116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
I love radio. Always have. AM, shortwave, an amateur license, working for National Public Radio, and FCC.
Today’s NPR and Iowa Public Radio employees are the airwaves heroes in our civil war to save democracy.
Because 18-year-old Iowa Public Radio is currently celebrating its centennial, a little history is in order.
The first cross-Atlantic “wireless” transmission was 1901. Soon radio amateurs were building transmitters — as they have created communications innovations since. Launching communications satellites, bouncing signals off the moon, and making phone calls with hand-held radios long before your first smartphone.
Once their Morse Code gave way to the human voice the tussle began. Like Steve Martin’s Saturday Night Live routine, folks pointed to the talking box and asked, “What the hell is that?” Both the Navy and phone company fought for control.
Iowa’s President Herbert Hoover, as secretary of commerce 1921 to 1928, led the way, as homes with radios went from 300,000 to 10 million. Thirty stations became 618. The chaos of signal interference required regulation.
Many nations responded with non-commercial-only, public (though not government) national broadcasting networks. Most famously, Britain’s BBC.
Congress called them “public airwaves,” but gave the FCC power to select and license private individuals’ use of them in “the public interest.” Hoover opposed “advertising chatter.” Even licensees urged “advertising in radio be absolutely prohibited.”
As commercialism took over radio, the pushback created “educational, non-commercial” stations. The FCC’s first woman commissioner, Frieda Hennock, a Ukrainian, is credited with the reservation of educational TV channels. In 1945, the FCC reserved educational FM channels.
In 1911 engineering students and faculty at the University of Iowa got their “training school license,” 9YA, for their “wireless telegraph.” By 1916 free course material was broadcast in Morse Code. Later full licenses were granted for WHAA (1922) and WSUI (1925). By 1933 W9XK (later W9XUI) provided education via TV. WOI has similar history.
NPR began in 1971, and IPR in 2004 — the first step in a cutback in state support of Iowa’s university-licensed stations. This year the Board of Regents began the transfer of all broadcast licenses and property of university stations to IPR.
The Legislature no longer funds our universities to the extent it once did. (Now $389 million less than 20 years ago, notwithstanding increasing costs.)
Meanwhile, the Golden Dome of Wisdom echoes with, “what have the universities done for us lately?” while a chorus harmonizes, from My Fair Lady, “Sing me no song, read me no rhyme, don't waste my time, show me.”
Former UI President Sally Mason observed there are Iowans in “pockets where we may be less favorably viewed … a lot of them are west.” You think?
How sad the universities had an irreplaceable, invaluable statewide network of 26 stations — a public relations firm’s dream — that could have told their story and won over legislators by helping small towns. University administrators, Regents, legislators and governors failed to see its value.
It was “use it or lose it,” and now they’ve lost it. Happy centennial everyone.
Nicholas Johnson, a former FCC commissioner, lives in Iowa City. email@example.com