History

How to Get Ahead in Radio: Marry LBJ

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Jack Shafer describes the unbeautified side of the late Lady Bird Johnson, noting that many obituaries for the former first lady "find her scheme to 'beautify' America more interesting than her blatant exercise in political graft."

In 1943, the year Lady Bird Johnson purchased KTBC, the Federal Communications Commission, which reviewed all broadcast-license transfers, was close to being abolished, [Robert A.] Caro writes. Lyndon Johnson used his political influence in both Congress and the White House to prevent that from happening. The FCC was among the most politicized agencies in the government, Caro asserts, and it knew who its friends were.

Johnson socialized with FCC Commissioner Clifford Durr at the time, "sometimes at Durr's home, sometimes at his own," although Durr says Johnson never mentioned Lady Bird's application for KTBC's license. Lady Bird, however, directly approached Durr about the station, and Lyndon phoned James Barr of the FCC's Standard Broadcast Division. "He wanted to get a radio station, and what I remember is, he wouldn't take no for an answer," Caro quotes Barr.

The whole story is here, including how LBJ "shook down powerful companies to advertise on the station."

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  1. I figured “blatantly engaged in political corruption” was implied in the phrase “married to Lyndon B. Johnson.”

  2. the Federal Communications Commission, which reviewed all broadcast-license transfers, was close to being abolished

    Really? The FCC was almost abolished? And you say LBJ put a stop to it? God Damn It, Now I really hate him.

  3. As I recall, for some time wasn’t Austin the largest city in the U.S. that only had one tv station (Lady Bird’s)? I’m sure that monopoly was better than $90,000 cash in the freezer.

  4. The FCC was almost abolished?

    Sort of. More exactly, Congress was threatening to eliminate all appropriations for it, which would have effectively killed off the commission.

    It was a weird little episode, driven not by any sort of principle but by one corrupt legislator’s peeved reaction to a license renewal hearing that affected his own financial interests. Everyone involved comes off looking bad, and the FCC, alas, survived.

  5. the unbeautified side of the late Lady Bird Johnson

    Given the gushing, over-the-top obituaries LB received,
    I thought at first that you had written unbeatified, Jesse.

  6. Caro’s LBJ books are terrific. He asserts the radio station was all LBJ (KLBJ!), all the way, and that Lady Bird’s involvement was just a smokescreen to deflect scrutiny.

    Also in _Means Of Ascent_ is a quote from William Payley’s autobiograhy — owners of Austin radio stations had tried for years to become CBS affiliates, while CBS had always maintained that Austin was sufficiently covered by their San Antonio affiliate. Well, one day a man named LBJ came into Payley’s office and said something like “Mr. Payley, I’ve got a ticket on a little 5000-watt radio station in Austin and I would sure be pleased if you would see it in your heart to allow me to become a CBS affiliate.” Payley said congressman (member of the committee that oversees the FCC), I think that’s a terrific idea.

    And yes, he then details how, if you needed to bribe LBJ, you bought commercial time on his station… how, for years, the station would run weird commercials for industrial power tools and the like, not for the reach to the listeners, but for the reach to Washington.

    Nothing like that goes on today, of course. Right, Senator Stevens?

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