“If you educators do not hold radio for yourselves,” Judge Ira Robinson told educational broadcasters in June 1930, “it is going to be so fortified by commercial interests that you will never get it.”
The lone pro-education member of the Federal Radio Commission, Robinson had ample grounds for alarm. Since the mid-’20s, dozens of school-operated stations had been driven from the air by a combination of commercial competition, FRC pressures, and their own lack of resources and resourcefulness. In 1930, the mortality rate seemed to be rising; more than 20 educational stations would fall silent by the end of July.
During the previous winter, Commissioner Robinson had been involved in a promising initiative that might have brought the federal government to the rescue. But the Advisory Committee on Education by Radio, appointed by the Secretary of the Interior, had pulled back from recommending measures that would do much good for beleaguered educational broadcasters. Radio educators were left to forage for themselves in economic and political terrain made ever more barren by the Depression.
By 1930, the commercials’ campaign to fortify their position was based on the strategy of “cooperating” with nonprofit groups — offering free airtime as an alternative to noncommercial stations. A CBS vice president told radio educators in 1930 that as soon as educators mastered the art of holding audiences, “you will find that the commercial broadcasting companies are entirely willing to turn over facilities for … educational programs.”
To promote Cooperation, the Carnegie Corporation and its subsidiary, the American Association for Adult Education, joined with NBC to form a National Advisory Council on Radio in Education (NACRE) in the summer of 1930. Calling for a truce with the industry, NACRE’s new executive director, Levering Tyson, tried to soothe skittish educators: “The mere fact that alert business interests have temporarily taken possession of the air facilities that education will later want, need not worry anyone.
These blandishments failed to dissuade advocates of independent educational stations from forming a pressure group of their own, the National Committee on Education by Radio, in December 1930. Formally representing nine educational organizations, NCER drew most of its strength from stations at Midwestern land-grant universities, the National Education Association and a foundation named the Payne Fund. Rejecting offers of Cooperation, NCER demanded that Congress reserve 15 percent of all radio channels for the exclusive use of educators and government agencies. The rivalry between NACRE and NCER would materially shape the course of educational broadcasting in the 1930s.
NCER blared its messages through a lively newsletter called Education by Radio and commissioned its own testament (Tune In For Education, by Frank Ernest Hill) before it folded in 1941. It is remembered as the group that held the fort for educational radio stations during the Depression, sustaining the cause of noncommercial broadcasting until the field could stage a comeback after the War.
NACRE led a more mysterious career that quietly petered out in 1938, as Cooperation was turning out to be a dead end for public broadcasting. Yet during the ’30s — the crucial adolescence of broadcasting — NACRE bested NCER in the battle for the souls of regulators.
If NCER had adopted an official emblem, it might have pictured Radio (Mercury) saluting Education (Columbia) flanked by Horace Mann, Bob LaFollette and William Jennings Bryan, over the motto, “In the Public Interest.”
Through the National Education Association and the Payne Fund, NCER could trace its bloodlines back to the public school crusades of the 19th century. Through Payne and the militant broadcasters at Midwestern universities, it could claim as ancestors the agrarian protesters and the progressives of the pre-World War I years.
“The pressing problems of this hour,” proclaimed NCER Chairman Joy E. Morgan in 1931, “can be met only through an enlarged concept of education.” Radio represented “the most powerful educational tool of our day,” a Godsend for a nation in crisis. Yet, the United States, unlike every other advanced nation, had allowed this precious part of the public domain to become “an instrument of selfish greed.” The only way to recover the blessings of radio for the public lay in belatedly earmarking a share of channels exclusively for educators and other public agents.
The heart of NCER’s programs was the bill introduced in the Senate early in 1931 by Simeon Fess of Ohio that would protect 15 percent of the nation’s radio resources from commercial exploitation. Correspondence at the National Archives shows that NCER did much more than lobby for this bill. NCER Chairman Morgan had it drafted and then persuaded Fess to sponsor it.
NCER’s rationale for the reservation of frequencies was explained by Armstrong Perry, a veteran campaigner for educational radio who later joined the NCER staff. “Even if the work of educational stations compared poorly with commercial programs,” Perry told a gathering in 1931, “I still believe democratic government demands that some channels shall be in the hands of the government and not completely in the hands of certain groups.” The objective was to forestall a commercial monopoly, not to ban business from the air. Criticisms of current educational programming were unfair, NCER believed, because radio educators bad never enjoyed the security and resources they needed. “The development of education by radio will not really begin,” Morgan wrote, “until education’s rights on the air are realized in terms of independent channels permanently assigned to our states and to educational institutions.”
On the question of what educational stations ought to broadcast, NCER convictions were less precise. As befits a group backed heavily by the NEA, NCER lauded the potential of school broadcasting to aid teachers. More broadly, NCER endorsed the kind of comprehensive programming, modeled on university extension services, that was familiar to listeners of the Midwestern university stations. In elevated moods, NCER spokesmen envisioned educational broadcasting as the redemption of Jeffersonian democracy, restoring the means of informed citizenship and self-improvement to everyone with a radio set.
But whether educational radio was to be merely useful or sublime, NCER treated it as very serious business. Armstrong Perry denounced the FRC for accepting the commercials’ classification of radio as “an amusement enterprise … more nearly related to the vaudeville theater and the movies than to the public school, to the college, or to the university.”
The rhetoric of NCER people declared their politics: these were disciples of Midwestern progressivism. with more than a little Populism and Bryan Democracy clinging to them. Their archenemies were the network monopolists, the “radio-power-trust” that “would force the educational institutions to become dependent upon a commercial despotism …”
According to NCER demonology, the notorious electric utility industry lay behind the networks. NCER stalwarts loved to note that the parent company of NBC was RCA, which was in turn controlled by General Electric and Westinghouse. They observed as well that NBC President Merlin Aylesworth had been public relations director for the power industry’s trade association. An early number of NCER’s newsletter pointedly reprinted an article by Sen. George Norris, progressive crusader par excellence, on “The Power Trust in the Public Schools.”
NCER and its cohorts suspected that the Radio Commission was in cahoots with the monopolists. In dozens of FRC hearings, the NCER Service Bureau helped defend college stations against assaults on their licenses, frequency assignments, and time allotments. The Commission remained unsympathetic. Even the strongest university outfits, such as Wisconsin’s WHA and Ohio State’s WEAO, had to make do with daylight hours and fend off repeated challenges to their right to broadcast.
Smaller stations succumbed, despite NCER aid. “We have been very hard hit both the depression and also by the Federal Radio Commission,” the program director at University of Arkansas station KUOA told a colleague in early 1932. Given unusable broadcasting hours by the FRC, the station had leased all but a daily half-hour to advertisers. “The Commission may still boast that it has never cut an educational station off the air,” the Arkansan remarked disgustedly. “It merely cuts off our head, our arms and our legs, and then allows us to die a natural death.”
NCER also inherited much of the provincial paranoia and sanctimony of agrarian reform movements. The networks were suspect as much for their urban immorality as for their greed and despotism. In a typical outburst of 1931, Morgan declaimed, “We are in vastly greater danger as a people from New Yorkism than we are from communism. There is more danger that the trivial, the sensual, the jazzy, the confused notions of home life which are bred in the hothouse metropolitan centers will sap the ideals and the vision of the outlying regions which have been the stable centers of our national life … Through motion pictures and radio, the smart-alecky attitude of commercialized amusements … tends to destroy the home life and the community ideals of our smaller towns and rural communities.”
In January 1932, Education by Radio featured a statement by the National Congress of Parents and Teachers that might have been written by Aunt Polly, protesting hucksters who “invade our homes — even on Sunday… to destroy the ideals of sincerity and good taste which are at the heart of sound character.”
To the evangelists of NCER, the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education bore the marks of Satan. NACRE was New Yorky; it preached compromise with commercial monopolists. Most damning of all, it was “financed by the Carnegie-Rockefeller interests.” Morgan charged that NACRE was a front, “a smoke screen which seeks to protect the industry from the just and wholesome criticism of an enlightened public.” Rolling several favorite themes into a single indictment, NCER asked in 1933, “Shall educational broadcasting be in the hands of privately appointed committees operating in New York on funds supplied by private foundations, working hand in glove with the commercial radio monopolies which are closely allied with the great power companies — such committees for example as the National Advisory Council on Radio in Education?”
NACRE countered with accusations of its own. Director Levering Tyson claimed that when his organization was formed in mid-1930, practically everyone who cared about educational radio supported “the general cooperative idea.” NACRE was then on the verge of uniting government, industry, education and the general public, with the “emphatic approval” of Secretary of the Interior Ray Lyman Wilbur and Commissioner of Education William John Cooper.
Then came the great betrayal, Tyson complained. “For some reason (which to this day has never been disclosed),” he wrote, Commissioner Cooper lent his prestige to the formation of NCER. “At this important psychological moment, after the industry had conscientiously and sincerely entered into an agreement with education to engage in a cooperative effort to develop the best uses of radio,” the founders of NCER “out of a clear blue sky practically declared war on the broadcasting industry.” The “defection” of NCER fatally split the movement for sound educational radio, Tyson lamented. “The forces have been scattered ever since.”
This version of NACRE/NCER origins was disingenuous because, as Tyson knew, college stations, the Payne Fund, the NEA and many others distrusted the industry’s offers of Cooperation before and after the founding of NACRE. It was pressure from these groups that moved Cooper to call the conference that founded NCER. If either organization was guilty of interloping, it was NACRE.
Accurate or not, Tyson’s recollections reflected the strategy of picturing NACRE as a “consolidated educational front,” seeking to unite and conciliate, in contrast to NCFR’s divisive partisanship. NACRE’s twin purposes, Tyson announced, were to disseminate information about educational radio and to encourage educators to produce good programs. Its accent was to be on study and research. Unlike NCER, which rushed into the public area brandishing the Fess Bill, the NACRE board voted to avoid politics and special pleading. The board’s make-up seemed consistent with these scruples. During most of NACRE’s career, university heads filled its presidency (Robert Millikan of Cal Tech), all of its vice-presidencies (Livingston Farrand of Cornell, Meta Glass of Sweetbriar, Robert M. Hutchins of Chicago, Roubert G. Sproul of California, Walter Dill Scott of Northwestern), and its board chairmanship (Harry W. Chase of New York University). Most of the rest of its directors and members were officers of national educational organizations, adult educators and prominent public figures.
Beneath its pose of disinterestedness, NACRE was an amalgam of interest groups. The private university presidents who dominated NACRE were not the industry stooges that NCER sometimes implied they were. Worried about Depression-drained budgets, they decided that Cooperation with commercial stations offered them the cheapest and most effective way to broadcast.
But many were clearly beholden to the commercial broadcasters, not just for access to broadcasting facilities but for other kinds of largesse as well. One NACRE vice president, Livingston Farrand of Cornell, could hardly forget that his university’s radio facilities had been heavily subsidized by General Electric and Westinghouse, both parents of NBC. When Cornell was considering the commercial leasing of its station (eventually acquired by publisher Frank Gannett, a Cornell trustee), Farrand turned to GE’s Owen Young for advice. Farrand accepted a NACRE office on the understanding that it would be a figurehead position not calling “for any particular expenditure of time.”
A more energetic NACRE vice president, Robert Maynard Hutchins of the University of Chicago, had even closer links with the industry. Shortly after his election to NACRE, Hutchins accepted Owen Young’s invitation to join the NBC Advisory Council, a post that carried an annual $1,000 honorarium. At the same time, Hutchins was aggressively lobbying NBC to pick up the costs of Chicago programs aired over NBC’s outlet, WMAQ. Hutchins later enlisted Tyson to help him obtain NBC airtime and “a small subvention” for University radio productions. For several years Hutchins awkwardly juggled his indebtedness to NBC with his service to NACRE.
Less prominent than these university executives, but more potent in directing policy, were NACRE’s patrons, the Carnegie Corporation and its offspring, the American Association for Adult Education. Carnegie and AAAE had launched a campaign to mobilize resources for adult education back in the mid-1920s. In this effort, they collided with the NEA, which had its own Department of Adult Education. The battles between NCER and NACRE echoed within this wider war between NEA and AAAE. Following the lead of AAAE, NACRE promoted a liberal-arts conception of radio education, as a source of enrichment and uplifting recreation, in contrast to the NEA-NCER emphasis on vocational training and academic instruction. For Carnegie, AAAE and NACRE, broadcasting was less central to education than what the earnest idealists of NCER had in mind.
Still less visible in NACRE affairs, but always present, was the influence of the commercial industry. NBC played more than a passing part in getting NACRE started; its pledges of support helped persuade Carnegie to make major grants to NACRE, and NBC obtained the right to approve the Council’s director. Throughout NACRE’s history, its activities depended directly on airtime and assistance donated by the networks. In return, NACRE showered public praise on the industry, confining its quarrels to private contacts. NACRE’s coziness with the commercials was advertised by the fact that it shared one of its principal committees with the National Association of Broadcasters.
Ties with broadcasting businessmen did not prevent NACRE from presenting itself as an agency of reform. Nor was this hypocrisy. It might be argued, in fact, that NACRE belonged to one wing of the progressive movement — the Eastern wing, long at odds with Midwestern protest, that proposed the efficiency and generosity of big business as the answer to the nation’s problems.
NACRE was made in the mold of an earlier vehicle of progressive Cooperation, the National Civic Federation. Founded in 1900, NCF sought to soften antagonisms toward corporations by inviting representatives of labor and consumers to work with management. It became a fountainhead of “welfare capitalism,” the creed of solicitude for workers that was designed to smooth the rough edges from the corporate economy.
Similarly, NACRE urged educators to make peace with the broadcasting industry and coaxed the commercials to heed radio’s higher uses. Like NCF, NACRE carefully distinguished enlightened corporate leaders (the networks and large urban stations) from the barbarism of small businessmen (local stations with Philistine views on education). And like NCF, NACRE sought to generate enough voluntary public service to satisfy lethargic government regulators.
For all its talk about unifying the movement for educational broadcasting, NACRE was barely able to stitch together its own parts. The word “Cooperation” covered a mess of different motives. The Council’s commercial patrons viewed education as a frill or a necessary nuisance; its educator-members had sincere hopes for noncommercial radio, but persistent doubts about its feasibility.
41. Discussion following Ira E. Robinson, “Who Owns Radio?,” Education on the Air: First Yearbook (1930), p. 14.
45. Discussion following Judith Waller, “Educational Responsibilities of the Commercial Broadcaster,” Education on the Air: Second Yearbook (1931), p. 88. See also Perry to S.H. Evans, Jan. 6, 1931, Advisory Committee Files, Box 32, National Archives, Washington. The statement by Morgan is from his “Education’s Rights on the Air,” pp. 130-131.
48. The Norris article, first published in the Nation, was reprinted in Education by Radio 1 (May 14, 1931):55-56. For typical Education by Radio vituperations against radio industry ties with power companies, see “The Menace of Radio Monopoly,” 1 (March 26, 1931):25-28; “Power Trust Promoter Becomes Radio President,” 1 (Dec. 31, 1931):162; and “You Pay for Power Trust Advertising,” 2 (Feb. 4, 1932):20.
53. Minutes of the Meeting of Board of Directors of NACRE, Feb. 10, 1937, Farrand Papers, Box 25, Olin Library, Cornell. Tyson’s version of the events attending the founding of NACRE was borrowed almost verbatim by Hill for his Listen and Learn, the fullest account of NACRE activities.
56. W.C. Stone to Farrand, June 17, 1926; Farrand to Owen D. Young, Feb. 28, 1927; Dexter S. Kimball to Young, April 12, 1934; and Farrand to Levering Tyson, Jan. 26, 1931; all in Farrand Papers, Box 25, Olin Library, Cornell.
57. Correspondence of Hutchins with Owen D. Young and Everett Case,1 February 1932, in Hutchins Papers Addenda, Box 100. University of Chicago Archives; Minutes of Special Meeting of the (University of Chicago) Radio Committee, Feb. 13, 1932, Allen Miller Papers, State Historical Society of Wisconsin; Hutchins to Tyson, April 10 and April 17, 1933, Hutchins Papers Addenda, Box 99, University of Chicago Archives.
59. The April 1929 memorandum of understanding that led to the establishment of NACRE contained the provision that the new director was “to be acceptable both to the National Broadcasting Company and to the Association …” [Cartwright], Memorandum on Studies and Experiments in Radio Education.”
60. On the National Civic Federation, see Weinstein, The Corporate Ideal in the Liberal State.
Copyright 1983 American University