The evolving shape of a project (educational broadcasting history)

Three items on desk: 1. DVD package from Shalom Sesame: "Grover plants a tree." 2. Very large coffee mug in the shape of Kermit the Frog. 3. "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" branded 3M sticky notes.

For the first time in my career, I’ve started receiving gifts that colleagues thought I’d enjoy related to a research project — i.e., they identify me with my current research into the post-1945 history of educational broadcasting in the United States, a project that is less than half a decade old. For an historian, that was fast!

This project coincided with the first year of a new international PhD student, who was interested in the modern history of national education politics. They were the first doctoral advisee of mine in a while focusing on education history, and picking through the historiography of federal/national politics in the United States the previous summer, I realized there had been relatively little work in broadcasting in terms of the national politics of education. Over fall 2018, they completed an independent study reading in the relevant American historiography, and when we landed at one of the major archival collections of public broadcasting, at the University of Maryland, we dove into the papers of the Children’s Television Workshop. A wonderful week of archival research, and we scheduled return trips.

My colleagues and friends started asking me, was I going to write a book on the history of Sesame Street? Well, no, there’s already a bunch of great scholarship on the show, such as Robert Morrow’s Sesame Street and the Reform of Children’s Television. A proposal to the Spencer Foundation pushed me to think clearly about the goals — making yourself write for a specific audience is always a good way to focus — and the core question became, how did the modern politics of education in the United States evolve differently in an arena where the federal government has repeatedly asserted its primacy? Since the Radio Act of 1912, Congress has claimed the electromagnetic spectrum for the country as a whole, something very different from our typical assumptions of state primacy in education.

To my colleagues who generally craft much more concrete and bounded research questions, this may seem uncomfortably vague — and to at least one of the reviewers, they thought it would be a challenge to tackle an historical issue that broad in a two-year archival project, even during a sabbatical. And yes, this is big! Big enough for the rest of my career.

Spencer approved the small-grant application for research travel — just travel expenses for archival work — and while the pandemic interrupted that for a little over a year, we’ve now taken notes on or scanned for this project’s purposes more than 2000 documents from 8 archival locations.1 Last week, we returned to the University of Maryland for the first time in about two years, and we’ll be traveling to archives roughly once every two weeks during the fall semester, and after my student graduates (soon!), I expect to continue the grant-supported travel on a less hectic schedule next summer and fall, and with some luck the archives that are still closed or have restricted access will be available.2

At this point in my mind, the broad question about the politics of educational broadcasting has started to divide into a few distinct subtopics, with the bulk of issues (thus far!) falling in these three:

  • How has the line between education and culture evolved differently?
  • How has “public” been defined?
  • How does the history of federalism in education look different?

There are examples from the mid-1960s work of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television to illustrate two of these issues:3

  • Education-culture boundary: Historians of broadcasting usually think about the 1967 Carnegie Commission report as the emergence of public broadcasting as a major concept that replaced educational television (literally from the title of the commission). That’s a little misleading in multiple ways, but in terms of the education/culture boundary, I found that the commission’s first draft used community television where public television was in the final draft… and at least in the Boston area (where some of the prime movers behind and in the commission were from), people at WGBH wrestled with some bold ambitions to change political culture at the same time that they relied on (sometimes literally, for funding) school committees that paid for instructional (TV-in-the-classroom) programming. In Maryland last week, we found materials from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting that made clear they saw a continuing role of public broadcasting in education, broadly defined, including an aborted project to develop an Adult Learning Programs Service. So the question of how to define that boundary has a history.
  • Federalism: At one point, it was possible to see states as the organizing structure for the commission’s work–there was some precedent from the 1962 Educational Television Facilities Act, which distributed funds by state. The commission surveyed whatever state officers the commission staff thought could give information about state plans… but the final report ignored states as a level of governance or even interest. Commission member and former NC governor Terry Sanford floated a proposal in fall 1966 to have governors directly involved in the appointment of the proposed Corporation for Public Television (now Corporation for Public Broadcasting) board, and he even surveyed current governors to get their reaction. Fourteen governors responded, and they weren’t exactly endorsing. Sanford’s proposal died , and as far as I know the issue of state governance of stations or programming never appeared in the legislative debate over the Public Broadcasting Act.4 A few years later, during Richard Nixon’s war against public television, his White House broadcasting-policy henchman talked about local stations as the counterweight to the ugly Public Broadcasting Service, not states.

As I look at the second half of my sabbatical/research leave, I’m also looking forward to 2022 and how the project will evolve further as more archives open up.


  1. Archives in the U.S. are now generally letting scholars use their phones to scan documents for their own project-specific needs; this is separate from the copyright issues involved if researchers wish to publish those scanned documents. For those who are curious, I use the Scanner Pro app, upload to a Dropbox folder, and then attach documents to Zotero entries where I’ve added the meta-data for an item and any short notes. My student has a different scanner app but a similar workflow so that we contribute to the same Zotero group. This is very different from my dissertation, where I lugged a Toshiba T1000 laptop around with floppy disks because it had no hard drive! []
  2. Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College at Arizona State University has thus provided resources for this project, in the form of my and my student’s time, in addition to a small amount of travel support beyond the Spencer Foundation small grant. []
  3. The commission’s records are at the Wisconsin Historical Society. []
  4. In the mid-1960s there were several existing state educational television mini-networks, such as in Alabama and I believe Nebraska, and some would emerge in the next decade, in Ohio and New Jersey and a few other places. A number of states also have at least nominal or active state public radio operations–Minnesota Public Radio operates more than 40 stations, if one includes repeaters. But from here things get complicated, as a [Your State’s Name Here] public-media organization doesn’t mean that it’s a part of a state government or even focused on the state: Minnesota Public Radio is itself part of the American Public Media Group, a non-profit organization that also runs Southern California Public Radio. []