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The Pubradio Files, Part 0: There Is No Spit In Cremo!

July 22, 2011

Dear Reader: You stand at the beginning of a multi-part blogpost on the state of public radio today. As a longtime pubradio vet (note skilled use of insider jargon), I think I have some perspective and insight to offer. 

But first, a few words on How We Got Here. Meaning, how radio became what it is today — an overwhelmingly soulless, corporate entity with a relentless focus on efficiency, absolutely no regard for public service, and virtually no connection to stations’ home communities (except for a very energetic and well-paid sales staff, of course). This is relevant because it has (indirectly) helped foster the current successes of public radio, and helped create some of the challenges it now faces. 

The Commerce Secretary & his new toy

In the beginning, there was a fundamental belief about the brand-new medium of radio: it should be focused on public service, on enhancing the social and cultural life of the nation. As for commercials… well, here’s Herbert Hoover  (yes, that Herbert Hoover) speaking about radio in 1922, when he was Secretary of Commerce:

“It is inconceivable that we should allow so great an opportunity for service to be drowned in advertising chatter.”

Herbert. Freaking. Hoover. A man not remembered as a rabid champion of socialism. The guy in charge of regulating radio in the Warren Harding administration, saying that radio should forever be unsullied by crass commercialism.

Well, that didn’t last long. By the late 1920s, radio was booming — and its commercial potential was clear. But the early ads were restrained; no aggressive selling was allowed, no mention of specific prices.

Then came an extremely aggressive businessman named George Washington Hill, head of the American Tobacco Company. Maker of Lucky Strike and Pall Mall cigarettes, and the top-selling cigar in the country — Cremo. Its appeal arose from two factors: a bargain price of five cents apiece, and advertisements that touted its machine-rolled cigars as superior to old-fashioned, hand-rolled cigars. Just imagine, Cremo basically told America, what horrors might unfold in those dank, fetid factories full of dirty, greasy, frequently foreign cigar makers. Worst of all, it was hinted, these guys might just be sealing each cigar by licking the wrapper!!!!!  Germs! Lice! Cooties! 

Mr. Hill wanted to spend big bucks on radio ads. And he wanted a hard-sell approach, including prominent mention of Cremo’s five-cent price. And he wanted to use that immortal slogan, “There Is No Spit In Cremo!”

By this time, Hoover was President. But the Depression was raging, and Hoover had bigger things on his mind than the suppression of advertising chatter. The CBS network gratefully accepted Mr. Hill’s money. Yeah, the Tiffany Network, home of Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite, made its bones by yelling at America about saliva-tainted cigars.

It wasn’t long before radio was awash in advertising chatter. High-minded principles of service took a back seat to inoffensive, ad-friendly entertainment. Many popular programs were actually produced by advertisers, with lots of commercial mentions built into the program itself. On tobacco-sponsored shows, you can bet that the stars practically chain-smoked through every program and often remarked on the joys of puffing on cancer sticks. Of course, broadcasters didn’t immediately forsake all forms of public service. They often made time for high culture, an uplifting and politically uncontroversial thing to do. One example: for nearly 20 years NBC maintained its own symphony orchestra, considered one of the best in the nation.

As time passed, commercial considerations became predominant. There was just too dang much money to be made! Cultural and public service programming was exiled to marginal time slots, cut and cut and cut again, and eventually eliminated.

Now, consider the broadcast license. Each station had to gain a federal license to broadcast, and each license periodically came up for renewal. The idea was that the broadcast spectrum was a limited resource owned by the public. So renewal was contingent on the broadcaster showing that it had used the license in the public interest.

But in reality, a license is the linchpin of a broadcaster’s entire business. Its investment in staff, equipment, and programming, its access to the money machine of ad revenue, its prestige and influence, all depended on that little sheet of paper from the feds. Broadcasters detested the idea that they could lose everything because of some abstract notion of public service. They fought constantly to make license renewals easier to obtain. And broadcasters are a powerful lobby, since they can provide abundant supplies of a politician’s two biggest needs: money and publicity.

Technically, it’s still true that a broadcast license is a temporary permit to use a public resource. But renewals are virtually automatic; to lose a license, a station owner would practically have to commit murder and broadcast it live. In practical terms, broadcast licenses are private property to be exploited by their “owners” for maximum profit.

Because of the potential for profit, a broadcast license is more valuable as a commodity — a trading card — than as a permit to actually broadcast stuff. It’s like a farm surrounded by subdivisions and strip malls: even if the farm is a viable business, its land is far more valuable than the farm itself. The farmer can make a lot more money by selling the land than s/he could ever hope to realize through a lifetime of tilling the soil.

Similarly in radio. A locally owned commercial station can be profitable, but only through hard work, keen business practices, and (most importantly) a desire to be a broadcaster, not just an investor. Put yourself in the independent station owner’s shoes: do you hold the license and operate a tough but rewarding business at a good profit, or gain an instant windfall by selling to a broadcasting conglomerate?

(There used to be strict limits on station ownership, nationally and within single markets. Those limits have been repeatedly diluted by a Congress strongly influenced by the powerful broadcasting lobby.)

The vast majority of commercial licenses are held by a handful of giant corporations. Their stations are cookie-cutter operations with pre-programmed music formats or talk shows simultaneously airing on hundreds of stations, whose schedules contain little or no local content.

Today, radio is beset by an ever-growing legion of new competitors: Internet radio, podcasts, new media. There are predictions of the death — or at least widespread irrelevance — of radio.

Big Radio: Shiny happy soulless people

If this happens, new competition will certainly be a key cause. But it’s also true that the radio industry has been its own worst enemy. It has effectively strip-mined the medium, thoroughly exploiting its riches for maximum profit with no regard for the future.

There is still, within each radio license, that great opportunity for service envisioned by Herbert Hoover. The best commercial radio stations of the past (and the few that still remain) were sources of information and culture, and community gathering places — part of the fabric of community life. And yes, they were profitable businesses. Whenever a distant corporation takes over a station, it kills the local programming, cuts most or all the staff, and strips away the license’s hard-won value as a community resource. It’s like a mining company taking the ore and leaving behind a slag heap. Call it intellectual strip-mining.

And in today’s media marketplace, a slag heap of a radio station has very little appeal.

Next, part 1: The rise of public radio. 

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