry managed most of its data collecting.[25]

The Payne Fund faction pressed Wilbur and Commissioner Cooper to join their crusade. W.W. Charters, one of the Ohioans on the Wilbur Committee, informed Cooper privately that “there is a lot of energy all ready to be harnessed in the field, if you would tell them (the Payne Fund) what to do. Our greatest danger is that while we are ‘researching and fact-finding,’ the companies will get away from us.[26]

The Payne Fund had seized an important initiative. But the Carnegie-AAAE-NBC alliance was quick to respond, to head off the threat of federal intervention. First, AAAE proposed to meld its own study of radio education with the Wilbur Committee effort. Eager to economize, the Wilbur Committee agreed: The AAAE would focus on adult education, leaving the ACER to concentrate on school broadcasting. In September 1929, the AAAE study began under the direction of Levering Tyson, the Columbia extension administrator whose experience with Cooperative broadcasting extended back to the early 1920s.[27]

Then in November, the AAAE convened a conference at Carnegie Corp. headquarters that evidently was designed to counter the meddlesome tendencies of the Wilbur Committee. In attendance were Cooper and Charters, but a majority was made up of Carnegie and AAAE board and staff members. The outcome was a hearty endorsement of Cooperation. Extolling the networks for their support, the AAAE conferees proclaimed that “both educational and industry groups are at one in the principal objectives of encouraging the broadcasting of educational material . . .”[28]

Blunt warnings

Yet the Wilbur Committee’s preliminary findings signaled that Payne Fund principles were in command. The subcommittee headed by Shipherd cited “the tendency toward monopoly in radio” (a slap at the networks) and concluded that educational stations could defend themselves against commercial competitors only by securing “radio channels permanently reserved” for them. Shipherd’s group also endorsed his favorite project, an endowed university of the air.[29]

Armstrong Perry’s field investigation report was even blunter: Radio educators would have to unite and obtain federal assistance “or see the broadcasting facilities of the country come so firmly under the control of commercial groups that education by radio would be directed by businessmen instead of by professional educators.” Perry told the Committee that “control of the radio channels is the most important question.”[30]

These forthright reports might have marked a great turning-point in the early history of American public broadcasting. Had the Shipherd and Perry recommendations been accepted and quickly implemented, Independent educational radio would have acquired the official backing it needed to weather its hard times. Given emergency aid in 1930, educational radio stations might even have begun to grow again in tandem with the resurgent government activism of the New Deal.

But though Shipherd and Perry had controlled the ACER’s data-gathering, they could not muster a majority of the Committee itself. Faced with seemingly radical proposals, Cooper, Charters and others came down with a case of cold feet. Moreover, network spokesmen counter-attacked. They filed minority committee reports denouncing Shipherd’s idea for a radio university. Secretary Wilbur agreed that the plan was premature. In reply to the call for reserved channels for educators, NBC and CBS executives argued that such privileges were superfluous, since the networks were delighted to cooperate with qualified educators. The man from NBC estimated that his company was already devoting 22 percent of its time to education.[31]

A limp final report

The network viewpoint prevailed. The committee’s final report was a bland stew that generally favored Cooperation and conspicuously avoided annoying the commercial industry. When the document reached Wilbur on Feb. 15, 1930, it was cleansed of the radical proposals that had been recorded in stenographic meeting minutes. Under the heading “Reconciling Educators and Commercial Broadcasters,” the ACER report limply decided that commercial and educational people had equally valuable skills, without suggesting how to merge them.[32]

The Committee’s chief recommendation was that Wilbur create in the Bureau of Education a unit charged with coordinating research on radio education. Wilbur also was urged to “bring to the attention of the Federal Radio Commission the importance of educational interests in broadcasting.”

In short, the Wilbur Committee evaded all the big questions before it. The campaign to draft the federal government into the movement for Independent educational broadcasting had fizzled.

Shipherd refused to give up. He pestered Wilbur and Cooper to help him raise money for his envisioned radio university. “I do not want to antagonize him,” Cooper wrote Wilbur in an internal memo, “since he has some rather important contacts. On the other hand, I do not care to get further involved.” When Shipherd persisted, Cooper commented to Wilbur, “No ordinary ‘fade out’ will take this actor out of the picture.” Wilbur replied, “Agreed.”[33]

With the Wilbur Committee taking the posture of innocent bystander, the way was cleared for the Carnegie group to execute its blueprint for Cooperation. On Jan. 6, 1930, the AAAE convened another meeting on radio education at the offices of the Carnegie Corp. Cooper was there, as were Keppel, Owen D. Young of General Electric (then a parent company of RCA and NBC), and several university presidents.[34]

Concluding that the broadcasting industry needed some representative organization to which it can turn for advice and counsel in educational matters,” the meeting resolved that the AAAE should form a National Advisory Council on Radio in Education, composed of delegates from industry, education, government, and the general public. Major grants from Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller, Jr., got NACRE started in the summer of 1930. Its figurehead leader was Robert Millikan, president of the California Institute of Technology; its executive director was Levering Tyson, veteran promoter of Cooperative radio education and investigator for AAAE. But there was never any doubt about who had the final word in NACRE affairs — Carnegie Corp. President Frederick Keppel. Radio educator Lyman Bryson later recalled that Tyson ran “a commission on education by radio for Keppel; a kind of offshoot of the AAAE.”[35]

In the summer of 1930, Tyson published the final report of the AAAE radio education study under the title Education Tunes In. The book was virtually a charter for NACRE and for the whole movement for Cooperation. Tyson’s basic premise was that since “broadcasting is a business,” radio education had to live up to business standards at the microphone. The industry’s “intense commercial spirit” was partly at fault for retarding noncommercial broadcasting, but on the whole Tyson blamed the troubles of educational radio on the educators.[36]

Dismissing the claim that radio channels lay in the public domain, Tyson declared that education has no “inalienable right to part of the air.” The academic world had to slug it out in the marketplace with other competitors. If educators had failed on the air, he charged, that was because they were too lethargic or obtuse to learn the tricks of the new medium.

Tyson conceded that educational stations were handicapped by lack of capital, but he saw no promise in endowments, listener subscriptions, federal subsidies, or other remedies. Educational radio would instead have to fall back on the largesse of big-hearted tycoons like GE chief Owen D. Young, whose philanthropic instincts Tyson applauded. Young’s attitude, joined with industry offers of free time, “holds out the greatest hope for educational broadcasting.”

Though in theory NACRE was a neutral organization, Tyson described its mission as that of emissary from industry to education. Working closely with the networks, NACRE would “present suggestions to the educational world with more force than those suggestions would have if made by the broadcasters themselves.” Its task, in other words, was to buffer educators’ distrust of the industry and induce them to cooperate.

Educators organize in response

Tyson spoke as if NACRE would have the whole field to itself. Despite the retreat of the Wilbur Committee, however, the foes of Cooperation did not fall silent. To the contrary, as the decline of Independent educational stations accelerated, there was growing agitation for protective legislation of the kind recommended by Shipherd and Perry. At its July 1930 convention, the NEA passed a resolution calling on Congress to “safeguard for the use of education and government a reasonable share of the broadcasting channels of the United States.” The American Council on Education, the National University Extension Association, the Association of Land-Grant Colleges, and other groups also spoke up. The ubiquitous Payne Fund provided money for a new forum for radio educators, an annual Institute for Education by Radio (IER) at Ohio State that first met in June 1930.[37]

The Payne Fund also kept its own lobbyist at the Bureau of Education. Armstrong Perry, the Payne Fund staffer who had been loaned to the Wilbur Committee, stayed in Washington as a specialist in radio education. In this post Perry was able to encourage educators who wanted their own stations. He also had the amiable ear of Commissioner Cooper.[38]

Apparently acting at the instigation of Perry, Cooper abruptly called a national conference on “educational radio problems” in Chicago on Oct. 13, 1930. (NACRE viewed this move as an inexplicable stab in the back.) Explaining his motives, Cooper cited the rising fear that a commercial monopoly might soon squeeze education off the air entirely. Tyson and several members of the Wilbur Committee attended, but in contrast to earlier meetings, this one — in the heart of the Midwest — was dominated by several dozen proponents of Independent broadcasting. Led by spokesmen of the NEA, the conference proceeded to petition Congress to reserve 15 percent of all radio channels for schools and government agencies, and recommended the formation of a committee to plan defenses for besieged educational stations.[39]

Two months later, representatives of nine educational organizations met as the National Committee on Education by Radio. Underwritten by a $200,000 five-year grant from the Payne Fund, the NCER was dedicated in general to promoting education by radio, in particular to sheltering independent stations. Joy Morgan, editor of the NEA Journal, chaired the group. Tracy Tyler, trained in educational research at Ohio State, was hired as executive secretary. The versatile Armstrong Perry headed a unit called the Service Bureau.[40]

By early 1931, NACRE had a militant rival. The heyday of Cooperative broadcasting lay ahead, but for the next eight years NCER would continually undercut NACRE’s campaign to prove that in educational radio, the commercials knew best.

Chapter 3: Rival lobbies fought for regulators’ nod


13. Perry, Radio in Education, pp. 7, 11-13, 52-55.

14. Perry, Radio in Education, pp.13-36. The best accessible collection of materials on the Ohio School of the Air is in the Ohio State University Archives, RG 8/d-6/1.

15. Malcolm S. Knowles, The Adult Education Movement in the United States (Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1962), pp. 94-95; Morse Adams Cartwright, Ten Years of Adult Education (Macmillan, 1935), pp. 14-18.

16. “Statement by David Sarnoff at the Third Annual Radio Conference in Washington, Beginning October 6, 1924,” David Sarnoff Files, Broadcast Pioneers Library [University of Maryland, College Park].

17. Examples of references in defense against the BBC model include: William S. Hedges (president of the NAB), “Commercial Sponsorship of Educational Programs,” Education on the Air: First Yearbook (1930), pp. 50-51; Henry Adams Bellows, “Commercial Broadcasting and Education,” Radio and Education: Proceedings of the First Assembly of the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education (University of Chicago, 1931), pp. 47-48; and Bruce Bliven and E.H. Harris, “Shall the Government Own, Operate, and Control Radio Broadcasting in the United States?,” Radio and Education: Fourth Assembly (1934), pp. 76-105.

18. Morse A. Cartwright], “Memorandum on Studies and Experiments in Radio Education,” April 1929, attached to Frederick Keppel to James C. Egbert, July 11, 1929, Corporation Archives, Columbia University.

19. For a good discussion of the meaning and evolution of corporate liberalism, see James A. Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State: 1900-1918 (Beacon, 1968).

20. H.M. Clymer to W.W. Charters, June 26, 1929, Advisory Committee Files, Box 36, National Archives, Washington.

21. Perry, Radio in Education, pp. 7-8.

22. Ray Lyman Wilbur to Herbert Hoover, May 4,1923, Federal Communications Commission Files, Box 144, RG 173, National Archives, Suitland, Md.; Pacific-Western Broadcasting Federation Prospectus, Advisory Committee Files, Box 30, National Archives, Washington.

23. Perry, Radio in Education, pp. 8, 56-60; Frank Ernest Hill, Time In For Education: Eleven Years of Education by Radio (National Committee on Education by Radio, 1942), pp. 3-4.

24. Report of the Advisory Committee on Education by Radio Appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, (Columbus: F.J. Heer, 1930), p. 7.

25. Minutes of the Meeting of the Advisory Committee on Education by Radio, June 13, 1929, in Report of the Advisory Committee, pp. 8-10. Shiperd is identified as “a friend of Perry of the Payne Fund” in W.W. Charters to W.J. Cooper, June 24, 1939, Advisory Committee Files, Box 36, National Archives, Washington. A copy of “A National University of the Air (The Shipherd Plan)” is contained in Box 32, the Advisory Committee Files.

26. W.W. Charters to W.J. Cooper, July 12, 1929, Advisory Committee Files, Box 36, National Archives, Washington.

27. Levering Tyson, Education Tunes In: A Study of Radio Broadcasting in Adult Education (American Association for Adult Education, 1930), p. 9; Commissioner (W.J. Cooper) to Dr. F.P. Keppel, July 2, 1929, Advisory Committee Files, Box 36, National Archives, Washington.

28. Tyson, Education Tunes In, pp. 10-11.

29. “Report of the Sub-Committee on Fact Finding,” in Report of the Advisory Committee, pp. 29-44.

30. “Report of Armstrong Perry to The Advisory Committee on Education by Radio,” in Report of the Advisory Committee, pp. 49-67.

31. Minutes of the Meeting of the Advisory Committee, Dec. 30, 1929, in Report of the Advisory Committee, pp. 23-28; Appendices I and J, pp. 241-246.

32. “Report of the Advisory Committee on Education by Radio, Feb. 15, 1930,” in Report of the Advisory Committee, pp. 68-76. For a copy of the unedited stenographic notes of the Committee’s crucial Dec. 30, 1929 meeting, see Box 36 of the Advisory Committee Files.

33. Shipherd to William John Cooper, Jan. 10, 1930, and Feb.13, 1930; Cooper to Secretary (Wilbur), Jan. 13, 1930; Commissioner (Cooper) to Secretary (Wilbur), attached to letter of Feb. 13; all in Advisory Committee Files, Box 36, National Archives, Washington.

34. Tyson, Education Tunes In, pp. 11, 57-58.

35. Ibid.; Reminiscences of Lyman Bryson, Radio Pioneers Project, Oral History Collection, Columbia University.

36. Tyson, Education Tunes In.

37. Minutes of the Conference on Educational Radio Problems at the Invitation of the United States Commissioner of Education, Oct. 13, 1930, Advisory Committee Files, Box 31, National Archives, Washington.

38. Perry’s close ties with Cooper are suggested in William John Cooper to Livingston Farrand, Sept. 24, 1930, Livingston Farrand Papers, Olin Library, Cornell University. For evidence of Perry’s work as behind-the-scenes agitator for government support of educational radio, see exchanges between Perry and E.C. Giffen, South Dakota Superintendent of Public Instruction, in Advisory Committee Files, Box 32, National Archives, Washington.

39. Minutes of the Conference on Education Radio Problems; Hill, Tune In for Education, pp. 14-16.

40. Hill, Tune in for Education, pp. 16-19.

“Tuning Out Education: The Cooperation Doctrine in Radio, 1922-38,” by Eugene E. Leach, originally appeared in Current in January, February and March 1983. Republished on the Web, Dec. 13, 1999.

NACRE records are held by the New York Public Library.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *