I am reading Victor Pickard’s terrific book America’s Battle for Media Democracy and wondering to myself: do we need another “Blue Book” for radio?
What was the Blue Book (you may be asking)? It was a publication released by the Federal Communications Commission in 1946 titled “Public Service Responsibility of Broadcast Licensees.” As Pickard summarizes the document in his history of mid-20th century FCC regulation, “It made the privilege of holding a broadcast license contingent upon meeting substantive public interest requests for its programming.” The guide also set up standards “by which these responsibilities could be judged,” especially during license renewal periods.
When doing the research for my first study on the history of Pacifica radio, a broadcaster from those years told me the following story about the nickname for “Public Service.” One day an attorney for the FCC went down to the Government Printing Office to check in on its production. It was the beginning of the Cold War. Winston Churchill was on his way to Westminster College in Missouri to make his “Iron Curtain” speech. To the lawyer’s utter horror, the GPO was spewing out copies of the 59 page document with a deep red front and back cover.
“My God,” he exclaimed to the attendant, his voice trembling, “do you have any other hue for the exterior?” “Yes,” the printer replied. “We have blue.” Hence, the Blue Book. The explanation is doubtless apocryphal, but fun.
The broadcast industry, however, did not think that the Blue Book was fun. One trade publication famously compared it to Nazism, which was silly. Basically “Public Service” told licensees not to run too many commercials. The document revealed that the Commission had kept track of the programming habits of some stations. There was, for example, station KIEV, which on December 21, 1938 managed to run 264 commercial announcements, but only three public service notices (all involving lost pets). Six years later the station ran 1034 commercials in a single day. They aired around once every 5.5 minutes, the agency had calculated.
This was not good, the Blue Book said. There is a need “for a thorough review by the industry itself of current advertising practices, with a view towards the establishment and enforcement of sound standards by the industry itself,” it suggested. In the meantime the publication asserted the Commission’s authority to set standards for programming aimed at something besides delivering ears to pitches for cigarettes, candy, and cars.
What happened to the Blue Book? There was a great deal of debate about the tome, Pickard explains, and plenty of public support for its conclusions. “Hats off to the FCC!” declared the Hartford Courant. But advocates within the government eventually gave up trying to enforce its provisions and standards. Broadcaster hostility, domestic anti-communism, and a conservative resurgence in Congress hastened this development. “As the months ticked by,” America’s Battle notes, “the Blue Book became increasingly invalidated.” But Victor Pickard’s study, engaging, thoughtful, and thorough, reminds us that for much of the 20th century, reformers sought a very different broadcasting world than the one we have inherited.