During the June 1956 Region V conference of the National Association of Educational Broadcasters (NAEB) in Denver, Colorado, a general discussion session for conference attendees repeatedly returned to the ideas of controversy and presenting multiple sides of an argument in educational radio and television. John C. Schwarzwalder, from KUHT at the University of Houston, recalled his station cancelling a program after a fiery panel on banking became a “cat and dog fight,” and other attendees expressed concern over the funds needed to include all the relevant perspectives on a given topic. The responses of station delegates ranged from thinking of controversy as an unnecessary, audience-drawing gimmick to considering it a responsibility that should be fulfilled in all programs, but attendees seemed to share a recognition of resources and local reactions as difficulties they all faced. Such perspectives, with their focus on local experiences and investments, underline the challenge of managing activities and policies for a national membership organization, even with general goals shared by all members.
The NAEB collection prioritizes correspondence and publications produced by the organization’s headquarters, but some parts of the collection highlight the contributions of member stations and their representatives. These materials, including both individual documents and collected folders, point to the unique structure of the organization and its division of labor beyond the national staff. This organizational structure and its effects are most apparent in documents related to NAEB committee work and meetings, especially regional events.
During the NAEB’s most active period in the 1950s, the organization primarily managed its projects and activities through a small executive staff based at the University of Illinois and various committees comprised of NAEB members from across the United States. As the organization grew in the 1950s, the executive staff expanded with the addition of new roles, including an associate director and publications editor, and the active committees also changed as the NAEB adjusted the range and scope of its activities.
Volunteer representatives from member stations participated in these committees after a selection process by the executive staff, with some experienced educational radio and television professionals serving in multiple groups concurrently. By 1960, the areas covered by the NAEB’s eighteen committees included the radio network, grants-in-aid, instructional television, and research. Committee work reached nearly all aspects of the NAEB, from the engineering committee’s improvement of the radio network’s technical capacity to the constitution committee’s assessment and revision of the NAEB by-laws and constitution. The collection includes folders highlighting individual committees and their labor, and this material often suggests the challenges of managing projects across a national organization, as well as the innovations that emerged from the perspectives of members from different institutions and areas of expertise.
The committees allowed representatives from around the country to stay involved in NAEB’s core activities, but the national structure produced benefits as well as tensions, with both appearing in reports from region-specific meetings, seminars, and workshops. Records from the NAEB national conventions help track the history of the organization overall, but the material from region meetings often clarifies the relationship between individual stations and headquarters. Beginning in 1952, these meetings became important events for the directors of member stations, or other delegates, to interact with executive staff from NAEB. Attendees discussed major problems facing educational radio and television in the United States, as well as specific issues affecting each region.
The concerns and needs addressed by station delegates often helped the NAEB determine new activities and services. Members frequently requested similar changes across regions, like more workshops and training to help professionalize the field of educational broadcasting, even in smaller cities and towns, and clearer long-term plans for tape network programs. The tape network distributed programs to member stations, and it offered major titles, such as The Jeffersonian Heritage, Ways of Mankind, and People Under Communism, as well as prolific productions that have received less recognition, like the Cooper Union Forum. Through member comments and headquarters responses, reports from region meetings reflect the development of the NAEB tape network, as well as other services offered by the organization, like the grants-in-aid program.
NAEB region meetings functioned as an outlet for members to express their needs and requests to the executive staff, but they also allowed the staff to compare the obstacles and achievements that stations faced in different regions. For example, at the April 1955 Region I conference at the University of Massachusetts, the NAEB’s executive director Harry J. Skornia compared educational TV challenges that the conference attendees identified in their Northeastern cities to the shared difficulties in the Northwest, and he pointed to the stronger infrastructure and financial investment in educational broadcasting in the Midwest as a contrast. The headquarters staff provided context for the complaints and concerns of the local broadcasters in such situations, with this exchange between national and local perspectives suggesting the pressures facing different stations and regions across the organization.
While the majority of the collection offers a rich, detailed record of the changing goals and strategies of the NAEB through its headquarters, documents about committee work and region meetings illuminate the larger story of a complex, member-based organization with stakeholders at many different levels. As a key predecessor to NPR and PBS, NAEB has had a lasting influence on the organizational structures that allow public media to continue today.
Matt St. John