December 11, 2020

Public Broadcasting and Textile Mills

This is my first post in months. I’ve been busy - for me work actually picked up during the months of quarantine, plus one pernicious thing about working from home is that I’m always on the clock. Doing something “deep” like blogging is off-limits while I “should be” working, so all my pleasures have been “shallow.” I started this post during a lull in work back in August, and am just now getting around to finishing it and getting to the point I was trying to make. Hopefully someone with find some of this enlightening.

Here goes.

I started this blog on the 50th anniversary of the Unix epoch, and during this post’s long gestation we passed another big anniversary - the centennial of broadcasting. The first broadcast radio station went on the air during 1920, although there are multiple claimants to the title. Westinghouse’s KDKA in Pittsburgh has been operating under the same callsign and license since November of 1920, while the Detroit News’s station went on the air a few months earlier under an experimental license but only adopted its current name of WWJ in 1922. All this and much much more is detailed at Thomas White’s Early Radio History, which I’m not going to try to duplicate.

It’s a bit odd to reflect that institutions I think of as somehow timeless sprung up within a few years of each other - BBC in 1922, NBC in 1926, CBS in 1927 - and how very young the modern world is. As well as how fortunate some early radio entrepreneurs were to be in the right place at the right time, during the early years of AM radio in the ‘20s and later FM and TV in the ‘50s, when licenses were free for the taking. Now they’re worth millions and it’s a significant undertaking just to get one’s foot in the door. Even as podcasts and streaming have hollowed out the traditional audiences for radio and TV, being able to run one of those services is still worth a lot.

Something else I take for granted was largely missing from the US radio dial in those early years: public broadcasting. I grew up on PBS, and I’ve made a few NPR stations the background music to my life under quarantine. After a lifetime of getting my news and edutainment interrupted by beg-a-thons, I finally made my first pledge this year. In contrast to the generous funding that other countries’ public broadcasters get, America’s CPB is forbidden by law from paying more than 40% of our public broadcasters’ expenses. Some of the rest of it comes from state and local government grants, but most of it is from donations, whether from philanthropic foundations, corporate underwriters, or Viewers Like You.

The reasons why the likes of the BBC and Radio France are at the center of their countries’ media, while PBS and NPR are on the fringes, are historical. Partly they tie into American free-market philosophy and partly it’s just that the US, as an early mover in broadcasting, made mistakes that other countries learned from. Following the chaotic first few years of American radio, when stations entered into complicated time-sharing agreements for the few available frequencies and many stations quickly came and went, the British authorities decided they wanted more stability on their radio dial and set up the BBC as a monopoly (under private ownership for the first few years before being taken over by the state). France initially had competing state-owned and private broadcasters, but by the eve of World War II they also had moved to a state-owned monopoly. So it was in most of the world. But in the US the federal government mostly stayed out of broadcasting, preferring to license as many private stations as possible and let the market work its magic.

(Incidentally, the US being the first country with broadcasting is also why we’re one of the few countries that gives its radio and TV stations call letters. Those were originally set up for Morse code transmissions between ships and coast stations, so they could quickly identify themselves to each other. When Westinghouse applied for a license for its pioneering broadcast station, there was no such thing as “broadcasting” in American law, so it got assigned a callsign KDKA like any other station in the Morse service, though it didn’t transmit in Morse. By the time broadcasting was legally defined, callsigns for broadcast stations were already the norm, so they continued to be issued. Neighboring countries copied American norms. But in most of the rest of the world, broadcast stations were licensed to broadcast from day one, and since they obviously didn’t transmit in Morse code there was no need to give them callsigns. They were always just “the BBC Home Service” or “Radio Paris” and so on.)

Educational broadcasting existed in America from the early days - the University of Wisconsin’s WHA in Madison was licensed in 1922 and traces its existence back to a Morse code weather service the university started in 1915. But by the time the AM band settled down by the end of the 1920s, most noncommercial stations were not financially viable, and many would sell their frequencies to commercial operators or close entirely. A handful of university stations kept broadcasting, though, and perhaps seeing the value of these few remaining stations, the FCC set aside the low end of the FM band for noncommercial licenses only when they were setting up FM in the ‘40s. In the ‘50s a handful of universities and local nonprofits secured VHF TV station licenses, the first being KUOH in Houston, and in most other cities UHF licenses were similarly reserved for noncommercial use.

Initially programming was entirely local in nature, until a grant from the Ford Foundation established the Educational Television and Radio Center to allow stations to exchange programming. This eventually split into National Educational Television and the National Educational Radio Network. Funding was also local at first; some federal grants for station construction were first authorized in 1962. Finally the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 established the modern system of CPB grants to local stations and the new networks PBS and NPR to replace NET and NERN. Those launched in 1970, making 2020 another auspicious anniversary.

At the time NET had a reputation for politically charged programming, and its successor PBS was deliberately structured to be purely a distributor of local stations’ productions, producing nothing of its own. (NERN being more obscure and less controversial, there were no such restrictions on NPR. Actually NERN is so obscure I haven’t been able to find much information about it at all.) To this day, PBS makes very few of its shows, with local stations and outside producers like Sesame Workshop providing the bulk of the day’s schedule. Even the NewsHour, now heavily branded with PBS logos, is a WETA Washington production.

In my view, no local station has as large a profile as WGBH in Boston, the source of iconic productions like Masterpiece, Nova, and Arthur. Its outsized influence is partly due to Boston’s educationally-minded outlook, and partly due to the generosity of a textile magnate who died more than a century before its first broadcast. The Lowell Institute was the original license holder of WGBH-FM and an early contributor to the WGBH Educational Foundation which took over the station shortly after its launch. And it’s one of the odder educational institutions I’ve ever seen. Thank its founder.

The Lowells were already one of New England’s oldest and most respected families in the early 19th century, and thanks to Francis Cabot Lowell’s pioneering textile mill in Waltham they were one of the richest as well. His son John Lowell, Jr., believed in educating the millworkers through public lectures, and when he died at age 36, a widower with no surviving children, he left a large portion of his estate to establishing the Lowell Institute, one of many organizations at the time that held lectures, but one of only a few to survive to the present day. Its survival is likely due to its unique financial structure: while its contemporaries spent much of their funds building lecture halls and most eventually ran out of money, Lowell instructed that most of his institute’s funds be kept as a permanent endowment. Unlike most other charitable funds, it is controlled by a sole trustee rather than a board, and the trustee is required to be a direct male-line descendant of family patriarch John Lowell, Sr.

This “institute” is quite literally a one-man operation, but its endowment has grown over the years, currently a substantial $40 million. In the 1940s, aiming to expand its program of free public education, the institute began collaborating with colleges and universities in the Boston area to produce programming to air on local radio stations. Eventually the institute secured its own license for WGBH, spun it off into its own foundation, and the rest is history. Of note, the current trustee of the Lowell Institute is also a member of the WGBH Foundation board and the Institute continues to fund WGBH in addition to its traditional lecture programs.

So although the broadcasting industry is just a century old, and American public broadcasting as we know it is half that age, at least some of what we elitist PBS/NPR types enjoy can trace its history back to the textile mills of New England in the 19th century, and beyond that to the 17th century Puritans and the education-focused society they founded in Massachusetts. Something to think about.

Hopefully it won’t be as long until my next post here.

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