PBS

It Didn't Begin with Sesame Street

|

Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History, by Ralph Engelman, Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, $55.00/$24.95 paper.

Among Beltway power brokers, public broadcasting means PBS: multicultural muppets, a soporific newshour, and a perpetual Three Tenors concert. (Why three tenors? Is that supposed to make the show three times as good? A friend suggests that PBS has embraced the Universal Studios Principle: If Dracula, Frankenstein, and the Wolf Man were scary in their own movies, they'll be really scary together.) Sometimes someone will remember National Public Radio, domain of Some Things Considered and Terry Gross, the rich man's Arsenio. But that's pretty much it. As far as policy makers are concerned, PBS and NPR represent the sum total of noncommercial broadcasting in the United States.

That's one reason to appreciate Ralph Engelman's Public Radio and Television in America: A Political History. Engelman served on the national board of Pacifica, America's oldest noncommercial radio network, from 1973 to 1979. Perhaps because of that background, he is more attuned than most writers to public broadcasters who do not fit the standard NPR/PBS mode, such as independently licensed community radio stations or public-access channels on cable TV.

For Engelman, "public" refers not just to state subsidies but to citizen participation–not just to city hall but to town square. "A fundamental distinction," he writes, "emerges between federal and community forms of public radio and television, with the former rooted in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, the latter in more decentralized and participatory processes." His book aspires to be the story of both brands of broadcasting–not a pathbreaking history rich with primary research but a synthesis of the many books and articles that preceded his.

His book is also, one gathers, an attempt to defend these stations against the alleged Threat From The Right, i.e., Republican politicians' now-dormant efforts to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. This seems odd, as his account actually suggests that government money has been as likely to curb good noncommercial broadcasting as to nurture it. Again and again, federal funds have transformed genuinely grassroots stations into ratings-driven, "professional" outlets. But Engelman repeatedly lapses back into conflating the public sector and the public sphere. For Engelman, however flawed PBS and NPR may be, they are "public" institutions worth preserving. Profit-seeking businesses, he implies, could never create anything comparable.

That is nonsense. Talk radio, at its best, is the local, participatory platform for exchanging ideas that NPR no longer even aspires to be. Anyone who doubts this need only scan through the AM band on a Sunday afternoon. The last time I did, I heard citizens debating the proper direction of their school district, relying on personal experience rather than ideological cant. I heard state legislators fielding calls about pending bills, forced by the format to answer in more than soundbites. I even heard a rabbi debating some Randites over the existence of God. The best talk radio has a vitality that most NPR programming lacks.

Still, Engelman is happy to describe public broadcasting that takes place outside the state, even if he draws the line at embracing the business sector. He notes, accurately, that broadcasting was invented not by businessmen but by hobbyists: the grassroots network of amateurs who were jockeying discs and covering sports back when both government and corporations assumed radio would be used only for point-to-point communication. Unfortunately, Engelman doesn't describe the amateur ether in detail. Instead, he passes along a few quotes from Susan Douglas's Inventing American Broadcasting (arguably the best history of the medium ever written) and other sources, then hurries on.

This is a loss. The ham subculture of the 1910s bore a striking resemblance to Bertolt Brecht's later demand for a radio system that "knew how to receive as well as transmit, how to let the listener speak as well as hear, how to bring him into a relationship instead of isolating him," one that would "step out of the supply business and organize its listeners as suppliers." The difference is that the socialist Brecht believed that "only the State can organize this." The early amateurs, by contrast, were a spontaneous, self-regulating subculture that emerged without the state's support or affection.

What does this have to do with the Three Tenors? Not much. Engelman's "fundamental distinction" between federal and community broadcasting seems more like a giant canyon.

Community radio–the independently licensed, listener-sponsored, volunteer-run stations not married to any narrow programming format–was born in 1946, when Lewis Hill founded the Pacifica Foundation. Hill, a pacifist, had come to reject the state as an innately violent institution; he had dreamed up his radio project during World War II, while interned in a labor camp for conscientious objectors. Imbued with this anarchism, the first Pacifica station–KPFA-Berkeley, launched in 1949–received no support from any level of government. In an unconscious echo of the hams' do-it-yourself ethic, KPFA relied on its listeners for money and on community volunteers for labor.

In the 48 years since, Pacifica has become known for broadcasting diverse and interesting music, serious radio drama, and, especially, political dissent. Engelman relates this history in considerable detail, though he treads lightly when discussing the original Pacificans' politics. Suspicious of both communists and liberals, the young station was far friendlier to the likes of anarchist poet Kenneth Rexroth than to, say, one-time Progressive presidential hopeful Henry Wallace. It's moved in several different directions since 1949, some more worthy than others; these days it's little more than a leftier version of NPR. (It also takes in over $1 million a year from the federal government, a far cry from its early independence.)

Engelman's brief biography of the network is useful as far as it goes, though he prefers to ignore his subject's recent problems, proclaiming instead that it "remains unique in its commitment to sustain an independent, critical, and oppositional public sphere on the broadcast spectrum." (Yes, he really writes like that. A professor of journalism, Engelman at his worst combines the clear prose style of the academy with the intellectual precision for which we reporters are renowned.)

Fortunately, the idea of noncommercial radio survived Pacifica's decline. In 1962, a stray KPFA volunteer named Lorenzo Milam founded a new station, KRAB, at the high end of Seattle's FM band. His inspiration and expertise–and money–helped launch more outlets, the so-called "KRAB Nebula," around the country. Federal grants came only later, along with funding guidelines that often undermined the stations' volunteer-based, community-oriented character.

Engelman's history of community radio strikes me as the weakest section of his book–a bad sign, since it's also the topic that I know the most about. He lavishes almost all of his attention on Pacifica, devoting less than two pages to the KRAB Nebula and scarcely more to the National Federation of Community Broadcasters. He barely touches the recent, Corporation for Public Broadcasting-sponsored efforts to "professionalize" community stations by increasing paid staff, reducing volunteers' power, and adopting more mainstream programming. The micro radio movement–illegal low-watt stations often formed in explicit rebellion against these new controls–is not mentioned at all. (See "Don't Touch That Dial," October 1995.) And sometimes Engelman's facts are out of date. Citing a 1990 source, he describes WORT in Madison, Wisconsin as "at the commercial end of community radio." That was true then but is no longer so today.

Still, Engelman tells enough for readers to see the basic differences between community radio and public TV. The former is a pluralistic movement built by many different people in many different places, from the ground up. The latter was invented by a handful of would-be social engineers at the Ford Foundation in the 1950s. Educational television, they declared, could be a force for social uplift, "an instrument for the development of community leaders," even "a form of psychotherapy." Their money and lobbying skills created a small network of public TV stations over the next decade, building an infrastructure that would begin receiving a few federal dollars in the early '60s and a lot more after 1967.

That's the year Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB was launched at the recommendation of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, a nominally independent panel that was in fact largely directed from the Johnson White House. CPB and PBS were supposed to be independent institutions shielded from government influence. In actual practice, they're federal bureaucracies run by political appointees, as susceptible to political pressure as any other part of official Washington.

At PBS, even demands for decentralization often come from above. Richard Nixon distrusted the network, believing–rightly–that it was biased toward the Eastern establishment. So in 1971, Clay Whitehead, head of the White House Office of Telecommunications Policy, tried to weaken the national network by calling for a "return to localism." It was an odd choice of words: How could public TV "return" to an arrangement it had never enjoyed? The ultimate result was not to decentralize or defund, but to neuter. PBS's commitment to controversial programming, already weak, softened even further after the Nixon attack. (Despite its radical reputation, PBS seems less committed to socialism than to the British class system.)

If community radio is noncommercial broadcasting at its most decentralist and anti-bureaucratic, and if PBS represents the other extreme, NPR falls somewhere in-between. Like community radio, educational radio emerged without federal direction: Some schools were sponsoring stations even before World War I, and dozens were born in the 1920s. Unlike community radio, these stations were, to judge from historical accounts, spectacularly dull–"pap for the intellectual masses," in Lorenzo Milam's words. You won't get this impression from Engelman's book, which prefers stressing the stations' allegedly populist roots over describing the enervating lectures that made up their usual programming.

At any rate, the foundations that created PBS weren't interested in radio, and the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 would have ignored the medium altogether were it not for some last-minute lobbying by the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. The result was NPR, founded with CPB cash in 1970. It was William Siemering, the innovative manager of SUNY-Buffalo's WBFO-FM, who conceived the new network and its flagship program. The original All Things Considered plan called for news reports from public stations around the country, with the Washington offices serving more as a clearinghouse than as a command center. Instead, NPR became yet another centralized institution run by political appointees, especially after Siemering was fired as program director in 1972. By 1993, things had gotten to the point where the head of the CPB could seriously call for merging NPR with the Voice of America.

Competition from a rival network–American Public Radio, recently renamed Public Radio International–hasn't reversed the trend toward centralization. In 1987, Engelman notes, 60 percent of public radio programs were locally produced. Today, the ratio tips the other way. Meanwhile, most NPR and PRI programs are upscale and middlebrow, broadcasting hour after hour of candy-coated brie. It's hard to see how one can call this arrangement "public," unless one's only criterion is a heavy influx of public dollars.

Earlier this year, KPFK (Pacifica's Los Angeles outlet) canceled a program called Music of the Americas. The show, whose music ranged from Dixieland to film scores to contemporary experimental compositions, was "too arcane and challenging," station manager Mark Schubb told the Los Angeles Times. Thirty years ago, it would have been unheard-of for a Pacifica station to drop a show for such a reason. Today, it's par for the course.

Schubb also killed the Opera Show, a Sunday-morning fixture for 26 years. Like Music of the Americas, the Opera Show didn't limit itself to spinning records. Host Fred Hyatt interviewed guests, offered informed commentary, and sometimes went beyond the traditional boundaries of opera–all the way out to The Pajama Game. The problem wasn't the show's quality, Schubb explained; it was the ratings. "All that matters is coming up with matching funds," Hyatt complained to the Times. "And now, they're really punching the so-called multicultural thing. It's all very cynical."

Supposedly, government money was going to protect noncommercial stations against the Vengeful God Arbitron. It hasn't worked out that way. Engelman's book would be much better if he spent a little more time wondering why that might be so.