The born-again seldom dwell on their first lives, and so it is with people in public broadcasting. Their institutional memories rarely go back any further than 1945, when the FCC resurrected public broadcasting by reserving FM channels for educators.
Since then, most of the turning points have been turns for the better: TV channels reserved in 1952; federal support for educational television in 1962; the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967; encouraging growth in funding and programming through the late 1970s.
Pre-1945 is remembered, if at all, as a period of false starts, a dark age happily left behind.
The trouble with that sunny sketch, of course, is that for American public broadcasting, the times remain gloomy. Recent budgetary assaults on CPB and other afflictions remind us that, even though it has been operating since the 1920s, public broadcasting remains the starveling stepchild of “The American System” of broadcasting. By the time the field got a fresh start after World War II, advertisers and entertainers had a hammerlock on radio and were poised to pin TV as well. Having fallen fatally behind the rest of “the industry,” educators never made up the ground they lost during the 1920s and 1930s.
As the second Carnegie Commission declared in 1979, “The failure to provide adequately for noncommercial broadcasting at the outset has had lasting effects.”
Educational radio seemed plentifully provided for in 1922, when already 73 colleges and schools were producing programs. By 1925 there were 128 educational radio stations in the United States. But a decade later only three dozen of these outfits survived, most of them in the Midwest. The first and biggest opportunity to establish noncommercial broadcasting had been largely fumbled.
Why? Public broadcasting was stunted in its infancy by severe deficits of money, power and expertise. Relatively few educators had the resources or the will to take broadcasting seriously. Many of the first college stations were run by faculty volunteers on shoestring budgets. Some were the playthings of physics or engineering departments, which regarded them as incidental to laboratory work. Nearly 30 percent of the broadcasting licenses obtained by educational institutions from 1921 through 1936 were held for less than a year.
Even schools determined to exploit the power of the new medium had to struggle to fill their airtime with well-crafted programs, or with any programs at all.
Wisconsin’s WHA, a leader in educational broadcasting, was able to put material on the air only three days per week in 1925. As late as 1930, WHA’s programming was still chaotic and amateurish, a hash of 10-minute musical selections and 15-minute talks. Cornell’s WEAL was similarly strapped for good material, resorting over the summers to such spellbinding talks as “The Plan of the New York State Egg-Laying Contests.”
In 1931 a Federal Radio Commission member complained that, taken as a group, the nation’s educational stations were using only a third of their authorized hours, and devoting less than 20 percent of their time to instruction.
While educational stations toiled to make financial and creative ends meet, profit-making broadcasters were building an empire and a new popular art. Commercial stations massively outspent the educators, outmaneuvered them in Washington, and outproduced them on the air. Little wonder, then, that dozens of educational stations gave up the ghost. The standard explanation for the near-extinction of early educational stations is Darwinist: as radio became more competitive, the weaker members of the species died out.
But there is another explanation, one that smacks less of destiny than of ideological defeat. Educators lost contests of resources in part because they had lost prior battles of ideas. Commercial operators persuaded federal regulators, much of the public, and many educators as well that there was little need far independent noncommercial broadcasting.
Educational programming could be entrusted to “cooperation” between commercial host broadcasters and guest educators. This idea crucially undercut support for educational stations during the formative years of the industry.
Cooperation achieved its greatest victory in 1935, when the new FCC ruled against reserving channels for nonprofit stations — and thus delayed the rebirth of noncommercial broadcasting for at least a decade. The best public-interest programming, concluded the Commission, “would be brought out by cooperation between the (commercial) stations and (nonprofit) organizations …
Cooperation was more than a public relations gimmick. Alliances between commercial broadcasters and educators produced some of the most adventurous public affairs and dramatic shows available to American listeners before World War II. Ultimately, however, Cooperation proved a hollow principle. In the long run, most Cooperative partnerships satisfied neither party and most disintegrated.
What the vogue of Cooperation did accomplish was to help legitimize commercial broadcasters’ property claims to frequencies, and to delay the commitment of decent resources to noncommercial stations. While educators and regulators dallied with Cooperation as an alternative to independent stations, commercial operators were tightening their grip on the medium. By the time Cooperation was abandoned, public broadcasting had been stowed in the battered corner of the industry that it occupies today.
The spirit of Cooperation lives on, though in guises very different from the original. Current proposals to exempt commercial operators from public-service obligations in return for a “spectrum fee” might seem to have little in common with the Cooperation creed, since the effect would be to drive commercial and noncommercial stations further apart. But both Cooperation and the spectrum fee notion are deregulatory schemes that reflect faith in the marketplace as the master servant of public needs. Once again, this time more blatantly than in the 1930s, broadcast educators would be called on to keep the regulators happy while freeing the profit motive from scrutiny.
The saga of educational radio’s birth pains has always been explored from the viewpoint of the heroic independent educational stations. The lobbying group for those stations, the National Committee on Educational Radio (NCER), actually hired its own chronicler before it expired.
But no one has paid serious attention to the movement for Cooperation or to the group that promoted it, the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education (NACRE) — even though for the most part NACRE got the better of NCER. The pivotal role played by foundations in shaping public broadcasting also has been neglected.
For example, it is seldom remembered that long before the celebrated Carnegie Commissions of the 1960s and 1970s called for substantial federal support for noncommercial broadcasting, the Carnegie Corporation in effect opposed educational stations by underwriting the campaign for Cooperation.
This article reconsiders the origins of our public broadcasting system, underscoring the crippling effects of the Cooperative idea; it is based on fresh research at the National Archives and many university collections. In this section, I will sketch the rise of Cooperation and the sharpening antagonism between Cooperators and independent educational broadcasters in the 1920s. Later articles will describe a crucial show-down between Cooperators and independents in 1929-1930, and the victory and eventual decline of Cooperation in the 1930s.
In the beginning, when the educational possibilities of radio seemed boundless and the “ether” promised room for everybody, there was no hard division between Cooperative and independent broadcasting. The common aim of educators was to master the new medium. Questions about control of channels were secondary. During the early 1920s, independent college stations cheerfully existed alongside ad hoc arrangements for putting professors on commercial stations.
Commercial station managers often were the ones who proposed Cooperation with educators. When reports of the first KDKA broadcasts reached New York in late 1921, a young Columbia University administrator named Levering Tyson immediately began scheming to put faculty on the air. But Columbia President Nicholas Murray Butler scorned the new “gadget,” as did faculty.
The initiative for getting Columbia into broadcasting came, ironically, from WEAF, the station that was just then experimenting with advertising. By 1923 WEAF was also eager to try out the “serious educational work” that many listeners had been requesting. WEAF approached Tyson, and early in 1924, despite the University’s apathy, Tyson produced a series of ten 20-minute lectures on the poetry of Robert Browning — a topic chosen, as the Times later reported, because it was “judged typical of the ‘heaviest stuff’ the radio public could be expected to follow.” Listeners followed well enough to justify several other Columbia courses over WEAF.
Such partnerships became common. Chicago’s WMAQ began presenting lectures direct from University of Chicago classrooms in 1922. By 1926, the University was using two commercial stations to broadcast a morning history course, evening lecture series on topics from sociology to Bible studies, and a book-review show conducted by the English Department. In Massachusetts, the state Bureau of Education enrolled more than 4,500 listeners in 21 extension courses broadcast by Westinghouse’s WBZ during the mid-1920s. Meanwhile, the original Westinghouse station, KDKA, installed a studio at the University of Pittsburgh in 1924, from which it broadcast nearly 700 educational programs over the next four years.
Cooperation offered advantages to both partners. For a college or school system, broadcasting over a commercial station meant sparing the expense of operating one’s own station, and gaining access to large audiences created by popular entertainment shows. This arrangement was especially attractive to schools like Columbia that had powerful commercial stations for neighbors and were unsure about the long-range potential of radio education. Commercial managers were happy to cooperate because they usually had a surplus of airtime. By broadcasting programs featuring unpaid pedagogues, they could fill unsold hours and enhance their reputations for public service.
The honeymoon of educational broadcasting broke down in 1926-27. By then, radio advertising had proved its profitability. The gold rush was on. NBC formed in 1926 to take advantage of radio’s potential for national marketing. CBS followed a year later. As the market for airtime blossomed, some station managers raided the hours and frequencies occupied by educational stations. Suddenly the educators had to defend their place on the air against aggressive, well-heeled competitors. The new Federal Radio Commission, set up to referee battles for frequencies, generally favored claimants who had the means to do the most consistent and polished programming.
The result was a veritable massacre among educational stations. Many were compelled to share time with commercial stations that hungered to buy them out. Others suffered debilitating switches in power, frequency, or time assignments ordered by the FRC; in a 1932 survey, one college station reported nine such shifts, another eight. And dozens of educational stations fell silent. An investigator concluded that “by far the majority of licenses … were lost because of financial conditions” and that only a few of the losers blamed hostile regulators or bullying commercial broadcasters.
Nonetheless, the number of noncommercial outfits declined drastically. In 1925 there were 128 of them; in 1927, 94; in 1929, 62; in May 1931, just 49. Some schools adjusted to the new pattern in American radio by striking deals with commercial stations to do occasional programs; at least 15 colleges took up Cooperative broadcasting between 1930 and 1932. But the majority that lost their licenses simply gave up on radio as a good idea gone sour.
These dismal events crystallized some basic questions about educational broadcasting in the United States. Exactly what was it, who wanted it, and who was best equipped to do it? The contrasting answers proposed by Cooperators and independents split them into unfriendly camps.
Forced to justify themselves, independent educational broadcasters became increasingly militant, especially in the Midwest. There, the great land-grant universities had early established their own stations for extension work, broadcasting every thing from advice for farmers and homemakers to lessons for grammar schools.
These Midwesterners rallied behind two principles. First, they championed nonprofit enterprise, insisting that radio channels (like the lands reserved to support higher education) were public resources. Second, they defined the microphone as an extension of older teaching tools, and thus as an instrument that rightly be longed to educators.
The rhetoric of Populism and crusading progressivism rang through the Midwesterners’ statements: They were tribunes of the People struggling to conserve the public domain against predatory Interests and monopolistic Trusts. It was no accident that the most progressive state in the nation, Wisconsin, boasted the most vigorous educational station, WHA.
Increasingly these militants scorned Cooperative schemes as bargains with the devil. For example, in 1927 the University of Minnesota quit broadcasting over WCCO (Minneapolis) because the station was assigning unusable hours and screening out programs that displeased farm-product sponsors. Minnesota soon put its own WLB on the air. At a meeting in Kansas later that year, angry college broadcasters declared that “educational broadcasting over commercial stations is not satisfactory to educational interests. Commercial stations are thus enabled to, and experience shows that they invariably do, exercise a censorship …” 
Commercial broadcasters’ ideas about Cooperation changed, too, but in the opposite direction. The more commercialized the industry became, the more stations sought to deflect criticism by cultivating links with nonprofit groups. This incentive for Cooperation was reinforced by the clause in the Radio Act of 1927 that required licensees to serve “the public interest, convenience, or necessity.” Though this language remained legally toothless, it encouraged licensees to make showy gestures to education, to forestall irksome questions at renewal time. As Judith Waller of Chicago’s WMAQ admitted, the average station manager scheduled serious features “because, when he goes to Washington, he can say that they are doing educational work and must be granted time on the air.” Donating a few low-priced hours per week to teachers became a popular way for commercials to demonstrate their civic-mindedness to the Federal Radio Commission.
Eager to clean up their monopolist images, the networks took the lead in public-service programming, much of it presented in cooperation with nonprofit agencies. In 1928-29, NBC introduced a Friday morning Music Appreciation Hour for schoolchildren, a series produced by the League of Women Voters, and the daily National Farm and Home Hour produced by the Department of Agriculture. CBS launched daily half-hour lessons for classrooms called The American School of the Air, complete with an advisory faculty of prominent academics.
Industry leaders began to suggest that educational stations could be dispensed with altogether, because commercial radio people were willing to provide Cooperatively all the uplift that listeners desired. Many educators, particularly at private colleges, agreed. Schools like Columbia and Chicago were happy to display their faculties on the air, but anxious to avoid the expense of running their own stations, and long accustomed to relying on corporate donations anyway.
Intellectually, the case for Cooperation pivoted on the argument that radio education had more to do with radio than with education. Cooperators adopted the industry line that radio was by its nature an entertainment medium. Since it touched the emotions more readily than it engaged the mind, they said, radio was better suited for light adult education than for school instruction. Since radio had such limited pedagogical uses, and since even those required huge investments and mastery of technique, Cooperators contended that profit-making pros could handle radio education better than any educators.
By 1929, educational radio was in crisis. Independents and Cooperators were deeply divided over how to respond. But both camps lacked effective leadership. That need was soon to be met on each side by a friendly foundation. For the next decade, the Payne Fund led the movement for independent educational stations, while the cause of Cooperation was backed by the Carnegie Corporation.
2. Frank Ernest Hill, Listen and Learn: Fifteen Years of Adult Education on the Air (American Association for the Adult Education, 1937), pp. 25-27, 32-33; S.E. Frost, Jr., “The Licensing of Educational Broadcasting Stations: A Retrospect,” Education on the Air: Eighth Yearbook of the Institute for Education by Radio (Ohio State University, 1937), pp. 41-16.
4. WHA Radio Archives, Box 34: Logs and Schedules, 1930-34, State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Madison; “Radio Station Lecture Broadcasts,” Louis C. Boochever papers, Olin Library, Cornell University, Ithaca.
7. Levering Tyson, “Looking Ahead,” Education on the Air: Seventh Yearbook (1936), pp. 57-60; “Dr. Levering Tyson Dies at 77,” New York Times, June 11, 1966. See also documents related to home study radio courses in the folder for Levering Tyson, Corporation Archives, Columbia University, New York.
8. [Allen Miller], “Radio at the University, April 28, 1933,” and Minutes of the Meeting of the Radio Committee, Dec. 15, 1926, in Allen Miller Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin; Armstrong Perry, Radio in Education: The Ohio School of the Air and Other Experiments, (The Payne Fund, 1929), pp. 38-39, 114.
9. Tracy Ferris Tyler, An Appraisal of Radio Broadcasting in the Land-Grant Colleges and State Universities (National Committee for Education by Radio, 1933), pp. 24-26; Frost, “The Licensing of Educational Broadcasting Stations,” p. 51.
11. W.T. Middlebrook, “Educational Sponsorship of Radio Programs,” Education on the Air: First Yearbook (1930), pp. 34-44; Report of Radio Conference, Manhattan, Kan., Dec. 21, 1927; Files on the Advisory Committee on Education by Radio, Box 34, RG 12, National Archives, Washington, D.C.
12. Discussion following Judith C. Waller, “The Problems of Program Management,” Education on the Air: First Yearbook (1930), p. 391.
Copyright 1983 American University