Shepperd podcast: The Grassroots Rise of Public Broadcasting

podcastlogoFor the 24th episode of the Journalism History podcast, host Will Mari spoke with Josh Shepperd about his work on the Radio Preservation Task Force and his forthcoming book about the long, grassroots rise of public broadcasting: Shadow of the New Deal: The Victory of Public Broadcasting.

An assistant professor in the Department of Media and Communication Studies at Catholic University of America, Shepperd is a sound fellow of the Library of Congress National Recording Preservation Board.

This episode is sponsored by the Communication Department at William Paterson University.


Will Mari: [00:10] Welcome to Journalism History, a podcast that rips out the pages of your history books to reexamine the stories you thought you knew and the ones you were never told. I’m your host, Dr. Will Mari, guiding you through our own drafts of history.

This episode is sponsored by the Communication Department at William Paterson University in Wayne, New Jersey. Offering award winning programs in journalism, broadcasting, and other areas, the department is committed to preparing its students for life and the professional world after graduation. Our greatest strength is helping you find yours. More information is at WPUNJ.Edu.

In this episode, I’ll be talking to Dr. Josh Shepperd, an assistant professor of Media and Communication Studies at the Catholic University of America, a fellow at Pennsylvania State Center for Humanities Information, the director of the Library of Congress’s Radio Preservation Task Force, and now the author of Shadow of the New Deal: The Victory of Public Broadcasting, now under contract as part of the University of Illinois Press’s History of Communication series.

Will Mari: [1:14] All right. Dr. Shepperd, welcome to the show. Let’s discuss your book projects, plural. Tell me more about those particular projects and how you got interested in them.

Josh Shepperd: [1:23] So, I am delighted to work with Daniel Nasset and the History of Communication series, which is in the Robert McChesney and John Nerone edited series. So, I’ve been working on this book for about eight years or so. It started as a dissertation and essentially, it’s about three dozen archival collections worth of primary document accumulation, numbering probably about 50,000 pages of correspondence and ledgers and all these types of things. At some point you get overload, just on the amounts of documents at hand. And it just stretches the time out in ways that are both fruitful enough, fruitful for completing quickly. It should be done pretty soon now. So, for all the excellent work in film and media history, we don’t have a working history of public broadcasting, which I find to be a sort of an interesting epistemic and historiographical problem of film and media studies.

Josh Shepperd: [2:22] The best we have for public media, which is a good story, is Robert McChesney’s story of the defeat of educational broadcasters in 1934. Which, of course, I’ve triangulated by accident and I’ve purposed pretty well. Essentially, the congress did turn over most of our frequencies to commercial broadcasters based upon stipulations of public interest. And those stipulations of public interest were really more in line with questions of facilities and airtime and being self-sufficient than they were with questions of public service. And that’s McChesney’s take on that. I tend to agree with that. There’s a social ameliorative opportunity at hand. They could have been something more like the BBC or a nationalized or federalized experimental set of frequencies. And this did not happen. Of course, in ‘34, they formed the FCC.

Josh Shepperd: [3:29] The FCC wasn’t the deliberating body until roughly early ‘35 when they started to allocate within the rules of the Communications Act. So, we have the story of defeat essentially in which we do see the wipe out of educational broadcasters in 1935. So, what the documents have shown me over the years, and of course working closely with great colleagues who are also working on similar parts of the story, is that the same characters in professor McChesney’s book, one year later, bounce back and begin to score a series of victories in policy and content development. And what they do is, the same reformers that he looks at in his famous book, become the protagonists of the construction of public broadcasting.

Josh Shepperd: [4:17] So, essentially what we have is a story, after 1934, of civic approaches to technology. And it’s not a total victory of having an alternative system being the dominant system. But it is a story of kind of an intrepid group of critics, practitioners, and policymakers beginning to build an infrastructure by which, we have a counterpoint to the logics that say that free markets are the only site of innovation. So, what we have here is a group of reformers who move from critical analysis and resistance, to impending legislation, to literally building an alternative system that succeeds and has a posterity to it that we have now with PBS and NPR.

Josh Shepperd: [5:15] So, it’s a story of both building a new federal infrastructure during the New Deal and of grassroots reform work that over 45 years built an alternative media system, the commercial broadcasting. And one of the twists on it is you find after ’34, it’s often with the help of commercial broadcasting. The distinctions between public and private that we assume or not historically accurate in the building of our public media system. It’s also a story, I think, of how concepts, or like a philosophy of equal access to education through technology, conceived by educators led to the innovation of a series of new cultural institutions and research methodologies. So, essentially the reformers by, you could look, just by up to the war time, about 1940, had already built two distinct noncommercial networks that functioned without advertising money. They developed the grounds for what became communication department research, public policy research, mass communications, media effects research.

Josh Shepperd: [6:24] They developed these methodologies in order to understand if educational technology was effective at audiences. And they broke it down to demographics and standardization. And these became the fundamental methods to the Princeton media research projects of communication departments after the war, starting in roughly ‘46, ‘47. And they also developed all of the practices with pre and post production for research and development in mass media. And they had a huge influence on the collaborating institutions in the federal sector, which was the office of education and the FCC. And a lot of the granting systems that we have in the country that are related to education have to do with these methodologies they developed in collaboration with the Rockefeller Foundation. So, these are some of the things we look at in the book.

Will Mari: [7:12] No, that’s so good. I know that sometimes the narrative is basically that the well-intentioned but perhaps naive, progressive, lowercase “l” liberal folks of the 1930s involved in the New Deal sort of got themselves beaten thoroughly by the evil corporations and therefore until the halcyon days of the Johnson administration and the great society, there was just this vast desert of nothing. And in fact, there’s so much happening in the 1930s, in the latter half of the decade, 1940s, 50s, really throughout the sixties and seventies. There’s so much that can be told. And I know that the Jack Mitchell book, Listener Supported, and also really Cokie Roberts’ oral history, those are fine books, but there’s desperately needed, a book regarding more of that holistic past. And I hope that book is your book. I think it will be when the time comes.

Josh Shepperd: [8:07] Yeah, thanks. Jack was on my dissertation committee and he’s a legend. And I want to give a lot of credit for not only what he taught me about the history but what he contributed to it. He was the first employee ever of NPR.

Will Mari: [8:20] Yeah, he was there. Yeah. And it’s a fine book. I think, is it true that it just needs to be sort of updated and extended kind of past his own era? Is that kinda the other role your book is going to play, maybe just kind of bringing things up the speed? A lot has happened since then.

Josh Shepperd: [8:35] So, Jack Mitchell’s book is a terrific history of the time and the culture right before and during the development of public broadcasting. And what I’m looking at here is really essentially a political history of how a reform movement built an alternative infrastructure for broadcasting without profit motive. And one of the great jokes in public media is if something’s really bad, if a program is really bad, they just call it educational broadcasting. Essentially they, it was not a super successful content model until the Ford Foundation started funding research and development in the 1950s with television and some radio, which Jack Mitchell does talk about a bit. Essentially, what you have is something strong in concepts, social ameliorative, civic educational purposes. And then with quite mixed results, the best programs were usually out of University of Wisconsin, Ohio State, I should say. And then with other examples around the country, eventually Michigan and Illinois became the NAEB, the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, home sites where a lot of programming was both developed and distributed out of. This history is essentially like, how do we even begin to talk about why public broadcasting is the way that it is and not a different form.

Josh Shepperd: [10:08] And is there, do we have some kind of precedent that we can look to that which there’s something different than advertising logics if we’re going to think about civic discourse. And we have that with NPR and PBS and community broadcasting and Pacifica, but it’s just amazing how engendering the concepts of doing something for civic purposes instead of personal profit was for an entire cultural framework in the country during the New Deal to the great society.

Will Mari: [10:40] And the narratives also, not to kind of harp on the simplicity of existing narratives, but that I was thinking about sort of the buzz and the discussion around the Mr. Rogers documentary and that famous moment where he supposedly goes and he wins support from the grumpy Senators to continue PBS children’s programming. And you were talking to me the other day about the backstory there, how he actually had a lot of support from some of those people and it wasn’t maybe as sort of David and Goliath as portrayed in existing stories about that particular moment.

Josh Shepperd: [11:13] I think there’s an equally great story to be told there about public media practitioners and supporters doing the right political theater at the right time to gain support. So, Senator Pastore was one of the great champions of educational broadcasting, previous to that event that everyone circulates from YouTube and is in the new documentary. And before him, there was a guy named William Benton, and William Benton was a vice president at the University of Chicago before being the head of Encyclopedia Britannica. And then a famous ad man, and he actually helped to oversee the first experiment in noncommercial broadcasting, it was called the University Broadcasting Council. It was in Chicago. And the network NBC, with Judith Waller, who should never be forgotten in developing educational media, even though she was like commercial stations, University of Chicago, DePaul and Northwestern. And they set up kind of a correspondence course opportunity for the city of Chicago.

Josh Shepperd: [12:18] And it didn’t go great as the first experiment in ‘36, but it kind of piques Benton’s interest. And then he eventually became the Senator from Connecticut and started to actually draft bills that were strongly in support of educational broadcasting provisions. And then other senators began to pick it up too. And Pat Story worked in that tradition of sort of this notion, postwar notion, that there should be something besides advertising content as a way to mitigate fascism or communism or there should be some kind of like nation state messaging, which could be very problematic. Of course we would all agree about that, but for them, educational media was simply an access question, like a classroom extension question. So, Mr. Rogers, when he shows up there, Pat Story sort of plays the role of needing to be persuaded, but he actually had helped lay the groundwork too.

Will Mari: [13:14] All along, and then even that kind of kind of narrative or at least more complicated narrative. It’s so important as we think about where things like podcasting are going next and where all the great content being produced by all kinds of people for free or for very little money. What happens next with the way we support that in the next 10, 20 years? So, there’s a lot of present and future implications for your work too, I think.

Will Mari: [13:37] Taking a step back a bit. I guess the other question I had in mind for you, and I think you’re the perfect person to answer it, is with working with sound archives and sound archivists, in particular, and with sound in general. I mean what a historian, either a media historians or journalism historians, what should they know and or how can they help with contributing toward preservation efforts? And we can kind of dig into this a bit more. But I wanted to ask you for our listeners who are fans of sound archives or maybe have worked with archivists, I mean what else can they do besides use these archives? Some of them are underused, but beyond that, what can we do as historians, media historians, to help with those efforts?

Josh Shepperd: [14:19] I’ll start with the moralistic statement that everyone will just agree with already, which is, unless a collection is totally unprocessed, archivists have already done 25% of our work for us and deserve a lot of credit and respect for this work. And they usually, if not always, fly under the radar. And I think they should be cited in our books. And I work with a lot of archivists here in D.C. and across Library of Congress and NPR and the Smithsonian. And they work really hard to, with the limited funds and do the best they can to make sure that these materials are available for posterity’s. So, I’ve always tried to just say positive note on their behalf. In terms of sound media and its role for journalism history, most media journalism history, for example, from World War II is on sound media. So, what we’re looking at here is a situation where we have not just journalism history on sound media at certain periods of time, but a huge repository of content that both reveals the evolution of journalism on media through radio over a good 30, 40 years and a huge number of events that have probably been forgotten in terms of localism in journalism history that we could then access and activate and make accessible to classrooms and research again.

Josh Shepperd: [15:44] So, the problem is that, well, there’s many problems, but one of the major problems is that the materials are deteriorating depending on what types of tape that they’re on. So, the materials for certain types of reel to reels and tapes have all kinds of things from sticky shed syndrome, to glues that are actually caustic, to what happens is that even if we have them safe on shelves, these one off copies of journalism history, degrade or decay, and essentially this deterioration that’s happening in some cases only has about 10 years left of shelf life until all of these historical materials are no longer even usable. So, it’s very costly to do digital preservation if you’re digitizing multiple albums with one of the different vendors. So, Memnon, which is University of Indiana, with Sony, which is kind of a weird partnership, and George Blood.

Josh Shepperd: [16:50] And these known sound vendors who will actually do the preservation for you, including saving it if it’s endangered. You’re looking at eighty to a hundred dollars beginning per recording. So, we’re looking at, so you have 10,000 recordings in a collection, what do you do with those and when do you come up with that money? This was also compounded with two problems, which is that we’re almost out of the space. There’s nowhere to put large reel to reels when they turn up. And we have a problem where a lot of libraries at universities don’t recognize sound history materials as primary sources and will not receive local journalism history even if they’re offered and it will otherwise be incinerated. So, we have this like multiple problems where it’s just very difficult to stabilize the preservation of the memory of journalism history when it’s by sound.

Josh Shepperd: [17:40] So, there are things we can do though. And the radio preservation task force at the Library of Congress has close to 225 professors on the project now. We have partnerships with forty federal and public institutions and we have a lot of friends and connections and projects going on, from a big data project, to preservation projects, to educational projects. So, one of the best things you could do is help with grant writing. And there’s a lot of ways this actually cuts so you can’t preserve everything. But we can help, for example, if an archivist hopes to preserve materials that are already at a university that are valuable and knows that they’re deteriorating, faculty could help with curation of materials. So, which of these recordings, if we can only preserve 200, are the ones we should choose out of a thousand or something like that.

Josh Shepperd: [18:36] Faculty could help with creating metadata. They could sit down and just listen to some of these recordings because sometimes you only have the reel and there’s no information accompanying it, just a date or something. So, you would listen to the first five minutes, say, who’s on the broadcast, what the year is, what the station might be. And it’s kind of fun. It’s a fun kind of tedious work that helps with preservation that you can’t also get a grant until you know what you’re preserving. So, this work has to be done precursory to the application of the grant. And faculty can help to draft the actual grant applications themselves. So, essentially what I would advocate for is a large national projects in which every university tries to preserve as many journalism sound recordings as they can on their campus and in their community as possible.

Josh Shepperd: [19:35] And it’s much harder than it sounds, but if we make it something that we do, so if we say this is one of the stipulations of the historiography of journalism history or it will no longer exist if we don’t preserve it. Then part of the thinking with our up and coming students will be, I am not only listening and learning about this history and teaching it, but I’m making sure it doesn’t disappear. And I think it’s so crucial because we have, we literally are coming to the end of the possibility of even preserving it in most of these cases. And what this does in part too is, contributes to journalism history memory because the materials probably haven’t been heard since they first aired, in most situations. So, it also, the historiography of preservation, also contributes just to the infrastructure of the field in my opinion.

Will Mari: [20:27] And the more you flex those grant writing muscles and those collaborative efforts and those other parts of this larger national project, the easier it will be hopefully to continue these efforts down the road. It’s something that takes practice and it sounds like there’s a lot of latent and nascent and older recollections of how these things can be done. And I think of the Milo Ryan archives at the University of Washington, the photo archives there. That was mostly because one semi-crazy person who was a professor at the journalism school there in World War II had this idea of recording locally. I think somewhat dubiously legally, a CBS broadcast and after the war really pioneered, proposed, and kind of prophesied this would be an important resource. But that’s been a while and that’s one of the better ones in the country and from what I know in terms of a single place to find, at least war time recordings of a network show which has otherwise been lost. But there’s definitely a lot of potential there that maybe faculty have kind of within themselves, collective memory, to bring forward again.

Josh Shepperd: [21:33] And full credit to John Vallier at the University of Washington for preserving those materials.

Will Mari: [21:41] And John was also pivotal in keeping them alive because they were also decaying at one point. I believe and the material itself was in danger about a generation ago. I guess one other question with historians and sound archives is, are there things that we do kind of badly now? What are some of our blind spots and things we can avoid? You mentioned that sometimes historians just don’t give enough credit to archivists in their acknowledgements, but especially not in the citations, but what are some other things that we can do better at? As a media historian and when it comes to using sound?

Josh Shepperd: [22:15] Well, I think journalism history does a great job, just for the record. And I’m advocating for more preservation work around because it’s another type of radio preservation in hand. I would say it’s not our job to go out and find endangered collections and get them stored at our universities. However, that would be a huge contribution to the field itself is there’s often what we call endangered collections popping up in almost every city in which someone maybe kept their own broadcasts, who was a journalist. And then when they pass on these reel to reels, which are obsolete media for most people, and the families or the estates don’t know what to do with them. And they will approach local libraries or universities and they almost never get taken. So, they throw them out. And in some ways, like journalists who are so great at tracking things down, should be tracking down the history of journalism and trying to create provisions by which these collections could be transported under conditions of what they call either deposit or donation at an archive.

Josh Shepperd: [23:32] So, deposit means that the estate would have some say over who could hear what on the recordings, but the university would have the recordings, and the donation would mean the university has control over the recordings to do as they see fit. But that would be I think a really fascinating new road in journalism history studies, which is that it actually locates journalism history and then revives it. Revivifies the memory of these historical figures through the actual recordings. But then the political economy of that, of just simply getting them to the university, getting them stored, finding the shelf space, getting the money to digitize them, creating access for them. It’s quite complicated.

Will Mari: [24:18] It’s multifaceted and there’s all kinds of time constraints and resource constraints. But I do want to share with you one kind of cool anecdote here in the Northwest, Tacoma TV, which is our public station down there and in the south sound. There was a giant pile of tapes from the eighties and seventies and sixties of local programming, local shows. And a Navy colleague of mine who works there, he’s retired now, was concerned about them being tossed cause that was going to be what was going to happen. This is KSTV. A UW archivist came down and did a kind of emergency triage cataloguing and they will now take them under those two criteria you just described and now they’re going to live safely at the University of Washington Tacoma and UW Seattle. I was really happy to hear that because that kind of programming, that super local material, it seems like it’s very hard to find otherwise. So, I was just so happy that that happened. And it’s definitely thanks to the archivist taking it upon herself, who’d drive down to Tacoma, go to the public TV station, go to the locker where they keep all this stuff, and then say, yeah, these 150, 200 or so tapes, we should keep these for sure. And we’ll take them right now. Thank you very much.

Josh Shepperd: [25:32] Yeah, that’s a great model.

Will Mari: [25:34] Yeah, but that’s also very rare. And that was because he knew I was a media historian, and I helped introduce him to the archivist at UW. But that’s the least I can do to help facilitate that kind of interaction as my part. I’m no media historian hero, but I was happy to hear that outcome from that side. Ultimately to kind of step back, even bigger. It’s a bigger picture stuff, why does this work matter beyond the fact? It’s just really cool and the fact that it, no, it’s interesting. What does Joe citizen or Jane citizen, what do they have to have at stake with this kind of work? I mean, what’s the bigger importance of all this?

Josh Shepperd: [26:16] I love that in this case, I don’t have to persuade listeners why history is important cause I do sometimes. Journalism is similar, to just generalize media history, in that we both look at just how information is framed and circulated. Journalism is of course its own history and its own study that has a media component, but it’s not solely focused on medium. I’m saying something, everyone of course already understands better than I do here. But I think that there’s certain structural questions that media history help us to address about recognition, about accessing justice. And I think that there’s a tendency in media studies and mass comm studies to be very presentist about what information means, to the point where it almost resembles free markets and there’s a quarter, almost like the quarterly profits, but like quarterly perspective. And I think that what media and journalism history both do is they provide us with evidentiary precedents for what we’re actually thinking about and what we’re talking about right now, by providing answers to the why questions of why things are shaped as they are.

Josh Shepperd: [27:38] The political, economic, adjustment of precedents and policy and opinion and location and demographics is hugely important to the context of the study of communication. I think that’s changing. I think Twitter has been interesting for this and the Kevin Cruise bottle on Twitter, various types of things. When I say that we haven’t done this, I mean as a field, the historians are always trying to do this, and I think people are starting to realize that history is pretty central to the study of media. But it’s still kind of peripheral to the quantitative and the present case study model in media studies. So, one of the things I’m interested in, in just a history of sound with these things, is you are revealed a lot of different political and cultural strategic history by different activist groups by reporting on different like military histories.

Josh Shepperd: [28:37] And the more we study the content of what’s on the recordings, especially when it’s nine theatrical, which is what journalism of course specializes in compared to other media histories that I look at it, you are revealed it sort of like justice strategies that worked, not just things that went bad in history, but here is that advocacy group. And here’s what they did. Here’s they themselves talking about it in long form and local public forums. And these can become models for future advocacy work, in my opinion. And journalism has really done an amazing job capturing those histories. I also think that good journalism and good journalism history can just be a great tool in the fighting Neo Liberalism and the quarterly profit logics, nothing ends sort of grab mentality more than context and perspective.

Will Mari: [29:34] Well, thank you Josh, very much. I appreciate you.

Thanks for tuning in and additional thanks to our sponsor, the Communication Department at William Paterson University, and to Taylor and Francis, the publisher of our academic journal, Journalism History. Until next time, I’m your host, Dr. Will Mari, signing off with the words of Edward R. Murrow. Good night and good luck.


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