(en)Cyberspace precedent? The takeover of free radio...

Lyn Gerry (redlyn@loop.com)
Tue, 1 Jul 1997 22:05:16 +0000


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------- Forwarded Message Follows ------- Date: Tue, 1 Jul 1997 21:05:33 -0700 (PDT) To: progressive-radio@tango.rahul.net From: Lenny Gray <lenngray@calwest.net> Subject: An oldie found while web-surfing

******************************** Cyberspace precedent? The takeover of free radio...

(This article may be posted in entirety for non-commercial use) ******************************** Commercial Takeovers of Media by Wally Bowen 22 February 95

Forwarded message: From: CML@unca.edu Sender: owner-media-forum@actwin.com To: media-forum@actwin.com Date: 95-02-22 10:43:19 EST

Following is the final draft of an op-ed on public broadcasting originally posted in draft form on this list. This final draft was published this past Sunday (Feb. 19) in the Raleigh (N.C.) News & Observer. Many thanks to those on the list who gave me feedback on the first draft. Please feel free to post this to other relevant lists. I retain subsequent publication rights. Copyright Wally Bowen, 1995. For re-print information, please contact the author at <cml@unca.edu>. Thanks, Wally Bowen, Citizens for Media Literacy, Asheville, N.C.

As the right continues its assault on public broadcasting, history shows who wins and who loses if the Public Broadcasting Service is privatized.

During World War One, the government poured money and talent into perfecting a new technology called radio. Returning veterans with radio training helped spawn hundreds of small radio stations across America during the post-war years. By 1925, there were 128 college and university radio stations and a similar number of stations run by a variety of non-profits, from farmer and labor organizations to religious and civic groups.

But a problem arose when the frequencies of the fast-growing commercial networks, led by NBC, began bumping into non-profit frequencies. With commercial broadcasters clamoring for government regulation of the airwaves, the Federal Radio Commission was formed, which NBC and its allies packed with sympathetic attorneys and engineers.

In 1928, the FRC designated the non-profits as "propaganda" stations, while commercial broadcasters were given the more benign label of "general service" stations.

Not surprisingly, the FRC favored "general service" stations whenever frequency disputes arose. Drawn into lengthy and expensive litigation, many non-profit stations were forced to shut down. Most of those that survived ran head-on into the Depression and died.

The final nail in the coffin of non-profit radio occurred in 1934, when the networks and their lobbying arm, the National Association of Broadcasters, defeated a move in Congress to reserve 20 percent of the public airwaves for non-commercial stations.

A crucial argument against the 20 percent set-aside came from business elites who feared that non-profit radio would be used to organize farmers and workers.

Indeed, Chicago's WCFL -- the "Voice of Farmer-Labor" -- provided news from the perspective of working people, leading one Midwest business newsletter to issue this dire warning:

"Think of the speeches that may go forth. Wild and radical speeches listened to by hundreds of thousands. These wild men in their wild talks regardless of consequences, may reach the ear, possibly inadvertently, of your influential and trusted employee, who may be detracted from paths favorable to his employer's success."

Clearly, this first battle over "public" broadcasting battle was about economic and political power, and free speech. Both commercial and non-profit broadcasters understood that radio could be used for social control and private profit as well as for free speech and wider democratic participation.

The business elites had a simple and clear-cut strategy: They argued that the marketplace is virtually synonymous with democracy, and thus the market would fairly and impartially determine whose voices get heard.

But the history of free speech in America contradicts this simplistic belief. In a key Supreme Court decision in 1945, Justice Hugo Black wrote for the majority that "The First Amendment rests on the assumption that the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources is essential to the welfare of the public. ... Freedom of the press from government interference under the First Amendment," added Justice Black, "does not sanction repression of that freedom from private interests."

Nevertheless, non-commercial broadcasting was silent until the 1960s, when TV's "vast wasteland" brought Congressional action.

Following a 1966 Carnegie Commission study, Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. But one key element of the Carnegie study was missing: the insulation of public broadcasting from political manipulation, by providing an independent revenue stream from taxes on the sale of radios, TVs, and broadcast licenses.

President Lyndon Johnson supported the independent revenue stream idea, but the issue was tabled in order to get legislation passed quickly. Johnson believed Congress could amend the legislation the following year, but this was never done.

By the early 1970s, President Richard Nixon and fellow conservatives were disgruntled over PBS documentaries such as "The Banks and the Poor", a critical look at how banks' lending policies helped keep urban poor impoverished. To avoid charges of censorship, Nixon accused public broadcasting of becoming too "centralized."

On June 30, 1972, Nixon vetoed Congress' funding of public broadcasting, which was then forced to turn to major corporations -- mainly the oil companies -- for support.

The current attack on PBS is just the latest twist in the noose in a 75-year effort to strangle the free speech potential of public broadcasting. Those who would kill public broadcasting today are direct descendants of the business elites who saw public media as a threat to their dominance of America's information order.

Now with a new information order being mapped out by media barons like Rupert Murdoch and John Malone, the Republican Congress presents another historic opportunity to snuff out public-sector media and its free speech potential.

Protectors of free speech understand it's the nature of he commercial marketplace to silence unpopular voices and dissenting points of view. The cheerleading media coverage of the Persian Gulf war is one of the more obvious and recent examples of this reality.

Advocates for public broadcasting must find a credible voice to tell the story of public broadcasting's 75-year struggle for survival. Big Bird and Barney can't do it alone.

(Wally Bowen is founder and executive director of Citizens for Media Literacy in Asheville, N.C.)

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