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NPR’s clipped version of public radio history

Emily Hellwell over at the Inside NPR blog has a piece titled “How Public Radio Scotch-Taped Its Way Into [the] Public Broadcasting Act.” I thought of titling this response post “How NPR took a scissors to public broadcasting history.”

scissorsThe essay acknowledges the most famous part of the story—that the 1969 law almost went through as The Public Television Act, that it would have created a Corporation for Public Television that would have excluded radio from funding, and that only a last minute struggle fought by lobbyist Jerrold “Jerry” Sandler and a band of public radio “guerillas” put radio back into the legislation, making modern public radio possible.

The problem is that the piece, based on Jack Mitchell’s fine book, Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio, omits who most of those guerillas were: the managers and staff of the nation’s college radio stations. It also skips over their fate, which I summarized in my version of Mitchell’s account:

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.

Today it isn’t just college radio managers who are getting the cold shoulder, it’s the college radio stations themselves. Fighting for their very lives, they deserve more than this air brushed version of public radio’s past.


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