Historicizing US Public Broadcasting: New Initiatives and Buried Treasures

AHA Session 23
Thursday, January 7, 2016: 1:00 PM-3:00 PM
Crystal Ballroom C (Hilton Atlanta, First Floor)
Bruce J. Schulman, Boston University
The Audience

Session Abstract

Historians of American culture seem reluctant to write about public broadcasting.  Very few works have focused on its programs, audiences, and practices; the few that exist tend to make a political critique of its policies.  Yet public broadcasting in the U.S. has a complex history of interconnection with a broad spectrum of institutions in the U.S. and abroad – universities, commercial broadcasters, government agencies, foundations, international media organizations, national producers and distributors, corporate sponsors, and local communities at every level and location.  In part public broadcasting’s scholarly neglect is due to the relative inaccessibility of its material history, locked behind obsolete technologies in scattered locations, many of them not open to the public. Recently, media archivists and scholars have initiated several coordinating projects on a national scale taking advantage of digital humanities tools and networks to make public broadcasting history more accessible. Two of the most significant are the American Archive of Public Broadcasting (AAPB), a collaboration between the Library of Congress and WGBH in Boston to preserve and make accessible U.S. public broadcasting programming; and the Radio Preservation Task Force (RPTF) of the Library of Congress, a consortium of 120 faculty members and representatives from nearly 300 archives formed to develop a national inventory of archival radio collections and promote the use of radio-based recorded sound as research and educational resources. With this wealth of primary media sources becoming available for analysis and interpretation, discussion of ways to make this material more useful for the study of political, social, and cultural history seems appropriate.

This panel will serve two complementary functions: to present scholarship that interrogates significant intersections between diverse communities and institutions in the history of US public broadcasting, using newly-uncovered archival resources; and to discuss increased opportunities for scholarship and education that are developing due to such initiatives as AAPB and RPTF. Josh Shepperd’s paper examines media effects research during the 1950s stemming from federal regulatory imperatives that impacted university communications departments, commercial broadcasters, and educational broadcasting. Michele Hilmes explores a transnational public/private initiative of the 1960s based in four countries to produce primetime documentaries on topics of worldwide interest from varied perspectives. Alan Gevinson investigates heartland public television documentaries from the 1970s to illuminate ways that national issues and concerns played out in local settings. Karen Cariani discusses the work of the media archivist in collaborating with scholars to foster research and educational use of public media collections. Following the papers, Bruce Schulman will lead a roundtable on the value of public broadcasting history for historians, with Shepperd, Hilmes, Gevinson, and Cariani discussing the AAPB and RPTF initiatives with which they are associated.

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