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The college radio “guerillas” who made NPR possible

College Radio Day has come and gone, but I’d like to add a historic footnote to the festivities. College radio broadcasters in the 1960s convinced Congress to fund radio as well as television in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. Without that campaign, it is unlikely that NPR would exist. The story is beautifully told in Jack W. Mitchell’s Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio.

By 1966, the big foundations were pushing hard for Congress to fund public media. But the media for which they sought Congressional aid was television. The famous Carnegie Commission report for public broadcasting didn’t even mention radio.

When it came to radio, "few cared," Mitchell writes. "Most of the major public-broadcasting organizations included both television and radio, with television the dominant focus in all of them. These organizations were quite content to ignore radio to achieve national tax support for their dominant television enterprises."

But there were "a very few crusty old guys who did care," the author adds. One of them was the manager of the University of Michigan’s radio station, Ed Burrows. Burrows sent the station’s program director off to Washington, D.C. to lobby for radio to be included in what, at the time, was being called the Public Television Act, which would create the Corporation for Public Television.

His name was Jerrold Sandler. "It’s very simple," he told public TV’s top DC lobbyist in a confrontation. "You change it to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and you change it to the Public Broadcasting Act."

"Well, the word broadcasting doesn’t have the right sound. It’s not television," the TV lobbyist retorted.

"You’re damn right, it’s not television," Sandler shot back, and he fought hard to get radio into the public television bill’s language. He had help from Dean Costen, the U. Michigan station’s former chief engineer, now deputy undersecretary at Health, Education and Welfare (HEW) in Washington. It was Costen who made the words "and radio" follow television everywhere in the administration’s legislative draft for public television.

But several days later, a reporter told Sandler that "radio" had been scratched out of the bill’s language again. Sandler called Costen, who scratched it back in. Sandler then called members of the radio board of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. Get to DC and lobby Congress like mad for radio. "You’re going to work your butts off but we’re going to cover that Congress," he told them.

Meanwhile Sandler hired a consultant to write a radio equivalent of the Carnegie Report, The Hidden Medium: Educational Radio, a Status Report, which made the case for radio inclusion.

By April 1967, the Senate Commerce Committee had approved a public media bill which now would create a Corporation for Public Broadcasting, not just a public corporation for television. "The public radio guerillas could not believe their good fortune," Mitchell continues. "They had had no right to win over the television juggernaut, and few of them had believed they really would. To them, the fight had been mainly a game played for the fun of it, the most exciting escapade of their professional lives."

This "improbable victory," made National Public Radio (now NPR) possible. But it also cost the crusaders any role in public radio’s future, Mitchell’s chapter on this episode concludes. They had stepped on too many prominent toes in the educational media universe, the men and women who would now run public broadcasting. And so none of them won leadership roles:

"Not Jack Burke of Kansas State University. Not Will Lewis of Boston University. Not Marjorie Newman of Florida State University. Not Myron Curry of the University of North Dakota. Not Burt Harrison of Washington State University. Not Martin Busch of the University of South Dakota. Not Jack Summerfield of the Riverside Church of New York. Not Al Fredette of the State Medical College of New York. And certainly not Ed Burrows nor Jerry Sandler, each of whom applied for positions at the new National Public Radio, Sandler many times. Neither was ever hired."

NPR began broadcasting in April 1971. Who went to work for the service? "Instead, the task of developing public radio would fall to radio managers who sat on the sidelines as Sandler and company waged war," or to those who had backed the television lobby, or to those too young to be have been involved in the fight.

It is sometimes the fate of revolutionaries to be left out of the revolution they lead. This appears to have been the case for the college radio "guerillas" who insured the funding that would create NPR. Nonetheless, in the wake of College Radio Day, we should remember their valiant efforts with gratitude.


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3 Responses to The college radio “guerillas” who made NPR possible

  1. Jay Allison October 12, 2011 at 1:53 pm #

    Thanks for flagging this. It’s a wonderful section of Jack Mitchell’s book. Many of us who work in public radio were unaware of that clever, last-minute maneuvering and it’s important to gratefully acknowledge those people and their invaluable contribution: scratching in that word.

  2. Dave Freitag October 13, 2011 at 5:22 pm #

    Although an avid fan of NPR, I never knew how close we came to losing support for the radio medium. This is an inspiration for those who believe in a worthwhile cause.

  3. dee green October 14, 2011 at 11:46 am #

    Just a little addition to this item: Did you know the NETRC was headquartered in Ann Arbor in the 1950’s in a stand-alone building on Washtenaw across from the old Howard Johnson’s. I was a program information specialist person on staff there in 1958-59 until headquarters moved to Columbus Circle in New York City. It was a real pioneering effort and watching its growth over the years has been a joy. We remain firm supporters of NPR and NET to this day.

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