Thursday, December 26, 2013

Radio Vs. VD

Section 11 of the 1927 Federal Radio Act stated that the Federal Radio Commission could deny broadcast licenses to stations that did not serve "the public interest, convenience and necessity."  However milk toast that sounds, it lacked clear guidelines. That year the NAB created guidelines more conservative than your grandma; forbidding the discussion of anything more risque than Christmas cookies. Looking at the state of broadcasting today obviously there has been significant change since then. Everyone knows about the infamous 7-words incident on Pacifica... but decades earlier there were events that eroded the guidelines for more pragmatic reasons.

In 1934, CBS radio told Health Commissioner Thomas Parran of New York State that he could not mention the words syphilis or gonorrhea during a scheduled radio address on public health. New York health commissioner John Rice wrote to NBC, CBS and 15 newspapers in protest. NBC responded that they thought such remarks might be inappropriate. WEVD-AM stepped in and put Parran on air.That same year the FCC succeeded the FRC but the new communications act did little to change the status quo.

In 1948 Erik Barnouw and Dwight Eisenhower [R] changed everything.  While Erik Barnouw was a professor at Columbia University (1946 - 1973, Dwight Eisenhower it's president (1948 - 1953). This was of course before Eisenhower was President of the United States (1953 - 1961). Eisenhower gave crucial backing to Barnouwwho wanted to produce a syphilis-education program for radio.

The idea game to Barnouw in a visit from Edwin Gurney Clark and Thomas Lefoy Richman of the U.S. Public Health Service. They invited him to apply for federal grant money to create a series of educational programs on Syphilis. Barnouw later won the grant as it's sole applicant. He made several test programs in the formats of soap operas, and hillbilly shows and screened them with Eisenhower who was reported to be "delighted." Creating the programming wasn't the problem... it was getting radio stations to air the content.  Despite protests from Catholic groups the first program aired on ABC April 19th 1948.

The federal program continued and Barnouw continued to get grant money for more programs. He hired Alan Lomax to help write rural dramas that would play better to people outside of the cities.Lomax was able to get the programs introduced by celebrities like Bill Monroe, the Maddox Brothers, Eddy Arnold,  Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Roy Acuff. Stations like WGN-AM, WNBC-AM, KFI-AM, WKY-AM, WPWA-AM, and WIP-AM all participated. Interestingly Columbia Universities' own radio station, 610 WKCR-AM, first licensed in 1941 was not listed among the call letters in news articles. But in November of 1948 they aired interviews with ex-VD Patients on syphilis treatments by George Hicks of ABC. More here.

In the end a broadcasting taboo ended. Where one had fallen others would soon as well. Perhaps that was the idea all along.