Educational broadcasting history project update

A little more than five years ago, I traveled with my then-student Wooyeong Kim to the University of Maryland’s Hornbake Library. The archive there has thousands of feet of shelved material on the American history of broadcasting, much of it on public broadcasting, and we spent the entire week in the papers of the Children’s Television Workshop. Now Sesame Workshop, it’s the nonprofit that created Sesame StreetThe Electric Company, and 3-2-1 Contact.1 

My projects aren’t usually inspired by a new student, but this was. Wooyeong had enrolled in our educational policy and evaluation PhD program with an interest in the history of national policy in South Korea. He was my first student in more than a decade wanting to focus on the history of education. I had a number of ongoing projects, but none in the history of ed, let alone national policy setting, and I figured he could see a project from the ground up. Time to find a project! I looked for areas of national policy where there had not been a significant amount written from an education history perspective. Broadcasting stuck out as an obvious topic, though at first I had no focus other than the intersection of broadcasting, education, and national policy.2 As I said, I wanted Wooyeong to see a project from its messy origins. When he landed in Phoenix a few weeks before his program started, we had lunch and talked about the fall semester; his schedule wouldn’t let him travel until the end of the term, so he took an independent study reading with me, and then we headed to Maryland in December.3 

This isn’t exactly the five-year anniversary of the project, but it’s time to take stock.

The year after that first visit to the University of Maryland, I applied for a small grant from the Spencer Foundation asking for help to travel to archives to “document how the political and practical tradeoffs of education changed with the mass audience of radio and television.” My research questions focused on the politics of education in a different arena from formal schooling, one explicitly without state primacy: “To what extent [were] educational broadcasting experience patterns similar to the debates that historians have documented for the broader history of education in the U.S… ? How did the different environment reshape those debates for broadcasting?” And I wrote a question for a draft of the proposal, and while it never made it into the final version, it’s something I’ve thought about frequently: “How should we change our understanding of postwar education debates when we include the spread of radio and television?”

Spencer small grants are for $50,000 or less, for project lengths of two years.4 I originally planned an intensive burst of travel for 2020-21, when I had planned to be on sabbatical. The COVID pandemic intervened, which delayed my sabbatical as well as closed archives for months, and then some other circumstances intervened, and Spencer graciously gave me several deadline extensions. At this point I have the bulk of the archival work done — more than 4500 documents from 24 trips (including the ones before the grant), to 16 archives (17 if you count the special collections department in ASU’s library) — and I have some follow-ups remaining. I am roughly where I thought I would be at the end of my original sabbatical schedule.5

By fall 2021, I thought my research had suggested a divide of my work into three relevant topics: federalism, “public” as a concept, and the relationship between education and culture. I think that’s still the case. In each of these areas, the history of educational broadcasting suggests something important about the modern politics of education. 

Federalism. There was a version of federalism in educational broadcasting, despite the fact that federal law didn’t require it. This is not the federalism of cartoon versions of the constitution, for nothing required that the federal government share broadcasting authority with states in any way. Instead, educational broadcasting had federalism by implication. When the FCC reserved the lower end of the FM band and almost 250 local television channels for education in 1945 and 1952, respectively, those acts didn’t create the stations — they were just set-asides that someone else needed to take up to construct and operate stations. Advocates who had successfully lobbied the FCC assumed that states were the logical agents to fund and operate the stations. But things did not go as the advocates hoped: states were not generally major players in the content of educational broadcasting, except in creating infrastructure between 1953 and 1985. That infrastructure was built mostly after 1962, when the federal government began kicking in funding on a cost-share basis for station construction. A few states created networks of stations, with some local programming, but they were generally the weakest links in contrast with individual local stations, especially entrepreneurial stations operated by non-profit community groups, as in Boston. 

In part from the proddings of the HES West Writing Group, I’ve followed up on three state cases: Wisconsin, Alabama, and North Carolina. If you lived in Wisconsin in 1952, you might have expected it to be the first to create a state television network. At the time, Wisconsin was the only state to have a radio network, built relatively quickly after the FCC reserved all FM stations below 92 MHz for educational stations, and alongside of the University of Wisconsin’s pioneering AM station, WHA, which had been operating its School of the Air programming for several decades. And there was an advocacy group formed quickly, the Wisconsin Citizens Committee for Educational Television (WCCET), which quickly found allies among the state’s progressive organizations. The state legislature responded to WCCET’s lobbying effort by placing a referendum on the 1954 ballot: should Wisconsin use public funds to create a state television network? It was a nonbinding referendum — the legislature could ignore the results — but it was a mechanism for the legislature to respond without committing any funds. In the wake of a vigorous campaign over the issue, the state voted down the referendum by a 2:1 ratio. Not only did the “no” vote kill prospects for a state television network, it also encouraged Wisconsin conservatives to attack the state’s radio network, which survived with a long-term restricted budget. More than fifteen years later, the state finally began creating a television network. The federal government’s cost-sharing program was not enough; it took the election of a friendly governor, Patrick Lucey, to shift the balance away from the state’s older opposition to public broadcasting. 

North Carolina also was a state with a television network built only after turning down an opportunity in the 1950s. The state’s educational broadcasting advocates had staffed several successful state committees on educational radio, but the legislature had refused to fund any of its requests in the early 1950s, and in 1954, a state commission recommended against building a statewide network — instead relying on the University of North Carolina’s single station, WUNC, to serve as a pilot. In the 1960s, after the federal Educational Television Facilities Act provided some cost-sharing, governor Terry Sanford pushed for a long-term commitment to build out a state network — this eventually became a set of stations that repeated the signal of the WUNC station, and it was mostly complete by the end of the decade. 

Alabama was the only state to create a television network shortly after the FCC created its 250-channel education reservation. Its governor from 1951 to 1955 was Gordon Persons, who had been one of the owners of an early commercial radio station in Montgomery. From his pressure, the legislature agreed to create the Alabama Educational Television Commission and also to reserve funds from the state’s Mobile docks facility revenues and the state’s building commission fund as an initial pot of funds that the network used for station construction. The network’s first longtime manager Ray Hurlbert was a well-known racist in the national professional community of educational broadcasters, someone who was valued primarily because of his success in lobbying members of Congress at various points, including for the 1962 law enabling federal cost-sharing of educational television station construction. To many educational broadcasters in the early 1960s, the failure of states like Wisconsin and North Carolina to build early networks was a mess, along with the fragile financial condition of most stations. But Alabama was an entirely different type of mess.6

Public. “Public” in broadcasting has a very different meaning from its connotations in any level of formal schooling, and its history in television is different from that in radio at least since 1970. In one sense, “public broadcasting” became the common term in the U.S. after the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, with public television and public radio as its two arms. But in two senses, that omits some important developments. First, the philosophical meaning of public broadcasting is older than the Public Broadcasting Act. Josh Shepperd has traced what is likely the first use of public broadcasting as a term to the mid-1930s, as educational radio managers and advocates were still reeling from several events that almost killed noncommercial radio: the acceptance of commercial domination from federal regulators in the 1920s, the Great Depression, and the refusal of Congress to build significant educational or public interests into the Communications Act of 1934. In that original formulation, public broadcasting referred to programming that “possess[ed] signal social value,” entirely separate from whatever market value that commercial broadcasters might find. There is significant continuity in this sense of the public interest outside markets, which is different from the relative focus on public governance in elementary, secondary, and higher education. In elementary and secondary schooling, events across the 19th century bundled together four different aspects of public: public governance, public funding, public access, and public as distinct from private (generally public vs. parochial). This bundle was full of holes, especially around universal access to public schools, but because the bundle was attached to citizenship, the politics of the twentieth century eventually led to the closing of those access holes as a result of the postwar civil rights movement. The meaning of public in higher education is harder to describe quickly: public governance remained a consistent part of the definition in the 20th century, one could argue there was an expansion of how people saw the public interest – usually associated with land-grant and locally-funded colleges by the end of the 19th century — even as the postwar ideology of higher education became associated with human capital and the private interests of graduates. 

The early history of educational television solidified the generalized idea of the public interest through the various categories of licenses that the FCC allowed, which included schools and colleges and also non-profit organizations. The early collapse of the idea of state networks left most stations to be licensed to colleges and universities, to K-12 districts, or to community organizations, and by the mid-1960s, stations serving the largest cities were all operated by local non-profits. A major contributor to the continuity of this meaning of public was through support from major philanthropies, at first the Ford Foundation in the early 1950s, and then the Carnegie Corporation of New York with its support of the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, whose early 1967 report became the kernel of the law that Lyndon Johnson signed later that year. The Ford Foundation family of funds supported both the infrastructure of early public television, with the Fund for Adult Education, and its embodiment in instructional television, with the Fund for the Advancement of Education. The Ford Foundation supported the creation of the Educational Television and Radio Center, which eventually became National Educational Television, the non-profit predecessor to the Public Broadcasting System. 

Philanthropy also supported programming early on. Fred Rogers received support from the Sears Roebuck Foundation for the 1968 season of Mister Rogers Neighborhood that National Educational Television (NET) distributed nationwide. Carnegie and Ford also provided half of the original $8 million grant to create Sesame Street, carried by NET in its first season and then becoming one of the anchor programs of the first Public Broadcasting System season, along with Mister Rogers Neighborhood. Children’s Television Workshop was originally a production unit within NET, for the first season of Sesame Street, before it became a separate non-profit in 1970.

In its half-century history, Sesame Street is a useful case of how public is different in educational broadcasting from formal schooling. The governance of Sesame Workshop (originally Children’s Television Workshop) is private and non-profit. Its current and former employees strongly believe in its mission to educate and serve children, which fits well with the public interest history of educational broadcasting. Funding of both its original domestic show and its international projects, as well as its infrastructure, has long been a mix of both private and government funding, with public funding coming both directly (in grants) and indirectly (most indirect funding coming through individual stations in various mechanisms through the history of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting). Until its agreement with HBO, in effect starting in 2016, the first broadcast of each episode was universally available, and episodes from each new season are still universally available within a year of their availability on HBO. And yet, the outcry from Americans over the Sesame-HBO agreement was loud, and focused on the perceived public nature of the main Sesame Street show. So I think we need to acknowledge that there a different dimension of the term public: Sesame Street is public in an emotional sense, in a cultural sense. 

Education and culture. The cultural reach of Sesame Street brings me to the third major theme in this project: the relationship between education and culture in broadcasting. One of the broad assumptions that flowed from the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 was that public radio and television would diverge from the short history of educational television before then, with public broadcasting creating programming on public affairs and culture while there was continuation of the educational programming in areas such as instructional television. The Carnegie Commission report set up that dichotomy by briefly alluding to public television as a new form of educational television, separate from instructional television, and then largely ignoring in-school television in making the case for a new Corporation for Public Television.7 We know that such a divergence was possible, because National Public Radio had almost no educational components as Bill Siemering wrote the original mission statement, and then became its first programming director. NPR created public affairs and cultural programming, but never truly developed a side devoted to even a generous definition of “adult education [and] instruction,” as the mission statement described it. While educational radio gave birth to educational television, public radio lost touch with its explicitly educational origins.8 

But while public radio diverged quickly from education, public television did not. Sesame StreetMister Rogers Neighborhood, The Electric Company, The Magic School Bus, Where in the World Is Carmen San Diego?, and Reading Rainbow are all part of the half-century of programming on PBS that both focused on explicit education and became part of the cultural landscape. But public television also contained adult education, from NOVA‘s science documentary series to a cavalcade of “how-to” shows, as WGBH’s management once categorized Julia Child’s programs, The Victory Garden, and The New Yankee Workshop, all produced by the Boston station — or Bob Ross’s The Joy of Painting. Even within shows that did not appear to focus on academics, there was often an educational component. Early in the 1970s, the federal Emergency School Aid Act provided funding for Rebop, a multicultural children’s magazine show, and ZOOM — both of which were WGBH programs that focused on children as creative in their own right.  

The history of public television has been one of an open border between education and culture, and one that is very different from the history of culture wars in early childhood, elementary, secondary, and higher education. Within the new Corporation for Public Broadcasting, upper staff almost immediately started asking what the relationship should be between public television and education, and their successors regularly returned to it in various venues, whether with reports of outside consultants, advisory groups, or, in its most concrete form, the Annenberg/CPB Project that began in the early 1980s. The Annenberg/CPB Project was a collaboration between the Annenberg School of Communciations and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with the explicit purpose of creating useful television series for telecourses. It funded a broad range of programs including Eyes on the Prize and War and Peace in the Nuclear Age. And these programs were more than telecourses. To the broader public, including television critics, they were high-quality documentary series: highbrow culture. 

Surprises. There are so many individual stories that have surprised me in this research, and I’ll highlight two issues that came up repeatedly. The first is the importance of higher education to the broader history. Media historians know well the importance of land-grant colleges and universities in the first half of the 20th century to keeping educational radio alive in the Depression, and housing the broadcasting advocates who lobbied the FCC in the 1940s and 1950s. But higher education played a much larger role, even while it failed to follow up on the opportunities that the FCC’s educational station reservations created. First, national higher education associations were critical to the lobbying effort, from association fees to the testimony of Ohio State University President Howard Bevis in front of the FCC, to Bevis’s loaning his radio professor, Keith Tyler, to the group lobbying the FCC on behalf of educational television. Colleges and universities never used broadcasting to deepen and broaden their connections with the public, except insofar as they housed stations that did — either professionalized stations that became part of PBS and NPR, or the student-run stations that Katherine Rye Jewell profiles in her new book Live from the Underground. A solid majority of NPR member stations are licensed to higher education, and one of the missed opportunities in this history is how public radio stations became the functional equivalent of the good roommate for a college or university, but no more. Despite the missed opportunities, the idea of effective televised higher education was critical to the history of public broadcasting in many ways, from advocacy during and after World War II to the structure of the Annenberg/CPB project that funded so much landmark television in the 1980s and 1990s. 

One additional topic that I kept thinking about this year: community. Repeatedly, from the outcry over the Sesame Street deal with HBO to the crowds that always greeted Fred Rogers and the online following for LeVar Burton, from the postcard campaign to save the children’s ZOOM show in the early 1970s to the continued popularity of Julia Child decades after her death, the most well-known educational television shows created communities — fandoms, in popular culture terms. Fandom was not a goal of the early advocates of educational broadcasting, but it popped up from the first appearance of Julia Child on a book-discussion show at WGBH, where she brought a hot plate and made a splash. Viewer letters confirmed the station staff’s enthusiasm and eventually led to her famous cooking programs. The unexpected nature of educational television fandom showed up again with Fred Rogers, when he visited local stations. And with the Muppets, who were not mentioned in the original plans for what became Sesame Street, and where the early trial segments separated Ernie and Kermit and Cookie Monster from the actors playing human characters on the street. In the past year, I have wrestled with what these fandoms tell us about education. One obvious conclusion is that the first generation of educational television advocates had a limited vision — racist Alabama TV manager Ray Hurlbert was not alone when he declared that his state network was just televising what happened in classrooms. His racism, and the white, male nature of postwar TV’s professional cadre, limited what educational television could become, until it was impossible to ignore the importance of the emotional side of programming, and the connections that an audience needed to make for a program to be effective. Even Alabama’s network broadcast Sesame Street with its integrated cast, while Mississippi was the only state where public television stations didn’t show the first season of the show in 1969-70. What remains a loose end for me, aside from my archival research, is what we should take from this to the rest of education, other than the importance of students as whole human beings, the importance of relationships, and a wholly different scale of problem in constructing educational communities.  

I have some more archival trips planned for 2024, and then will turn to some more analysis and turning these somewhat loose thoughts into formal presentations. I have been presenting material from this research at conferences for 4 years, often with Wooyeong Kim, and look forward to some more presentations, and the harder work of submitting material to journals, and maybe a book proposal by the end of next year, or early 2025. 


  1. Dr. Kim graduated in 2022. []
  2. Most of the existing literature sat squarely within media history, or educational technology as used in schools. []
  3. We also decided on Zotero as the way to manage documents, and the workflow we set up was immediately successful. We read a few hundred documents that week, took notes on 159, and scanned most of the ones we took notes on. []
  4. I also have received support from my college in the form of my sabbatical time, the research hours of Wooeyong, and some minor funding for travel not covered by the grant. For both the Spencer Foundation and my college, neither are responsible for my views here. []
  5. Wooyeong came on six of those trips, five funded by the grant, and combined with his archival research in South Korea, and also at the University of Texas Austin, he was able to trace the early history of educational broadcasting in South Korea for his dissertation. []
  6. Allison Perlman has written more about Hurlbert in her book Public Interests. []
  7. Lobbying by radio advocates pushed members of Congress to broaden that to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Among the Carnegie Commission members, James Bryant Conant hated instructional television with a passion, and his correspondence within the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television urged its abandonment. []
  8. Below, I discuss the gap between NPR’s non-educational programming and its reliance on higher education for its member station infrastructure. []