Nicholas Johnson Speech On The Origins And Future Of Radio

nicholas johnson thumbnailFormer FCC Commissioner and UI Law professor Nicholas Johnson gave a speech to commemorate the third birthday of community radio station KHOI 89.1 FM in Ames on Sunday, August 23rd. Below are excerpts from Nick Johnson’s blog, fromdc2iowa reposted here with permission. To listen to the audio of his entire, amazing, 40 minute speech – think of it as a free crash course on the history of media – click here. To read the 21-page research notes and citations click here.

“But even though the miracle of radio was barely understood in 1926, there was an awareness of the risk of monopoly power and ownership. And one member of the House, from Texas, Luther Johnson — no relative of mine or of Lyndon’s — said, “American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations. For publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a Republic, and when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership and dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them.”

Woe be to those who dare to differ with them. How prescient can you be?  He concludes,

“It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”

The Origins And Future Of Radio

by Nicholas Johnson

Here are transcripts of some selected portions of the audio that will provide at least some sense of the content of the talk.

“This is an incredible accomplishment! I’m not sure if those of you here, and affiliated with this station, and fans of it, are aware of that fact. I read in Forbes recently that something like 80 percent of all the businesses that start up — profit, non-profit, whatever — 80 percent have gone belly up after 18 months. You have been around for three years. You are in the top 20 percent of American enterprise. I think that is an extraordinary accomplishment in just three years. Give yourselves a hand for that.”

# # #

“What we’re doing with these low power stations is a major building block in trying to build the social capital that supports a civic society. That’s really what this is about.”

# # #

“Locally focused radio has been a consistent purpose and presence in America’s broadcasting from its very beginning until today, and has never been more needed than it is now.”

# # #

“Nothing has ever come along as good as radio [for communicating over distance without wires] — this invisible electromagnetic energy that is capable of carrying whatever information we can embed in it and send along with it at 186,000 miles a second.”

# # #

“At that time [1927] what we had as radio is very similar to what you are doing with your station. These were relatively low power stations, in relatively small towns — much smaller than Ames is now — that were of necessity putting out local programming because there wasn’t anything else. But they were also mindful of the purpose that served and why that was desirable. Those are some of your station’s ancestors — those early 8,500 amateur radio stations, those 700-plus broadcasting stations putting out programming and music and speech.”

# # #

“But even though the miracle of radio was barely understood in 1926, there was an awareness of the risk of monopoly power and ownership. And one member of the House, from Texas, Luther Johnson — no relative of mine or of Lyndon’s — said,

“American thought and American politics will be largely at the mercy of those who operate these stations. For publicity is the most powerful weapon that can be wielded in a Republic, and when such a weapon is placed in the hands of one, or a single selfish group is permitted to either tacitly or otherwise acquire ownership and dominate these broadcasting stations throughout the country, then woe be to those who dare to differ with them.”

Woe be to those who dare to differ with them. How prescient can you be? He concludes,

“It will be impossible to compete with them in reaching the ears of the American people.”

# # #

“There was equal concern about the coming of advertising. At the time of the Radio Conferences that Herbert Hoover called in the 1920s — 1922, ’23, ’24, ’25 — he said, ‘It is inconceivable that we should allow so great a possibility for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.’ Can you imagine that today?”

# # #

“Another sort of example of your ancestors is [that what] the FCC was asking for in the ‘Blue Book’ [Responsibility etc 1946?] was similar to what radio was in 1915 to 1920.”

# # #

“[I]t has reached the point where John Oliver -– a standup comedian -– now seems to be America’s most reliable source of the data and analysis necessary for American citizens to address their most serious public policy challenges.

Regional and statewide news coverage has suffered from many of the same pressures [as national news has from Wall Street insistence on profit maximization].

Which brings us full circle round to the role you and other non-profit local radio stations play in today’s media environment. It is, as it turns out, very similar to where radio broadcasting began 100 years ago, and where the FCC’s Blue Book told broadcasters they ought to be 70 years ago.

There is a there there. And you are there. The state of radio is good -– both as a technology and as a local civic service, an endeavor that comes as close as any can to the potential for rebuilding the sense of community we so desperately need in these times.

Thanks to you for the invitation. Happy Birthday. And now it’s party on.

nick johnson rolling stone

This entry was posted in Low Power FM, Radio and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.