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Nicholas Johnson talks about communication and its impact

BROADCAST: Jan. 16, 1981 | DURATION: 00:55:13


Interviewing Nicholas Johnson, a former member of FCC in which discusses communication, advanced technology, the role of the public, censorship and control of information


Tap within the transcript to jump to that part of the audio.


Studs Terkel Well, there has been for some time now talk about the nature of radio, the nature of television, the quality or the lack of quality, the nature of commercials, the nature of violence, obscenity, whatever you want to call it. Primarily people feel something is cockeyed here, as far as radio is concerned, and television. And the "New York Times," just the other day, has an article about the new FCC. "The New FCC Ends Curbs on Radio Stations," eliminates a limit on commercials, and sets up a quota for public affairs. What does this mean to us who are interested in in, all of us it seems to me would be interested in what's going on in the world, as far as taste and as far as quality of life is concerned. My guest is Nicholas Johnson, who through the years 1966 to 1973 was described as the enfant terrible of the FCC. He was a member of the FCC, and he was the one representative who truly represented the public, the consumers, and he fought all these matters that so many of us are appalled by. Nick Johnson. And we'll speak of his work today, the groups of which he is connected, and his view of what's happening today in the world of radio, the world of television, his thoughts about it. And during the FCC history there were a couple of men, couple of members I should say, who stood out. One was a man named Clifford Durr, back in the days of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who wrote the Blue Book and it was he in a sense -- Nick can correct me on this if I'm wrong -- established the idea of public affairs, public service requisites for stations. And the other, representing, it seems to me, the great many out there listening, was Nicholas Johnson himself. And so his thoughts, in a moment, as to what's going on after this message. [pause in recording] Well, Nick Johnson has been for for seven years, you were a member of the Federal Communications Commission. And I suppose the first question to ask is, reflections during those seven years, and the changes that have happened since then?

Nicholas Johnson Well, that was there at a unique period in our history, really, a confluence of a lot of forces going on at once, a coming of an awareness about the impact of mass communications in our society that hit the academic community, the research think tanks, the foundations, citizens' groups all about the same time. It was a time of media involvement in social change, the awareness of of those involved in social change movements of the necessity for media participation, ability to manipulate the media or what have you. And I just happened to be on the commission at that time. It was a very exciting time to be there. I spent most of my time writing dissenting opinions, as you may recall, although I wrote a couple of majority opinions, trying to just help along this process of a public understanding of how important the media are. Since then, of course, a lot of what I was talking about at the time and seemed so far out and so forth has now come to pass, and looks very tame by comparison.

Studs Terkel What, for instance?

Nicholas Johnson Well, I'm thinking particularly about the new technology, Studs. It -- I wrote a paper called "Communications in the Year 2000," and I talked about the coming of miniaturization and and very high speed transmission and the proliferation of receiving devices and sending devices and satellite-to-home broadcasting and multiplicity of cable channels and all that sort of thing. And then came back 10, 15 years later and here you've got home computers available off the shelf and-.

Studs Terkel Well, the technique is there, the technology there, the big question is the substance of what we get-.

Nicholas Johnson Well, that's always the case. Who was it who said now that, when the telegraph was put in, now that Maine and Texas can talk to each other, what are they going to say?

Studs Terkel Mmm.

Nicholas Johnson And we're still left with that fundamental question.

Studs Terkel So what is it now, seven years since you left the Federal Communications Commission?

Nicholas Johnson Right.

Studs Terkel Nineteen-eighty, changes have took- taken place, politically of course, changes in the personnel of the FCC. How has the FCC changed? What was it when you were a member, a dissenting member, to be sure, and today?

Nicholas Johnson Well, a lot of things have happened within the within the commission. Certainly the the notion of public participation in the process is something that changed radically during those years, and to some extent those changes have stayed with us. When I came on the commission, the WLBT case was in its early days. That was the case out of Jackson, Mississippi, where blacks were unabashedly, expressly excluded from participation in that station or in the programming and so forth. And public groups in Jackson, black groups and others, protested these policies and the FCC told them that they didn't have standing, which is a fancy lawyer's word for saying, you know, we're not going to pay attention to what you say. You're nobody as far as we're concerned. You don't own a station, you're not an advertiser, what business have you got coming into the FCC and telling us what you think about all this? Well, the FCC got overturned by the courts on that. The court said, you got to listen to these folks, they're they're viewers and listeners, they've got an interest in this. They're they're parties -- legally entitled to being recognized as much as anybody else. And that really brought forth a revolution in terms of conception of what the role of the administrative agency is, that it's, it becomes much less of an advocate, then, and becomes more of a of a judicial role, hearing from the industry on one side and the public directly on on the other side. So, those those trends have stayed with us. But I'm I'm sorry to have to report that when the conservative groups recently assessed the work of all the regulatory commissions in Washington, they they came out with great alarm and suggested all the changes that were going to have to be made in these other agencies, but they take a- took a look at the FCC and they said, well, the FCC is just fine. We like what it's been doing.

Studs Terkel Mmm.

Nicholas Johnson It's it's deregulating. It's it's not, you know, it's not causing business much trouble. Well, the purpose of the FCC is to cause the radio and television industry a little trouble, and if they're not doing that, some question whether they're doing their job.

Studs Terkel Well, what is the -- now, the "New York Times" of January fifteenth: "FCC ends curbs on radios, eliminates limit on commercials and quota for public affairs", specifically.

Nicholas Johnson Right. Well, I can say absolutely outrageous, Studs. And and I I will say up front that I'm not in favor of government regulation for the sake of government regulation. If I had my choice, I I I've always said my my first choice would be unregulated, fully-functioning, free marketplace. Stringent enforcement of the antitrust laws, so that you let the small business person have a crack at it and don't let the big fellows just walk all over him. But I think that provides the public protection, it holds prices down, it encourages technological innovation, it tends to encourage cost cutting and watching outrageous expenses, it improves quality of service. I think the competitive marketplace can work well. The problem is we don't have one. And the business community shows absolutely no inclination whatsoever to want to encourage the creation of one. And therefore we are left with an oligopoly, which again is now an economist's fancy word for an industry that's controlled by three or four firms, and most American industries now are oligopolies. You think of news magazines, you think of three. You think of commercial networks, you think of three. You think of automobile manufacturers, depending on when this show is aired, you still think three?

Studs Terkel Mmmhmm.

Nicholas Johnson And that's, you know, that's the case in broadcasting. The the radio station, the television station, has a monopoly on that frequency for the times that it broadcasts in that community. And that is, you know, that's not a marketplace. What we're talking about is something no less fundamental than how we intend to run our democratic society. And and we have operated on the assumption for a couple hundred years that that we are really going to define truth, for political purposes, define truth not as something which is handed down from the president or a or a king or some religious figure, but what evolves out of the public discourse and dialogue. Now, there are those who question the wisdom of trying to run a country that way, but we've been doing it for a couple hundred years and most of us at least still believe in that. Now if you're going to do that, then it's absolutely essential that you give a lot of attention to the rules by which that public dialogue is going to get conducted, and who in America gets to have opinions, and who doesn't get to have opinions. Well, it turns out that that as Liebling once said, freedom of the press means freedom for the fellow who's rich enough to buy one. Well, that's like saying if you want to rent a car, your opportunity is to go out and buy Hertz or Avis. And we won't do it that way. We say if you want to rent a car, you rent a car for a day or two, and then you give it back to them, you let them worry about it. Well, you know, why can't we do that with radio and television? Why can't we make it possible for somebody who who has an opinion they would like to express in the community, to give them a choice somewhere between forever after remaining silent, on the one hand, and at the other extreme, getting together 10 or 20 or 200 million dollars to go out and buy a major radio and television station? I mean, it's really absurd. So, within a democracy we've got to come up with some mechanism for ensuring that the full range of views will get an airing in our society. Either that or we have to change our whole theory of government. Now, if the whole range of views is going to get an airing, there are a number of ways you can do that. The marketplace view way to do that would be to say that the radio and television stations have to make time available for free and sell time to all the groups within the society, or to establish a mechanism for choice between some and others, not based on ideology, but on first-come, first-served, something like that.

Studs Terkel These are known as public affairs programs, aren't they?

Nicholas Johnson Well, it could be public affairs programs, it could be issue advertising, it could be a 30-second spot. It could be in the form of an entertainment format. You know, Norman Lear did this program, "The Baxters," which dealt with an issue but in a dramatic way, and then tied in with the local station's discussion of it. I mean, you can you can often much more effectively deal with public issues in the form of-.

Studs Terkel Mmm.

Nicholas Johnson Popular music lyrics or drama, it doesn't have to be public affairs as we conventionally think of it.

Studs Terkel Now, what was happening in the the world you're describing, in which people would have a say, groups, communities would have a say, that would not otherwise have a say? What's been happening in in that world?

Nicholas Johnson Well, what we do now, under the 1934 Communications Act, is we try to approximate that condition through a regulation of the marketplace. What we do is we let private individuals operate as licensees of stations licensed by the federal government. We let them have a total right of censorship. They can censor off of the air any views they want to censor off of the air, by and large, and they can put on the air any views they want to put on the air. The public protection that's built into the regulatory scheme is fairly weak, but it does exist, and it says, for example, that in election contests you have to -- you can't just put on the candidate you want to win. You have to put on a a range of of the candidates for that public office. Give them all a shot at your audience to express their views. Secondly, the Fairness Doctrine says that you can deal with all the controversy you want on the air, in fact, we're going to require you, under the first provision of the Fairness Doctrine, we're going to require you to deal with controversial issues. But when you do, you don't have to keep an individual program balanced, and you don't have to be precise about equal time. But you have to make some effort to provide an opportunity for a range of views to be expressed on your station. Now, as I say, that's the the way in which we've tried to approximate through regulation, a combination of private control with a regulatory mechanism, that will come close to what we might've had if er- any- everybody had a shot at the station. Now what they're doing, Studs-.

Studs Terkel You mean this new development.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah, this new development, the FCC, this so-called deregulation of radio, is is so applauded by the the conservative element. What they're doing is they're they're taking away the public protections, the public rights. But they are, they're leaving the private monopoly. Now, I said my first choice would always be a, you know, a fully competitive marketplace with with stringent antitrust enforcement. My second choice would be a regulated oligopoly, or monopoly, if you can't get a marketplace, which we can't. But the third option is to have an unregulated monopoly, and that's what I find absolutely abhorrent and impossible, and yet that is what they have in effect adopted now. They've said we're going to let the station owners -- we're we're going to continue to give them these monopoly rights to broadcast from the federal government. We're going to continue to give them the public's airwaves to to exact enormous private profit from. But we're not going require anything in return anymore. We're not going to require them to put on news and public affairs, we're not going to have any limitation on the on the quantity of commercials that they have. We're not going to require them to ascertain the needs of their community anymore. We're not going to require them to keep his logs the way we used to. In other words, we're going to have total irresponsibility on the part of monopolists. Well, that's what led in the in the latter part of the nineteenth century, through the populist movement, to the demand for regulation of the railroads and the grain elevators and the water and electric companies-.

Studs Terkel So it's public be damned.

Nicholas Johnson That's right.

Studs Terkel It's public be damned.

Nicholas Johnson That's right.

Studs Terkel Vanderbi- Commodore Vanderbilt lives.

Nicholas Johnson That's right. To me it's a real throwback to the early nineteenth century is what they've done to us here. But they've done it with regard -- I mean it would be bad enough, Studs, if they did it with regard to steel or automobiles or oil or something like that, where we have to pay these inflated inflationary profits while the corporations rake in these these outrageous, obscene profits. That would be bad enough. But where they're doing it now, when they started doing it with regard to the to the speech in this country, to the dialogue, the public dialogue, the way we govern ourselves. Now they're cutting at the real marrow of the bone of what America is all about. There's no way we can pull ourselves out of this well, if from now on every time we want to holler, there isn't anybody to listen. And the same corporations that are jacking up their prices and controlling our our working conditions and th- and our and our, the condition of our air and water and cities and lives, if we're going to let those corporations also control our capacity to complain about that, and to talk about. Now you've just, I mean you've sold out-.

Studs Terkel Yeah.

Nicholas Johnson The whole ball of wax, there ain't nothing left then.

Studs Terkel So, this is as stands at this moment, and you are not a member of the FCC to speak out on behalf of the others who would not be heard from, or to challenge this. There's no one on the FCC then?

Nicholas Johnson That's correct. And and even if there were, there's a question of whether it would get carried. I mean, what we're what we're getting to in radio and television, which commercial radio and television still remain clearly the predominant means of information distribution in this society -- if they can freely choose to keep the kinds of things that you and I are now talking about, if they can freely choose to just keep that off the air and keep it away from the attention of the American people, how are we going to get these ideas discussed? Well the answer is we aren't. And then when we go to vote, you know, when we go to write our our elected officials, when we go to participate in the political process, we're not going to raise these issues because we never heard them talked about. How would we?

Studs Terkel Mmmhmm.

Nicholas Johnson That's the danger, see, that's the real evil in this.

Studs Terkel So you know, this is, as it stands at this mo- Nick vo, Nick von Hoffman I'm about to say, not bad. Nick Johnson is my guest. Nick was the, perhaps the most celebrated member of the FCC, Federal Communications Commission, years '66 to '73, because he was the one who was challenging the others when it came to public interest and public needs. How do you -- well, before I ask you about technological developments and the implications involving that, and the thing we're discussing -- there are groups, there are citizens groups of which you are very much part. I know you teach administrative law at University of Iowa, but you're also involved with certain groups. Perhaps you'd talk about these groups.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah, the one with which I'm principally involved at this time is called the National Citizens Communications Lobby. And I don't know what your policies are, if we can give the address-.

Studs Terkel Sure.

Nicholas Johnson A little later on in the show, they can get some pencil and paper ready and we'll give them an address they can write, and I'll send them some information. But the other way I get information out is through public lecturing. I do a lot of public lecturing around the country, and [cough] and I get to meet a lot of people that way and and discuss some of these things and a lot of other subjects. But yeah, there's also, the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting that I used to chair, is now chaired by Ralph Nader. But there are not a lot of groups working, really, in the broadcast reform area. I think it's the most important and the reason I've given my life to it is that it seems to me, on that everything else depends. I mean, whether you're interested in in reducing the nuclear armaments race, or improving the quality of the environment, or opportunities for women and minorities in our society, or equality of education, housing, health care, education, whatever your interest may be, you first -- you've got to get the media straightened out, because if you don't, you're never going to get your issue discussed, whatever it is. So that's why I view this as key to everything else. But the National Citizens Communications Lobby has been in existence for some time now. And is a group of individuals around the country who are interested in keeping an eye on these things. It's an all volunteer organization, nobody takes a salary out of it. And and we just prepare materials and try to get them around, go in and testify before Congress occasionally, and keep the public educated on these problems as they arise. Every once in a while a bill comes up and they're about to take everything away from you, and then we get the "sound the alert" and try to get get going with it.

Studs Terkel You know the big question is, before we come into the matter of technology and the changes, when something happens you hear the phrase, well, people get what they deserve. Now, that is, they did it and they deserve it. And the thing that you're emphasizing here throughout is that, how could people know what to vote for if issues were never really raised-.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah.

Studs Terkel Over radio or television?

Nicholas Johnson That's right.

Studs Terkel Never really raised, whether it be the military issue, what it really means as far as the economy is concerned. Is it really needed, the MX, you know, it never ha- it's hardly discussed, or the El Salvadorian issue is hardly discussed in depth as to who's doing what to whom and our role.

Nicholas Johnson That's right. As somebody said, the the choice you'll never know is the choice you'll never make. They say, well, the the people like what they get on radio and television. Well, a lot of that is that they don't, you know, they haven't given us a choice. And when they do, it's amazing what it is we choose. I mean, they said that nobody would watch a public affairs program in prime-time. I remember that when I was a commissioner, and I'd get after these network executives, and I'd say look, you get a good show, good public affairs show, put it in prime-time on network television, and you stick with it for a few years, and bring people around so they understand what that can be and what that impact can be on their lives. I said I bet you're going to get ratings for it. Oh no, nobody'd ever watch that, nobody'd ever watch that. Well, then, recently, you know, 60 Minutes a couple years ago, maybe still today, it comes in one of the top-ten rated shows in the country. Now how do they explain that? Well, then they they squirm all around, they try to explain it, it only gets those good ratings because of what it's up against and whatnot. But the fact is there's an audience out there.

Studs Terkel We're really talking about contempt for public intelligence, basically amounts to that. There's something -- the phrase, the most obscene phrase in our lexicon, I think, is the phrase called 'bottom line.' And bottom line is a ledger phrase, it's an accountant's phrase, bottom line. Meaning, making the buck. Well-.

Nicholas Johnson Well-.

Studs Terkel That is it, but, as far as public intelligence, the contempt for at [the bottom?] is overwhelming-.

Nicholas Johnson Maybe that -- I think that the best you can say for them is contempt for public intelligence. If you give them the benefit of the doubt, you conclude that what it is, is contempt for public intelligence. A much more dangerous, alternative explanation is that there is full consciousness of what they are doing, in terms of an awareness of how the political process works. I remember a friend of mine, who does -- old story but it's equally applicable today. Got a station, got a job with a -- he was Black, he got his first job with a station in in the South, could happen other places -- and he was handed a stack of records, and say, here boy, you play these records. And my friend said, well how about the news? They said, we don't have any news on this station, boy. And he said, well, maybe I'll just take something off the wire service and read it. We don't have wire service, boy. He says, well, maybe I could go out and get the local newspaper at least, talk to people, find out what's going on, say something about it. And his station manager turned to him, and I'll clean up his language a little bit, but it was to this effect. He says, look, boy, I don't seem to have made myself clear to you. He says, you're not going to educate the people of this community at my expense. Now you see, what you can admire about that station manager is a total absence of any hypocrisy. I mean he's straight up front. He knows that if people get informed, if they get educated, if they know what's going on, if they know what their choices are, if they know what the issues are, if they know what they've got to get informed, express themselves about, if they know there's a way in which they can have an impact on the decision making process, you can bet they're going to act. I mean you know that, you're out there with the American dream and all your great interviewing and books and what the folks do, and you know people will respond if they think there's hope and there's a chance. The the there's story after story about this. But I remember back in the days when they were investigating the impact of violence on television and the networks were complaining that the very investigation was an was an affront to their First Amendment rights. I said, if you're interested in First Amendment rights, I said, you tell the networks this story, and I told them a story about a friend of mine in West Virginia who'd done a program about black lung disease. Every station in West Virginia refused to carry that program. And it finally ran on an out-of-state station and it was supposed to be carried on the cable system in West Virginia and they blanked it out. They wouldn't carry it. I mean, there they just would not let the people in those coal mining communities find out about black lung and what it was doing. Well, about two weeks after I told that story before this presidential commission in my testimony, one of the networks went down and and suddenly discovered black lung disease before their their network president was about to testify-.

Studs Terkel Mmm, mmmhmm.

Nicholas Johnson And they put this piece on the air, on the network. And the stations in the area would rather just throw the switch and plug into the network than have to do programming. So they, they -- did you want to take a break here and then we'll come back with this?

Studs Terkel No go ahead, go ahead.

Nicholas Johnson So they wanted to they wanted to, they they just let it run. Well, the the folks sitting at home that day, they saw this, and the husbands came home out of the coal mines, they'd say honey, I just heard today about something called black lung disease, and they started talking about it and whatnot. And within about a week or two, unorganized, about 30,000 coal miners came up out of the mines and marched on the state legislature, and about a month after that they got wor- the first workmen's compensation legislation for black lung in that state. The point is that information is power.

Studs Terkel That's it.

Nicholas Johnson The person who controls the mass media in a society or in any setting is the person who controls that society. And in the Soviet Union it's one group of folks, in the United States it's the largest corporations, in other countries it's other groups. But somebody controls them and they use it to serve their own ends, their economic ends and their political ends. And it happens that, you know, as as Camus used to say, in this world there are there's the pestilence and there is the victims, and it's up to us, insofar as possible, not to join force with the pestilence. They know that the distribution of information has a class consequence. It tends to improve the political and economic position of the underclass and the poor and the working class, and it tends thereby to disadvantage the upper class and the ruling class and the wealthy. And therefore, ignorance better serves their interests than the distribution of information.

Studs Terkel Of course, the information.-

Nicholas Johnson So, that's the other interpretation, see, just contempt for the public, I think may be giving them too much credit, Studs.

Studs Terkel Yeah. You're right. I mean, I agree. [laughter] In view of what you just said. [cough] By the way, information is power. Coming back to that phrase, the public gets what it deserves. If it if it doesn't get it, how can it deserve what it -- what it decides if it doesn't get it, the information fully? Case in point is the power, an affirmative way of looking, the power of the media, radio and television.

Nicholas Johnson Mmmhmm.

Studs Terkel A couple I know, working-class suburb of Chicago, who had no views about race. Well now, they had thought blacks were a little different, but not really anti-black, nor were they for for affirmative action or equal rights [as of right?]. But they were watching television one day, the Selma bridge incident. Jim Clark, the horses, the hose, the black women and kids being hosed down, pushed down, abused, the clubs of Jim Clark's police in Selma. They were appalled. Seeing that -- they may, they had the feeling of decency all their lives, but seeing that [all?] made them active in the cause of civil rights. An example of how information, in this case a news event, offered, can alter the thoughts of a person. You're talking about all the issues, whether it be corporate control or pollution or certainly the arms race, how it is not offered. And so the vote goes a certain way and so-.

Nicholas Johnson In any event I think that however one comes down on it, and there's been some question with regard to the the coverage at the time -- the Vietnam War, did that was that, in fact, a factor in in bringing forth a revulsion about that war in a popular sense, for the kind of the reasons you described? Or did it in fact reinforce the war effort? You know, you can argue both sides of that. But I think no one argues, or or would argue, with the assertion that television is having an enormous impact on our decision-making process, on the information we get, on the political process in this country. We may have some difficulty deciding, figuring out what the impact is. But but the impact clearly is there.

Studs Terkel We're gonna take a break now, and Nicholas Johnson, I must ask you also about -- my feeling about the system called, ratings and the effect it has on public thought, or non-thought. The effect of ratings, and how that's part of what we're talking about too and, of course, technology and the changes. In a moment. Nicholas Johnson is my guest, the former Federal Communications Commissioner for seven years, and now teaching law at the University of Iowa, as well as active in citizens' groups concerning radio and television. And more of those groups, too, in a moment, after this pause. [pause in recording] So resuming the conversation with Nicholas Johnson, when last we left as we say on the soap operas.

Nicholas Johnson Right.

Studs Terkel When last we left, there was Ma Perkins and Helen Trent and -- Did you know that I was a gangster in the soap operas? And one was "Betty and Bob." I must tell you about this. And this is a parenthetical comment. I was a gangster in "Betty and Bob" in the '30s, and I was threatening Betty's mother, played by an elegant actress named Edie Davis, who turns out is the mother now of Nancy Davis Reagan. And so as I saw the acceptance speech of Ronald Reagan on election night -- that is the acceptance, victory speech -- as I watch the inaugural speech, I start thinking, it is hard to tell where soap opera leaves off and life begins.

Nicholas Johnson That's right, that's right. I'll tell you another funny story like that since we're sitting here swapping stories today. There was a fundraising gathering out in out in Hollywood, and a fellow who was running for senator was out there. I won't embarrass him by giving his name, he's known to you. And gave a speech to this crowd. He really didn't do a very good job, he sort of shuffled around, looked down, had his hand in his pocket, he didn't make a very forceful presentation. And afterwards a a friend of mine, is an actor, and has some eye for this sort of thing, was talking to the fellow's manager, and said, you know, you really ought to do something with your candidate. I like his views, you know, he's done a great job in public office, but he just really doesn't come across very well. And the and the manager said, yeah, he says, what we'd like to have him do, is we'd have- like to have him look like that actor who played in The Senator.

Studs Terkel Incredible, yeah.

Nicholas Johnson And she said, well, you know, the point of that was, that that actor was supposed to be looking like a senator. [laughter].

Studs Terkel Yeah, yeah.

Nicholas Johnson But, you know, at what point does drama become life and life become drama-.

Studs Terkel We're talking about-.

Nicholas Johnson Who's copying who, here?

Studs Terkel See, we're also talking about banality, aren't we?

Nicholas Johnson Oh, yeah.

Studs Terkel We're talking about ban- the evil of banality, to reverse Hannah Arendt's phrase, the banality of evil -- Adolf Eichmann. It's banality, and what that does to imagination. This aside from what you said a moment ago, about no one is going to educate the public at my expense. There's also the nature of -- the more banal something is, the less imagination is called upon, and that has the same effect as knowledge being censorship, too.

Nicholas Johnson Mmmhmm. Sure.

Studs Terkel So we come to the group citizens- well. Technology. Since you've left the FCC, new developments now, technologically, and what it's -- what is its effect?

Nicholas Johnson Well, it's just incredible what's out there. You can't open the paper and look at the ads, particularly over Christmastime or whenever, and not be reminded of all that is now available to us. Take the simple matter of home computers, for example. You got the possibility now of having equipment in your home, that formerly would have cost maybe ten million dollars, that you can get for a thousand dollars, interconnect this device through your telephone to any computer anywhere in the world. And the kids are really catching on to this, you know. Once once you're over 16 -- we used to say, don't trust anybody over 30, but on this, you know, once you get over about the age of 16, it becomes pretty hard to comprehend the -- I've got one son who's 16 and and one who's 19, and the 19 year-old is interested in electrical engineering, and he's all into this stuff. But he he didn't get into computers early enough. And the 15, 16 year-old one who is really more interested in music and and the arts and whatever not, has no particular interest in science and all that business, but the computer really turns him on and he figures that whole thing out. Whenever I've got a problem, I ask him how to do it. He says, well here, Dad, I'll straighten it out for you, and he punches a few buttons and it works again. They're they're really they're really turned on to it. But you know, we're going to very quickly be in a time when anybody who is not at least comfortable with operating computers is going to be technologically unemployable. You you want to run -- I mean jobs that we have not thought of as particularly exalted in terms of their intellectual requirements in the past -- hotel clerk, catalog ordering department, you know, getting airline tickets, working in a bank teller or whatever, all those, checkout counter at the supermarket. You know, all these people are now very heavily involved in a in a competence at operating very sophisticated electronic equipment in doing those jobs. And certainly once you get into the law, we've now got a high proportion of the court's opinions and statutes into computer databases. So you just go in and type a few keys and then it throws up on the screen all the cases having to do with that that you might be interested in, and so forth. The impact of telecommunications and computers and medicine and, I mean it just, it's throughout our entire society. So, now we have to start teaching this in the schools or we're going to be turning out kids who really aren't fit to work at any job. And you have the phenomenon of kids sitting at home watching a television screen. But on that television screen is what they programmed on it. And-.

Studs Terkel What do you mean? What does that mean?

Nicholas Johnson Well, I mean, they've sit- they've sat down and they've written a computer program. And it may be for a game. I mean my -- Gregory, my son, the other night I was cleaning up my office there and he was playing with the computer, and the next thing I knew, I turned around and he had some, one of these things like they have in arcades with the the Space Invaders or whatever, and he'd written this little program. He'd gotten some stuff out of a magazine and he put together, and in the course of about a half hour he had it all programmed in and he was [laughter]-.

Studs Terkel He created his own program?

Nicholas Johnson Yeah.

Studs Terkel That you were watching?

Nicholas Johnson Yeah. Well no, I wasn't watching it. I was working. He did it by the by the-.

Studs Terkel No, but it came on the screen?

Nicholas Johnson Yeah, it came on the the TV screen. So he's watching television but he's not watching their output, and I think this kind of thing is going to begin to have more and more impact on the commercial broadcasting industry, both radio and television. Take even radio. Used to be you put somebody in a car, their only option was to sit there in silence or or to listen to AM radio. Well, then we added to that FM radio, and then we added to that the tape capacity. So that somebody can sit in there and be listening to music, but they're not listening to any local radio station, they're listening to their own tape. And then we added to that CB radio. So now you can be driving down the road listening to 10-4 good buddy, and you're listening to, quote, the radio, unquote, but you're not listening to what we think of as normal commercial AM radio stations. Television the same way. It used to be if you were watching television, you were watching ABC, or CBS, or NBC, and of course they were always contending we give the people what the people want, and so forth and so on. We were talking earlier about choice. Now you've got pay cable channels like HBO. You you put HBO in a home-.

Studs Terkel HBO is?

Nicholas Johnson Is Home Box Office. It's a pay cable service, one of these things that's transmitted up to a satellite and then from the satellite back down to a cable television system, and then distributed to your home. The other kind of conventional cable service simply brings you signals that are already available off the air. But with the pay channel you pay more money, usually as much as you are paying for your whole cable service. You pay more money to get this one channel, usually first-run movies, that sort of thing. People who have access to HBO on their systems, end up often giving HBO higher ratings than go to ABC, CBS, or NBC. So what this has already begun to prove is that there is indeed a a taste out there, a desire, for programming other than that which the networks are giving. So the first competition the networks are up against is, you can bring in, via satellite, what are called super power television stations. So, it goes from a -- such as WGN here in Chicago, where we are, goes up to a satellite, down to cable systems. And th- thousands, millions of people in America who are on cable systems far removed from the over-the-air signal of WGN can in fact watch it. Now, WFMT, where we're working out of now, is being offered -- it's the first radio station, I believe in the country, to be offered via satellite service to cable systems, this station, by United Video out of Tulsa. It's now going to some 33 cable systems I think, and it's, that's expanding. So, the the local television station with a network affiliation has to compete with these super power, super stations that are coming in over the cable. And then with a pay cable channel alternative, now we've got two-way cable capacity so that you can send a message back to the the cable system. And now we add to that the home computer usage. And so any time somebody -- or th- then and one of the television companies, is television set manufacturers put out a set where you can use the speaker as a telephone and then the telephone interrupts during the middle of your television program and you conduct your your phone conversation and then the television comes back on. Well, the more and more alternative uses to which television screens are being put, the less and less people are using them to watch conventional, commercial television fare.

Studs Terkel So the big question is, who controls the new technology?

Nicholas Johnson Well, that's always the question, isn't it? And unfortunately it ends up that, in general, the same folks who control the old technology control the new-.

Studs Terkel You see, the question is, is there are more ways of getting information or entertainment than before. Unprecedented, the number of ways-.

Nicholas Johnson I think-.

Studs Terkel How- count the way- But the question: what is it we'll get? Again, we come to substance, don't we? And control.

Nicholas Johnson Well, but, you see, one of the advantages of the of the splintering of through the new technology, of fragmenting of the audience, you can have very specialized services. A doctor may be watching a television screen which is focused on a patient five thousand miles away. And he's doing a diagnosis of that patient, and he's listening to the heartbeat, and he's looking at the patient, and he says [unintelligible], and so, he's watching television. But that's not what you and I have thought of as a television program. We may be receiving instruction of some kind, a course we're taking for college credit coming into our home. Increasingly, it's going to be less and less necessary to leave the home. We will want to leave the home because it's fun to leave the home, because it's stimulating, because we want to have human contact, but we don't have to leave the home in order to work. We don't have to leave the home in order to to do our business. We can do our banking from the home, we can do our shopping from the home, we can do our work from the-. Most of the workforce that's in, I mean, at at this point in our society we've passed from a[sic] agricultural society to an industrial society to a post-industrial service society, and now into an information society, where a half of our gross national product now, Studs, involves the processing of information. Now, the people who are involved in that activity, that's a half of our workforce, those folks you you don't have to-.

Studs Terkel Half of our workforce-.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah. You don't have to-.

Studs Terkel Is involved in information of one sort or

Nicholas Johnson another. Yeah. That's right. The creation, the processing, the distribution of information. That's what we do now as people, as an economy, is we process information in one way or another. Now, you don't have to get up in the morning and and as an executive, put on a 300 dollar suit and get into a 12,000 dollar car and drive on a 15 million dollar highway to a 7 million dollar building and ride up a 50,000 dollar elevator to go to your office to return phone calls and stand around and watch a computer. I mean, you don't have to go to the office to do that. You ca- and more and more businessmen are getting away from that conventional office setting. There's one fellow down in Florida who sits out on a houseboat and runs a multi-million dollar operation. Another fellow down in Texas runs a billion dollar enterprise. He has no staff around him at all, he's all off by himself somewhere. One afternoon, [cough] it's five o'clock, and that day I had I'd taken and cleaned up all my correspondence, I'd done two radio interviews, I'd participated in in five conferences that I was working on simultaneously, I'd returned my phone calls. I'd never left bed. I did it all with a computer terminal and and a telephone, right there. And I suddenly realized, you know, now we have to program into our lives e- exercise and social activity, because it's possible to exist without it at all. You'd, I mean you can literally just stay in bed continuously-.

Studs Terkel You know, this is almost -- it's like a circle, a complete circle, it was the home economy, agricultural society-.

Nicholas Johnson Precisely.

Studs Terkel You know, the industrial revolution. The the home, there was a home economy, now there's a home economy, a technologized home economy.

Nicholas Johnson That's right. More and more people I know -- I mean you know more about this, you go out and talk to everybody in the country. But my impression is, in my circle of folks who I know, that more and more people are working out of their homes. People who are teachers or writers or or small business operators, bookkeepers, whatever.

Studs Terkel But this comes back again, this aspect is obviously fascinating and an unprecedented and revolutionary, we come back in the matter of communication. You know, you know, Wright Morris, the Nebraskan novelist, the writer, said we live in a world of communications, plural, but how much communication do we have? So, we come back to that again, don't we?

Nicholas Johnson Yeah.

Studs Terkel The connection with that other person.

Nicholas Johnson Well, that was my my father's field. I don't know, you and I have never really talked about that. His name was Wendell Johnson, and he wrote a book called "People in Quandaries", which is about a subject called general semantics, which is the study of the human behavior side of language. How does how does the, as he said, the the human race, the only animal species that's able to talk itself into difficulties that wouldn't otherwise exist. You know, what is what is our language structure, due to the way in which we behave, the way in which we perceive, the way in which we think? You know, you you can can affect a physical perception of things through language structure. And and how much real communication is going on? Well, that's a that's a subject matter of general semantics.

Studs Terkel Wendell Johnson, why does that ring a bell? Doesn't it. And the world of semantics.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah. Well, and he worked in speech pathology, stuttering, so forth, at the University of Iowa for many years.

Studs Terkel We come back to the subject that you were talking about. Information, communication, who controls what. Intelligence that is there, of that group out there called 'the public,' or people individually. En masse, individually and en masse as a society, we come to them again, and the challenges-.

Nicholas Johnson Well, let's give some very homey examples of control of information process. Bring it right to home, and then you see how it works elsewhere. If, at the old dinner table, some decades ago, it was the child is not spoken unless spoken to, you know, children should be seen and not heard. And the and the father and mother controlled the conversational pattern at that dinner table. Well they, in effect, thereby controlled that process. A teacher at the head of the class who calls upon the students when the teacher wants to call upon the students, by controlling the communications process in that classroom is controlling that classroom. Now let's move to the political convention. It used to be, in years gone by, the person who controlled had the power. Sam Rayburn, controlling the Democratic National Convention as chairman, controlled because he determined who got to speak, and when, and to some degree, what they talked about and in what order and so forth. And all that power rested with the chairman. Because he controlled the communications process, therefore, he controlled that little subset of that environment, that process called a convention. Now, interestingly, as a little sidebar at this point, note what happens when television moves in and onto the floor. And the much more significant communications process is not what's going on inside that hall, but what's going on inside the nation's living rooms. And suddenly the reporter on the floor has far more power than the chairman of the meeting. And indeed, the floor reporter can decide to do an interview on the spot, and you don't even see the chairman of the meeting or whoever is speaking to the convention. They're just cut off entire- it's like they never existed. And suddenly you watch this interview. So that the the director, the producer of the television program now has the power, has seized the power, because they control who gets to have opinions, who gets to talk, and in what order, and what they get to say, and for how long, and with what resources can they develop what it is they want to say. Now, you expand that to a nation. And, as a man named Jerry Mander in a book called "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television," argued-.

Studs Terkel "Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television."

Nicholas Johnson The elimination of of television. He said, you know, when you describe the television as a communications process, what do you have? He said, well, it's one way. There's no opportunity to -- I once wrote a book called "How to Talk Back to Your Television Set." There there is no way to talk back to your television set. There's a there's a microphone jack on your telephone there's a microphone, on your CB radio there's a microphone, on your tape recorder there's a microphone jack. There's no microphone jack on a television set. It's just one way. And it comes from a handful of folks and the network executives and people who control pow- and it goes out to the masses. And he said, now, what have you described when you describe a communications system, a society, in which communication goes from a handful to the masses and there's no opportunity for speaking back? Well, that's totalitarianism. That is, inherent in the television technology, is a totalitarian state.

Studs Terkel Jerry Mander's point, he's a West Coast ad guy who has been through it all. His point, [I've heard?], is that TV, the very nature of it, is beyond salvation. He's -- the very nature of television is totalitarian, because there is no way -- he says, you are cha- you're saying, it's here, we must face up to the technologies here. How can the public have its say? How can those who would not be heard from, be heard from? Before, I asked you about, now the committees, the groups of which you're part, you know, people can get in touch with them.

Nicholas Johnson Oh, right. We were going to give them that address. We forgot to do that.

Studs Terkel Yeah, let's do that right now.

Nicholas Johnson All right, well, by now they've got their pencil and paper. The NCCL, that's the easy way, rather than writing out National Citizens Communications Lobby.

Studs Terkel NC- NCCL.

Nicholas Johnson NCCL. And the box number in Washington, the box number is 19101. Nineteen 101. And the zip code in Washington is 20036, 20036. So, that's NCCL, box 19101, in Washington, D.C. 20036.

Studs Terkel Now, what does that group do?

Nicholas Johnson And -- Well, as I say, this is an all-volunteer group. Nobody's getting a salary out of it, even. And we we put together materials and try to describe the issues and and get information to people and we tend to activate it more when there are things that are hot, that are going on, where we can have an impact. We worked in creating a group called the Coa- Coalition for Public Rights in Broadcasting, a large group of churches and unions and many organizations throughout America. When the Van Deerlin bill, which would have by act of Congress taken away virtually all the public rights in broadcasting, looked like it had a very good chance of passage, and we went to work on that, alerted our members, worked with the coalition and ultimately that bill did not pass. Now, we don't know yet at this point what the Reagan administration is going to be doing, but we can anticipate it's not going to involve a lot of obligations on the part of broadcasters to better serve the public.

Studs Terkel But NCCL, joining that, right, and you get newsletters and information, what's going on.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah you get informa- when things are active. As I say, we don't have a paid staff, and so we don't have somebody in Washington grinding out mailings that come to you once a week. But-.

Studs Terkel Community groups can work too, perhaps.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah.

Studs Terkel Well, I must ask you this. There's so many avenues we haven't gone in, we haven't entered. But the nature of TV again, and ratings. To me, the rating system is a plague on our society. The very nature of ratings themselves. Aside from knocking programs off the air that have 20 million listeners, and so this pluralism was knocked out of the box. Elections as to who's ahead when, if there were no ratings, it's possible people might have been discussing issues. You know, who was ahead, aside from what it does to the candidates, who are say Bush [unintelligible]-.

Nicholas Johnson Oh, you mean the impact of ratings on the political process in this country?

Studs Terkel Political as well on everything, on on listeners. I'm talking about ratings of TV programs as well, those knocked off the air because they're a point less than what they should be.

Nicholas Johnson Mmmhmm, mmmhmm.

Studs Terkel And twenty million people are disfranchised, intellectually, one at a time.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah, you you wonder if some of the great works of literature over the past couple of hundred years, if those had had to be issued chapter at a time and we see how many people are reading that chapter this week, and based on that we decide whether the author gets to finish the book, I wonder how many of those ever would have found their way to the the publisher? It's an incredible system, you're absolutely right. And I -- well, earlier I was mentioning that "60 Minutes" example. I mean, even under the ratings, you see, one of the consequences of it, even even if you start off by saying the only things that ever ought to be allowed on the air are those things which 50 million Americans are going to watch, even if you start off with that, the question is, shouldn't you give somebody a little time to to build up that audience of 50 million?

Studs Terkel That's one asp- the other is, suppose they did and suppose it isn't number one [unintelligible]. Forty million people who are going to listen to it, 20 million, are knocked out of the box.

Nicholas Johnson Sure.

Studs Terkel Incredible.

Nicholas Johnson Yeah. Well, you know, and what's even worse about it, I mean again, it's like, you know, is the -- that they're not even interested in numbers, Studs. What they're interested in is saleable numbers. And they can sell women between the ages of 18 and 49. They can se- because that's the process, you know. They're selling the audience to the advertiser. The advertiser is buying the audience, that's the commercial transaction that's going on. The person who's watching's not paying any money while they watch. They can sell women between 18 and 49 for a higher price, just like cattle in a stockyard. They can sell women between 18 and 49 for a higher price than they can get for women who are over 49 and men who are over 49. So as a result, you can take a program like "Lawrence Welk," say, which was not necessarily a favorite of mine, but a lot of people liked it, and you can cancel that program, not because it has low ratings, but because it has low ratings of young people.

Studs Terkel Mmm.

Nicholas Johnson And you take it off the air and then, as you know, it went into syndication. It was on more stations than it was when it was on the network. It had tremendous large audiences, but they -- so, it's not even that they're just looking at numbers.

Studs Terkel So, where where does that leave us now? Nicholas Johnson, my guest for this past hour. His thoughts on radio, television, and you, the audience. And a thought before we say goodbye for now? Remind the audience again of writing to the NCCL, National- National Citizens Committee-.

Nicholas Johnson Communications Lobby.

Studs Terkel Lobby. Box 19101. Washington, D.C. 20036. A thought in passing.

Nicholas Johnson Well, I think that the conclusion from all this, Studs, is that, communicates -- it's like somebody once said, we're not very conscious of communication any more than a fish would be conscious of the waters of the sea. We're surrounded with it, and yet it is, therefore, the most important thing in our lives. And it's important that we think about it, particularly as we come into a new political administration, that we review what it was the founding fathers had in mind and think about the role of mass communications in our age today, and the rules we have to play by in order to make sure that the democracy functions. That's kind of the long and the short of it.

Studs Terkel Nicholas Johnson. Former Commissioner of Federal Communications, former member of the FCC, and now out there, still challenging. Thank you very much indeed.

Nicholas Johnson Thank you, Studs.