History of public broadcasting

Tuning Out Education
The Cooperation Doctrine in Radio

1945 advertisement: NBC...America's No. 1 Network in the Field of EducationEven as late as 1945, NBC was claiming to be "America's No. 1 Network in the Field of Education." This ad was aimed at educators and plugged the NBC University of the Air.

How did advertising-driven broadcasting establish itself as the dominant user of the airwaves in America? A crucial episode in the story occurred in the 1930s when commercial broadcasters argued successfully that they would put education on the air, and educators should stick to their books.

This paper by Eugene E. Leach, Ph.D., was originally serialized in Current during January, February and March 1983 under the title, "Snookered 50 Years Ago," and was published online Dec. 13, 1999.

Eugene Leach is a professor of history and American studies at Trinity College, Hartford, Conn. He earned his doctorate at Yale University in 1977 and specializes in the cultural and intellectual history of the 19th century, working-class history and multiculturalism. [E-mail]

Author's note

My understanding of the early evolution of educational broadcasting has been molded by the publications of many able historians: Erik Barnouw (A History of Broadcasting in the United States, three volumes, 1966-70); Robert J. Blakely (To Serve the Public Interest: Educational Broadcasting in the United States, 1979); George H. Gibson (Public Broadcasting: The Role of the Federal Government, 1977); Frank Ernest Hill (Listen and Learn: Fifteen Years of Adult Education on the Air, 1937, and Tune In for Education: Eleven Years of Education by Radio, 1942); Harold E. Hill (NAEB History, Volume 1, 1954); and John Walker Powell (Channels of Learning: The Story of Educational Television, 1962).

However, in this narrative, I have tried to advance a new thesis, that the phantom of Cooperation was a potent cause of radio educators' defeats during the '20s and '30s. To substantiate my argument, I have assembled evidence from many underutilized collections in Washington, Madison, New York, Chicago, Ithaca and Columbus. In the following notes, I have chosen to stress these less familiar materials rather than the secondary sources that already are well known to students of broadcasting history.

— Eugene E. Leach, 1983

"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 1999. Revised Feb. 12, 2007


1 The doctrine of 'Cooperation' won early battles of ideas

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

3 Rival lobbies fought for regulators' nod

4 The era of Cooperation: an alliance with broadcasters puts education on the air

5 'Cooperation' falls apart, but leaves a lasting habit


Tne famed 1950s commercial TV show Omnibus was a late experiment in foundation-subsidized Cooperation.


For a book-length treatment of the period, see Robert W. McChesney's Telecommunications, Mass Media and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-35 (Oxford University Press, 1993). Leading broadcast historian Erik Barnouw wrote this cover blurb: "How our nation was maneuvered, during pre-television years, into a broadcasting system controlled by and for business is traced in illuminating detail in this remarkable study."