Tuning out education, Chapter 4

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Tyson saw revenue for universities like Columbia, where he was a pioneer in radio education, while the Midwestern populists envisioned free extension services for the public. In this 1944 ad for NBC University of the Air, the network's Radio City rises behind Ivy League gates.

The Era of Cooperation: An alliance with the networks puts education on the air

Tyson saw revenue for universities like Columbia, where he was a pioneer in radio education, while the Midwestern populists envisioned free extension services for the public. In this 1944 ad for NBC University of the Air, the network’s Radio City rises behind Ivy League gates.

The mixed ancestry of NACRE was aptly mirrored in the organization’s director, Levering Tyson. An extension administrator at a private university and a pioneer of radio Cooperative education, Tyson appeared to be well-qualified to forge alliances between education and the radio industry. But academic snobberies had pushed his sympathies toward the business side of broadcasting, and Tyson had only contempt for the work of the Independents. An outspoken, self-righteous man, he was a poor choice to reunify the legions of educational broadcasting.

Head of home study (correspondence courses) in Columbia’s profitable extension division since 1919, Tyson became a champion of commercial common sense in academia. In 1928 he was projecting an income of $700,000 from 9,000 home-study enrollments, and predicting bonanza enrollments of 35,000.[61]

But this emphasis on revenues put Tyson sharply at odds with administrators at public universities that offered free extension services. At a convention of the National University Extension Association in 1931, shortly before assuming the NACRE directorship, Tyson defied the fuzzy-headed moralists who presumed to criticize his programs. Denying that Columbia’s extension division had “a purely proprietary character,” Tyson nonetheless proclaimed a heresy: if private correspondence schools could do $50 million of annual business, “there must be something here worth looking into.”[62]

Tyson was equally pugnacious on the subject of educational broadcasting. He had produced some of the earliest successes in the field when he arranged for Columbia faculty to give courses over New York station WEAF in the 1920s. Ironically it was NBC, later a founder of NACRE, that knocked Columbia off the air after it absorbed WEAF. But Tyson blamed the collapse of his experiments on snooty faculty. ”I fought a losing fight at Columbia and was defeated,” he later remembered, “not by the industry, but because there was no interest on the part of the University.” This summarized Tyson’s perennial diagnosis of radio education’s ills in America: The medium had bountiful potential, but hidebound educators refused to seize it. He complained that most radio work by educators was bunk” or “material for parody.”[63]

To charm the Big Audience

Tyson’s own visions for radio education revolved around the premise that broadcasting had to run on business principles. The market test was sovereign. Tyson once contrasted the “pitifully small audiences” for educational shows with the multitudes that tuned in to hear Amos and Andy and Lowell Thomas. NACRE should steer clear of programs not “planned to reach and to be received by large audiences. It would seem that this is the principal use of radio.”[64]

Echoing many a commercial station manager, Tyson declared, ”There is no great difference between showmanship and education,” so that educators had much to learn from The Goldbergs. But pedagogues on the air insisted on sounding like pedants. It is impossible to “force intellectuality down democracy’s throat unless it opens its mouth,” Tyson scolded educators in 1934. The only hope lay in borrowing the magic of commercial broadcasters the people who revered the Big Audience and knew how to charm it.”[65]

Tyson’s convictions melded easily with the views of industry leaders. The networks’ position was pungently summarized at NACRE’s first annual convention in 1931 by Henry Adams Bellows, a CBS vice president and NAB spokesman who once sat on the FRC. Bellows told the NACRE faithful that serving the public interest simply meant “showing that the public within a station’s service area is genuinely interested in its programs.” If a broadcaster’s programs were lively enough to be popular, he was serving the public interest, Bellows admitted that much commercial broadcasting was awful, but held that the work of educational stations was worse. In any case, Bellows denied that industry performance justified either BBC-style government ownership or reserved channels for educators — the twin industry bugaboos of the early 1930s. “Our system of privately owned and commercial operated stations is a pretty solidly established tact,” said Bellows, and segregating educators “in a limbo of special wavelengths” would only “condemn them to remain unheard and disregarded.” The best option for all parties was Cooperation. Let educators take responsibility for producing programs and the broadcasters would happily give them the microphone, “provided they do not bore their hearers into open desertion.”[66]

The networks soon gave NACRE the means to act on these convictions, Anxious to deflate critics, CBS and NBC volunteered substantial blocks of hours to the new organization. Times had never seemed riper for setting radio education on a new Cooperative footing. The wrangles of 1929-31 had merely postponed the question of who was to take responsibility for educational broadcasting. Yet the Depression created a rising demand for sober, public-service uses of the medium, Seizing the moment, NACRE launched the most ambitious experiments in national educational broadcasting that had ever been tried in America.

NACRE made its debut in a style that highlighted both its blue-chip connections and the networks’ eagerness to publicize their generosity. Speaking at NACRE’s first convention in May 1931, Robert Millikan of Cal Tech gave an address that was introduced by President Hoover and carried by both NBC and CBS. Similar showpieces soon followed.[67]

Meanwhile, Tyson was recruiting leaders in various academic fields to plan programs under the auspices of NACRE “cooperating committees.” In October 1931, series developed by two of these groups went out over 50 NBC stations. Aspects of the Depression consisted of 32 weekly talks, each 15 minutes in length, by such prominent economists as Rexford Tugwell, Frances Perkins, John R. Commons and Paul Douglas. The series was produced by a committee based at the Brookings Institution. Psychology Today, produced in association with the American Psychological Association, gave the microphone to such worthies as John B. Watson, Floyd H. Allport and Edward L. Thorndike.

Both series were supposed to strike a happy medium between instruction and amusement. To “insure the most popular sort of presentation consistent with scientific scholarship,” the economics series featured ”questions and pertinent remarks” by a sort of master of ceremonies. The psychologists pledged to avoid material ”which is abstruse or dull, or merely entertaining.” In addition to elaborate promotional campaigns, the University of Chicago Press published a “Listener’s Notebook” for each unit of Psychology Today (45,000 were sold for 25 cents apiece) and printed the texts of both series.[68]

Primetime NBC

Tyson and a group of political scientists had grander plans. Talks to set up a NACRE-American Political Science Association committee suddenly were upgraded when, in the fall of 1931, NBC offered NACRE a windfall: a primetime weekly half-hour for civic education, guaranteed for four years. At this point Frederick Keppel of the Carnegie Corp. and such distinguished academics as Charles Beard and Charles Merriam joined the planning. The upshot was the creation of a Committee on Civic Education by Radio (CCER) that included Beard, Merriam and the progressive educator George S. Counts. Resolving to produce a program titled You and Your Government, CCER ran its first set of talks, on party politics, over 45 NBC stations in 1932.[69]

Setting to work in the direst months of the Depression, CCER approached its task in an evangelical spirit. With the nation’s leaders in disgrace, CCER chairman Thomas Reed wrote, You and Your Government might help to bolster democracy and “save the present situation.” The first series ranged from general lectures to analyses of recent events like the 1932 elections, by such notables as Stuart Chase, John Dewey and William Hard. Over the lifespan of You and Your Government, there were to be a total of 13 series covering 210 individual broadcasts.”[70]

Other NACRE committees took to the air with series designed to be at once informative and reassuring. NBC gave most of the airtime, but CBS ceded desirable hours, too.

A bizarre NACRE series, given what was happening to the job market, began to run over 60 CBS stations in February 1932: eight programs on Vocational Guidance, filled with advice on choosing the right career.

AFL-sponsored speeches on American Labor and the Nation started on CBS in May. Later that year, NACRE’s Economics Committee mounted its second series, The Economic World Today, on NBC, and another committee assembled 15 talks on The Lawyer and the Public that NBC aired early in 1933. Subsequent series included Art in America (cosponsored by museums and arts organizations), Coping with Crime (American Bar Association), and America Must Choose (Foreign Policy Association and World Peace Foundation).[71]

The University of Chicago Round Table

One of the successes of Cooperation was The University of Chicago Round Table, first aired only in Chicago and later on NBC. Speaking on the program are the University’s president, Robert Maynard Hutchins (a NACRE vice president); Purdue University President E.C. Elliott; and U.S. Commissioner of Education John Studebaker.

While NACRE was laying down this barrage of national programs, the University of Chicago was developing an exemplary schedule of local Cooperative broadcasting. An aggressive radio committee headed by Allen Miller won the confidence of faculty by targeting elite listeners for University programs. Rejecting the cult of the Big Audience, Miller declared, “It is better to have an audience of 500,000 intelligent listeners than an audience of 5,000,000 listening to a popular and possibly inaccurate program.” Using the facilities of WMAQ and WJJD, the University increased its time on the air from three programs per week in the spring of 1926 to 33 in the spring of 1933.[72]

Like the NACRE committees, Chicago radio advocates were determined to find ways of enticing dial-twisters to give education a hearing. In 1931, after much tugging against faculty skepticism, the University radio committee devised a format for what became the outstanding educational show of the pre-War years: The University of Chicago Round Table. Named for a table in the faculty club reserved for free-swinging exchanges of views, the Round Table featured three professors conversing on current topics over WMAQ on Sunday afternoons. Chosen for their microphone manner, participants met before hand to outline topics, but did not rehearse.[73]

The idea was to get away from the preachy stiffness of lecturers without sacrificing intellectual seriousness. Underwritten by a private grant that furnished stipends for speakers, the Round Table eventually boasted 20 “regulars,” led by the philosopher T.V. Smith and Percy Boynton of the English Department. The program quickly gained a following in Chicago and won the applause of educational broadcasters from across the country. But planners’ hopes that the Round Table would be quickly picked up by a network were frustrated until NBC began to air the show nationally in cooperation with NACRE in October 1933.[74]

Another innovative program launched in 1931, Philosophers in Hades, offered dramatized philosophical discussions conducted by Smith. But they proved too esoteric and were dropped after a year.

By 1933 the cause of Cooperation was riding high. The burst of invention by NACRE and the University of Chicago appeared to have vindicated the networks’ promises and educators’ hopes. But these successes rested on shaky supports. NBC executive Judith WaIler candidly told the university’s radio committee early in 1932 that her NBC superiors were split between two attitudes. The network program director, John Royal was a “one-time actor who has no respect for educational features and who, in fact, seems lacking in appreciation of anything cultural.” Waller feared that “those favoring education are in the minority.” Partly because of this, but also because educational leaders themselves continued to doubt radio’s value, confidence in Cooperative broadcasting was eroding even while new programs were making stagy debuts.[75]

Too much education

Despite the popularity of the Round Table, money worries at Chicago jeopardized the whole schedule of University programs. As the grant that had subsidized the Round Table ran out, President Hutchins appealed for support from NBC or its local affiliate, WMAQ, complaining that it was not enough for stations to donate hours. At a time when he was on a 31,000 retainer for sitting on the NBC Advisory Council, Hutchins was insisting that his institution could afford only $5,200 for all of its broadcasting in 1932.[76]

A year later, rumors that Chicago might withdraw from radio entirely prompted Tyson to send Hutchins an anxious letter of encouragement. NBC’s decision to carry the Round Table as a sustaining feature temporarily bolstered the University’s commitment to radio. But even while this centerpiece of Chicago programming was gaining national exposure, 18 of the University’s local shows were being dropped. NBC executive Judith WaIler explained that NBC higher-ups decided that WMAQ “had too many educational features on its program.”[77]

Too little style

Within NACRE, too, the optimism that stimulated the experiments of 1931-32 quickly receded. One reason was that NACRE speakers proved to have little more panache than the dull stuff produced by the Independents. A critique of NACRE’s first lecture series, commissioned by the Carnegie Corp., noted that their style was much inferior to their substance. ”Something more needs to be done about the development of a technique of teaching by radio,” the reviewer concluded. NACRE’s Committee on Psychology dejectedly agreed that future talks needed to be done by an expert with ”radio personality.” The Economics Committee offered an equally glum appraisal of its broadcasting, despite its efforts to enliven its programs with dialogue formats. “The speaker is a more important factor in the program than the speech,” concluded the Committee’s secretary.[78]

Looking back over three years of NACRE broadcasting in 1934, Tyson pronounced it a flop. All his exhortations had gone for naught; educators persisted in bringing amateurish methods to the microphone. The result was a record too poor to justify further efforts. ”We are still way behind the popularity of some commercial programs or of some of the sustaining programs broadcast by the industry,” Tyson told the NACRE board in 1935. Morse Cartwright. director of the organization that gave NACRE most of its funding agreed: NACRE shows that should have been drawing 50 million listeners were getting only a tenth that number. Measured by the industry standard of the Big Audience, NACRE’s on-air experiments had fizzled.[79]

In May 1936, a Tyson-led committee charged with charting NACRE’s future reported that “relatively few attempts at educational broadcasting on a national scale have been successful.” Accordingly, NACRE ought to quit its own production efforts and refrain ”from further stimulation of educators to produce educational programs.” The committee report went on to question basic premises that lay behind NACRE’s Cooperation ideal. It doubted that the networks would any longer “recognize a single organization as competent to represent the educational world” and noted, without protest, the net works’ insistence that program production “should rest with them rather than with the cooperating organization. Accepting the attitude of the industry, NACRE prepared to redefine its role in Cooperation. In the future, it would serve as “repository and sieve” for educational program ideas — less a partner of the networks than a helpful adviser.[80]

Chapter 5: “Cooperation” falls apart but leaves a lasting habit


61. “Home Study Department Proposed Budget—9000 Students, 1928-1929,” and Levering Tyson to Nicholas Murray Butler, Jan. 16, 1928, Corporation Archives, Columbia University.

62. Tyson, “Columbia’s Ten Years Experience in Home Study,” Proceedings of the National University Extension Association 13 (May 7-9, 1930):51-56.

63. Tyson, “Educators and the Radio,” Proceedings of the National University Extension Association 14 (May 11-14, 1931):24-26; Tyson, Contributions of Radio to Higher Education,” Education on the Air: First Yearbook (1930), pp. 143-144; Tyson, Report of the Director, Oct. 1, 1934, Radio and Education: Fourth Assembly (1934), p. 171.

64. Tyson, Report of the Director. Oct. 1, 1934, pp. 162-163.

65. Discussion following Tyson, “Community Organization for Education by Radio,” Education on the Air: Second Yearbook (1931), p. 71; Tyson, “A Central Administration for Education Programs,” Education on the Air: Fourth Yearbook (1933), p. 9; Tyson, “Educators and Radio,” Proceedings of the NUEA 14 (1931):27-28; Tyson, “Where Is American Radio Heading?,” p. 18.

66. Bellows, “Commercial Broadcasting and Education,” pp. 40-60.

67. Robert Millikan, “Radio’s Past and Future,” Radio and Education: First Assembly (1931), p. 200.

68. Harry Laidler, “Report of the Economics Committee” Radio and Education: First Assembly (1931), pp. 212-216; Walter V. Bingham, “Report of the Committee on Psychology,” Radio and Education: First Assembly, Pp. 234-241; Bingham, “An Experiment in Broadcasting Psychology: Report of the Committee on Psychology,” Radio and Education: Second Assembly (1932), pp. 27-35.

69. Thomas H. Reed, “Report of Committee on Civics and Government,” Radio and Education: Second Assembly (1932), pp. 48-51; Reed, “Report of the Committee on Civic Education by Radio,” Radio and Education: Third Assembly (1933), pp. 123-128; Four Years of Network Broadcasting: Report by the Committee on Civic Education by Radio of the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education and the American Political Science Association (University of Chicago, 1936), pp. 1-4.

70. Reed, “Report of Committee on Civics and Government,” pp. 49-51; Four Years of Network Broadcasting, p. 10.

71. Tyson, Report of the Director, May 1, 1935, Radio and Education: Fourth Assembly (1935), pp. 160-161.

72. Minutes of Meeting of Radio Committee, March 10, 1931, Allen Miller Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin; “Radio at the University,” Miller Papers.

73. Allen Miller to Charter Heslep, July 15, 1963, Miller Papers. State Historical Society of Wisconsin.

74. Minutes of the Meetings of Radio Committee, April 14, 1931; November 1931; December 1931; June 8, 1933; all in Miller Papers.

75. Minutes of Meeting of Radio Committee, February 1932, Miller Papers.

76. Minutes of Special Meeting of the Radio Committee, Feb.13. 1932. Miller Papers.

77. Tyson to Hutchins, April 10, 1933, Hutchins Papers Addenda, Box 99, University of Chicago Archives.

78. Noel T. Dowling. “Lectures on Economics and Psychology Arranged by the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education, Memorandum for the Trustees of the Carnegie Corporation, July 1, 1932,” Hutchins Papers Addenda, Box 99, University of Chicago Archives; Walter V. Bingham, “Report of Committee on Psychology,” Radio and Education: Third Assembly (1933), p. 160; Felix Morley, “Report of the Committee on Economics,” Radio and Education: Third Assemby (1933), pp. 136-141.

79. Tyson, Report of the Director, Oct. 1, 1934, pp. 162-165; Tyson, Report of the Director, May 1, 1935, p. 219; Morse Cartwright, “What Should Be Done to Improve Broadcasting in the United States?,” Radio and Education: Second Assembly (1932), pp. 118-119.

80. NACRE Subcommittee Report on National Programs, attached to Tyson to Hutchins, May 15, 1936, Hutchins Papers Addenda, Box 99, University of Chicago Archives.

“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. Copyright 1983 Current.

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