In September of 2018, RadioWorld magazine featured an article by John Schneider as part of a series they call Roots of Radio. The full title of Schneider’s article was The Rabble-Rousers of Early Radio Broadcasting, subtitled Take a look at some of radio’s less-remembered provocateurs.
Schneider’s article focused on the formative years of radio (1920s and 1930s) to explain why radio (and TV) content was regulated in the first place, He also discusses how the modern era of deregulation has opened the door for more extreme political polarization on the nation’s airwaves. He doesn’t get into other media platforms here, but the similarities between the content of traditional broadcast sources and newer technology is pretty clear. Let us take a look at the state of radio regulation in the beginning of the golden age of broadcasting..
In the early days of radio, the forerunner of today’s Federal Communications Commission (FCC) was the Federal Radio Commission (FRC). By 1941, the FRC had morphed into the FCC and this newly expanded regulatory body took steps to tone down some of the rhetoric that was being aired by declaring (in the Mayflower Decision) that “radio stations needed to remain neutral in matters of news and politics.” The Decision further prohibited stations, “from supporting any particular position or candidate.” In 1949, they expanded this concept by implementing the Fairness Doctrine which required broadcasters, “to give equal time to contrasting views on controversial issues.” According to Schneider, “This effectively drove most political debate off the air, except for a few carefully crafted ‘management editorials’.” Schneider offers several examples to illustrate what was taking place in radio which prompted the FCC to implement these rules..
First, there was Robert Gordon Duncan, the “Oregon Wildcat ”. In the wake of the 1929 stock market crash, Duncan purchased KVEP – The Voice of East Portland (Oregon) for a song (cheap). Duncan began using KVEP to air his own populist views as he tried to gain a Republican nomination to Congress. He railed against anything he wanted to in his profanity-laced tirades. He sought “donations” from small mom-and-pop stores to aid his crusade against big chain stores like Sears and Roebuck (who he claimed were ruining small business concerns). If the small stores didn’t cough up the dough, he would lambaste them for cheating their customers and selling shoddy merchandise. When he lost his Congressional bid, he attacked the incumbent congressman, Frank Korell, going so far as to question his sexual orientation. KVEP shared a frequency with another station, but Duncan refused to to sign off KVEP so the other station could broadcast. By 1930, the FRC ordered KVEP off the air for “profanity, obscenity, and the vilification of particular individuals.” Duncan was permanently off the air when his creditors repossessed the station’s equipment. His radio career over, the “Oregon Wildcat” ended up managing a golf course and passed away 14 years after losing the station.
Then there was the case of Jerry Buckley who began broadcasting to the ‘Common Herd’ (as he called his followers) in 1928. Buckley was a crusader for “humanitarian and liberal causes like old-age pensions and jobs for the unemployed.” In 1930, he began a campaign that targeted Detroit Mayor Charles Bowles and the rampant corruption Buckley saw in the city government. Even when offered a $25,000 bribe (reportedly from organized crime who benefited from the Mayor’s rule), Buckley urged his listeners to vote “yes” in a recall petition against Bowles. Buckley’s campaigning did help turn the election, resulting in the ouster of Mayor Bowles by a 30,000 vote margin. Two hours after the returns were reported, he was lured to the LaSalle Hotel lobby (in the building his WMBC broadcasts originated) by a woman who said she had a story tip for him. Instead of a story, he was riddled with 11 bullets from three assassins. A listener commented at is funeral that, “Jerry Buckley was the only man in Detroit who was so strong for the common people. Will these people forget him? They will not.” Others apparently agreed as 50,000 showed up for his funeral. No one was ever convicted of his murder.
Detroit was apparently a hotbed for firebrand radio broadcasters as Father Charles Coughlin burned up the airwaves on WJR (and later CBS radio) from 1926 until 1939. Coughlin was a Catholic priest from Royal Oak, MI who began as a radio preacher on WJR. The station owner was a conservative, anti-Semitic who encouraged Coughlin to move more into the political arena during his broadcasts. His early targets were communism and the KKK, but over time he widened his attacks to mainstream topics like the banking industry, Jews, and even President Roosevelt. When FDR failed to respond to Coughlin’s suggestion that he nationalize the Federal Reserve Bank, Coughlin became one of the president’s harshest critics. Even though Coughlin had a weekly audience between 16 and 20 million listeners (and his own post office to handle the 10,000 letters he received daily), CBS began to back their stations away from carrying his programs. Coughlin openly praised Hitler and Mussolini and it later came out that his program was actually receiving operational funding from the Nazi Party. The National Association of Broadcasters succeeded in taking him off the air by crafting a self-regulation code that prohibited NAB stations from discussing controversial issues in sponsored programs. The policy was written with Coughlin in mind and did succeed in driving him from the airwaves.
In California, another broadcasting minister lost his license for KGEF in 1932 for “broadcasting slanderous attacks on public officials and others.” Evangelical Minister Robert P. Shuler was the pastor of Trinity Methodist Church in Los Angeles. According to the Los Angeles Times, “‘Fighting Bob’ operates the most controversial religious radio station of all time. Politicians fear him, criminals avoid him, newspapers deplore him, and many ministers criticize him.” Like Buckley before him, ‘Fighting Bob’ went after the Mayor of Los Angeles and government corruption. Even though a jury failed to convict him in a libel suit, the FRC voted to not renew his license due to the nature of his broadcasts and his use of the station for personal attacks. When turning back his appeal, the court noted that, “Shuler’s broadcasts were sensational rather than instructive” and if the airwaves could be used for such purposes, “radio will become a scourge and the nation a theater for the display of individual passions and the collision of personal interests.” Shuler tried again in 1943 using KPAS in Pasadena, CA, but the FCC declared that his programs “were hurting the war effort,” and required that the station submit transcripts of his shows in advance. The regulations drafted to clean up his broadcasts put him off the air for good.
In a true case of ‘radio and politics don’t mix’, William K. Henderson (aka “Ol’ Man” Henderson, “Dog-gone” Henderson, and “Hello World” Henderson) invested in WGAQ in Shreveport, La in 1922. By 1925, he had bought out his partners, rechristened the station as KWKH (using his initials for the call sign) and moved the 10,000 transmitter to his estate. Known for opening his broadcasts with “Hello World”, his powerful signal dominated the south central United States. As the only DJ, he played recorded music and broadcast his own folksy commentary. He turned increasingly political and took after the FRC for favoring ‘big chain stations’. He also went after ‘big chain stores’ and the, “ruinous and devastating effect of sending the profits out of our local communities to a common center, Wall Street.” Henderson explained why his popularity grew the more he insulted his listeners: “People don’t care about gentle, modest talk. They want it strong, They want to hear you ride somebody. If not, why do they spend their good money for telegrams? They want to be entertained. They razz me and wait for me to bawl them out over the radio. I never disappoint them if they sign their names.”
Henderson’s broadcasts generated a flood of complaints to the FRC, but beyond monitoring his station, they took no action. Politics interceded because Henderson contributed $10,000 to Louisiana Governor Huey Long’s 1928 campaign and he gave the candidate a lot of free air time on his station. Long warned the FRC, “You’re going to have to fight Louisiana and other states too, buddy, and you won’t get away with it. We are going to expose you and not allow you to steal the air.” He further assured Henderson that the Louisiana State Militia was at his disposal should he need to protect KWKH from the feds. This worked fine until Long and Henderson had a falling out in 1931 and the FRC’s recordings of Henderson’s transmissions of “vile filth and profanity” lead to a protracted legal battle. In 1932, without the benefit of Long’s protection, the nearly bankrupt Henderson’s own lawyers informed him he had little chance of retaining his license. He sold the station for $50,000 to a group of Shreveport business men who relocated the station back into town and got it signed with the CBS radio network. Henderson threatened to open a “border blaster” station in Mexico (stations that broadcast stronger signals than their US counterparts) but nothing ever came from the threat.
These are just a few examples that prompted the FCC to enact the Mayflower directive and later the Fairness Doctrine. So how does this all affect broadcast media today? The Fairness Doctrine was repealed in 1987 as the radio industry entered a new era of deregulation. As Schneider sees it, “This opened the floodgates and controversy again began to flourish on the country’s airwaves, particularly on today’s popular “hot talk” AM stations.” While our neck of the woods is not exactly rife with strong AM signals, I can only say that we see evidence of this type of broadcasting across all media platforms; TV, FM radio, internet radio and satellite radio. Without mentioning any one particular network or outlet, I will just repeat the FRC’s assessment of the malarkey that got ‘Fighting Bob’ taken off the air: “Shuler’s broadcasts were sensational rather than instructive” and if the airwaves could be used for such purposes, “radio will become a scourge and the nation a theater for the display of individual passions and the collision of personal interests.” To that I can only add my own Amen!
In that this FTV is based on his article, I will give Schneider the last word here: “Although they may not be aware of it, today’s commentators are following on the heels of the pioneer radio provocateurs of the late ‘20s and early ‘30s, and are thriving in today’s environment of lax regulation and extreme political polarization. Will history repeat itself in some future era with the re-regulation of media, or has broadcasting been forever changed – for better or worse?”
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