The History and Politics of Public Radio

James T. Bennett's libertarian critique argues that noncommercial radio can be detached from the state—and that it's better that way.


Public radio is much older than NPR. As early as the 1910s, universities were transmitting weather reports to farmers and, in one historian's words, "esoteric jokes" to themselves. In the 1920s, as New York's municipally owned WNYC started operation, one of its founders argued that the government should establish big outlets in each region while "cutting out poorer and weaker stations which broadcast inferior programs."

Drawing on both original research and earlier scholarship (including—full disclosure—my own work), James T. Bennett's The History and Politics of Public Radio surveys those two strains of noncommercial broadcasting, one scrappy and bottom-up, the other centralist and elitist, with an eye on the subsidies and regulations that have boosted the centralist tradition. It covers funding fights (which do not always fall along expected left/right lines), political manipulations (Washington's funds often come with Washington's strings), and historical ironies (jazz has become an NPR staple, but the New Deal–era advocates of educational broadcasting "absolutely hated jazz").

The book doesn't deride the idea of noncommercial radio. Instead, Bennett's libertarian critique argues that noncommercial radio can be detached from the state—indeed, that it's better that way.

NEXT: Big Mother Is Watching

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  1. Bennett's libertarian critique argues that noncommercial radio can be detached from the state

    That would be great - and produce another tsunami of salty Prog tears for us.

    Like so many things, CNN started out as a 'pure news' network, but slowly drifted further and further left until it is now simply Pravda in English.

    Why do these things so often drift leftward? ESPN, NPR, CNN, NBC, CBS, Facebook, Twitter, etc. There must be some underlying feature of society that makes people want to be seen to be empathetic by giving away other people's money and cancel personal responsibility.

    1. Because people who can, do. People who can't, teach. People who can't teach, coach or report or otherwise find ways to be parasites.

      There are a lot of occupations which are not productive in any normal sense. Subsidized academia comes to mind, along with everything else subsidized, because the true demand is unknown but lower than the subsidized demand, and they all have this nagging worry in their minds that the political winds could shift at any capricious moment and throw them out of a cushy job.

      Anyway, among the unproductive jobs is reporting, because face it, people only read and watch news as voyeurs, and are very fickle.

      1. Whatever your f..king name is, your infantile stereotype of large groups of other humans motivated only by the lowest emotions, to be complete, should also include the ones about all businessmen being dishonest quick buck artists with zero sense of social responsibility and right wing white people being ignorant racist farmers. Prove me wrong.

        1. You are free to avoid the fruits of farmers’ labor.

          If only Americans were free from being forced to fund public broadcasting.

          1. I was a farmer for 15 years you fool, but hey no doubt need more public airwaves available for right wing screamers.

            1. Is this when you first met Donnie Brasco?

              1. No simpleton, hard as it apparently is for you to grasp that there are numerous FBI agents working undercover in dangerous situations, the agent I met through my fed prosecutor contact was not Donnie Brasco. He did however spend nights at the club with ethnic gang leaders posing as a mafia guy from the opposite coast visiting a couple of times a month, and then went home to his wife and kids, hoping he didn't bump into anyone on the street or was put in a situation where he'd be in danger if he didn't do something illegal.

                A spoiled whiner like you can't understand anything like that I guess and have to pretend it's a fantasy. Yes, I managed a 135 acre cow calf operation in a Deep South location, and did attendant things like grow winter rye, cut and bail hay, feed the stock on winter nights, castrate bull calves, de-worm the cattle, and yearly haul the calves to market. I also grew 4 acres of sweet potatoes one year. Thanks for asking.

                1. Ethnic gang. Deep South. Lolz.

                  1. Fortunately, I don't have to imagine you are weak shallow jerk off who thinks winning an argument is the same thing as trying lame insults on the one schooling you.

                    1. Oh the irony.

            2. Probably farming the subsidy system. Or more likely, couldn't figure it out, had to bail because it was too complicated for you.

              1. I build houses dip s..t and have met payroll for 40+ years.

                1. Are they made of Lincoln logs?

                  1. No! He won an AIA award!

                    (Local AIA chapters give out many awards annually for *many* different categories. They are all self-nominated. We have one local residential architect in particular who is famous for finding obscure categories that his projects might technically qualify for, and for which he might be the only self-nominee.)

        2. Business people, as opposed to cronies who 69 with government cronies, depend on satisfying customers. They produce things, and if no one buys them, they lose money. The customer is their boss.

          Compare this most academics and other subsidized jobs. The bigger the subsidies, the more tenuous their hold on their jobs. Since they produce more than a free market will consume, their paymasters are their true bosses, rather than the supposed customers.

          1. In your fantasy dip-s..t, but as a businessman myself with 2 relatives who had state jobs and worked their asses of on salaried positions they could have done better at in private work, unlike you I know what I'm talking about and you're a f..king idiot who has to tell himself bedtime stories to justify his ignorant view of the world which includes boosting your pathetic self image.

            1. I don't know anyone working a government job who could have done better in the private sector.

              People work government jobs because they pay well, have ridiculous benefits, and are extremely difficult to get fired or laid off from.

      2. “Because people who can, do…”

        What does that make people, like all of us commentariat regulars, who write comments every day on reporting?

        1. You never heard of hobbies? Spare time? Time off? Trolling the trolls?

          1. It puts you and me, and all the other regulars here, one step below reporters in your hierarchy of being pathetic-ness.

            You know what are non-pathetic hobbies: furniture making, playing guitar, gardening. Commenting on articles written by writers you don’t respect — highly pathetic.

      3. Well done ABC.

    2. To borrow from Chomsky, Taibbi, Mir, et al., media follow the money, and the money now follows partisanship. Advertisers might have once encouraged broader appeal, but more dedicated consumers, i.e. subscribers, now want delivery tailored to their own biases. And often they want stuff that is inflammatory.

      And my guess is the the skew left or right is mostly a factor of the politics of those generating and broadcasting biased BS.

      1. Newspapers have always been capitalist enterprises and partisan enough that the "Mayberry Democrat" was not meant as a platitude. "Yellow Journalism" did not start in 2016 and some newspapers were powerful enough to start wars. Chomsky is a dependable "blame America 1st" type, Taibbi is an ankle biter pretending to be leftists but that is who he always attacks - sort of a male Camile Paglia.

        Compared to our past, we have the best newspapers, mostly practicing journalistic standards that didn't exist later. Too many of you believed the fat losers attack on the free press and have internalized it. He is so obviously self serving as to make it difficult to believe anyone listened to him, but then, here you all are.


        1. What a fuckin retard. Which untalented writer are you?

    3. Robert Conquest’s Three Laws of Politics:

      1. Everyone is conservative about what he knows best.
      2. Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
      3. The simplest way to explain the behavior of any bureaucratic organization is to assume that it is controlled by a cabal of its enemies.

    4. Oh boy look at the lack of diversity on public radio and TV and you will answer your question. Cultural marxist types streamed into "public" institutions starting in the 1930s...academia, public media and so on. Our local PBS Station while I was growing up in an area with majorities of Irish and Italian never had either in the management team. Jewish liberals seemed to be overrepresented and Irish or Italians were underrepresented.

  2. I recommend Jesse's book Rebels on the Air. The early history of radio is fascinating in its libertarian roots and corrupt takeover by all the usual suspects.

    1. Lbj was a huge corrupt asshole with radio licence

  3. This book is $85 on Amazon - what, did he only print six of them and they're all edged in gold leaf?

    1. When a book is priced like that, it's a sign that the publisher expects most of the buyers to be libraries.

      1. Or perhaps the elitist crowd such as with Dreams from My Father. Folks bought it to virtue signal but never read it missing the part about where Obama discussed eating dog. The only hands that ever touched it were the maid’s when she was dusting the demilune table.

      2. Municipal libraries or private sector libraries?

      3. In hardcover, yeah. One can get a paperback for a third of that. NYU Press, so it may be "textbook pricing." "Short discount" as was said in the trade, when I last worked in it.

        9780814793824 paper
        Published: June 2004 $28 list

        9780814793817 Hardcover
        Published: September 2001 $89 list

        Amazon has Kindle ebook copies for less than the paperback.

  4. Despite popular belief, NPR gets very little federal funding. About 1%. This, the endless pledge drives.

    1. NPR gets very little direct federal funding. The member stations are independently owned, they have to pay dues to the network, and most of them get federal grants.

      1. Are there any good numbers on how much the members receive in federal grants?

        1. Are there any good numbers on how much the members receive in federal grants?

          It varies widely from station to station. The totals are surely on the CPB's site somewhere, but I can't be more specific than that—it's been years since I've needed to look at any of that info. (And of course some of them get money from other arms of the government.)

          1. Also, the licenses of many large NPR outlets are in the hands, not of non-profit membership organizations, but in that of government creatures such as state universities. States owning TV and radio outlets should no more be tolerated than their owning newspapers.

      2. According to this:
        PBS gets 14% of its revenue from the government.
        I run a business; if a single source provided 14% of our revenue, that would be a VERY important customer, and we would look out for their interests with vigor.

    2. Anything more than 0 is too much

      1. PBS: Where hundreds work so dozens can watch.

    3. Despite popular belief, NPR gets very little federal funding.

      But try to take that funding away, or even cut it, and watch them scream about how they won't survive.

      1. That's the rejoinder to my question below... always.

        I've literally watched politicians in the same speech make a case for cutting federal funding (it's so insignificant, why are we talking about it? Stop talking about it) while a sentence later make the case for the critical need of federal funding of NPR (If you cut federal funding, NPR will cease to exist!).

        1. And nobody asks what, precisely, is lost if PBS ceases to exist?

    4. So we can cut the 1% and no one would notice.

  5. Abolish public radio.

  6. PBS is not something women get once a month…instead, PBS should be accessed no greater than once a month.

    1. I had a friend who told me she was invited to join Mensa. I asked if they meet 13 times a year.

      1. Joined to pad her résumé.

    2. Anyone can get PBS... or haven't you kept up with the latest cultural zeitgeist?

  7. They say you better listen to the voice of Reason.
    But they don't give you any choice cause they think that it's treason.
    You know you better do as you are told.
    You better listen to the radio.

    1. “You better listen to the radio.” Yeah, worked out really well in Rwanda

    2. Every day, Every day, Every day I read the book.

      1. Play one more ....

  8. Paula A Kerger, President and CEO of PBS makes aver a million bucks a year. One of their subchannels is dedicated to programs showing how much America sucks (to everyone other than white men).

    1. And her background? Working class family..first state college grad in her family? Attended mass daily?

  9. (Washington's funds often come with Washington's strings), and historical ironies (jazz has become an NPR staple, but the New Deal–era advocates of educational broadcasting "absolutely hated jazz").

    And not just any jazz, but that academic whimsy jazz. You know what I'm talking about.

  10. Compare this most academics and other subsidized jobs.

  11. Who checks the checkers? Who is an expert? The market is the best determinator of "experts" not universities, not pedigree, not tribe. The first amendment works because everyone is allowed even the crazies to speak and present their "expert" opinion. NPR is a remnant of cosmo central europe capital haven for elitist assholes. It never represented real America and never will.

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