NAB - The National Association of Beggars?

Posted by Mitchell - January 2, 2024 (entry 763)

I just missed commenting on the centennial of the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) -- the main lobby of commercial radio and television broadcasters in the United States. The group was founded in 1923 and this message is being published in early 2024 (Happy New Year!).

I have often referred to the group as the National Association of Bastards, and for good reason. The NAB's history is sordid; Bob McChesney accurately refers to the NAB as "a group that has a special place in hell". And there's now reason, especially in the wake of a pandemic and as I hinted in a previous edition of this newsletter, to refer to the NAB as the National Association of Beggars. The explanation for that is below.

The NAB was founded in Chicago, at the Drake Hotel downtown. It was originally named the National Association of Radio Broadcasters, and I consider it a clever and devious move on the part of the NAB to name itself without highlighting its commercial nature in its name. This could mean that the the NAB could claim that they were the rightful managers of the radio spectrum, as opposed to non-commercial interests like educators, labor unions, civil liberties advocates, and certain religious groups. The NAB, along with their allies in government and among commercial radio manufacturers and engineers, were able to orchestrate in 1927 a takeover of the radio spectrum from the non-profits and tinkerers who pioneered the development of radio. The result of this power grab: the commercial broadcasters held the strongest signals and the choicest times.

Over the next seven years, a rough coalition of the displaced advocates fought back, and there were a number of Chicago connections to these displaced broadcasters. The National Coalition for Education on Radio, a coalition of educational broadcasters and their allied educational organizations, was founded in Chicago. As was WCFL, a Chicago radio station owned and run by the Chicago Federation of Labor, as the station's call sign would suggest. (For a fuller exposition of this phase of history, I recommend the excellent book by Bob McChesney, Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935.)

This era in history, which doesn't have a name as far as I know but which I will hereby dub The Coup Years, is often thought to be a time where the commercialization of radio was a fait accomplit, just destined to happen. On the contrary, the NAB and their allies at CBS and NBC fought like hell and took seriously their philosophical opponents. Many at the time were skeptical that commercialization of radio could provide a viable funding source. And there were points in the struggle where where the opponents could have made a real toehold -- with an attempt in 1932 to create a labor-controlled "clear channel", and a 1934 bill which would have allotted a quarter of all radio stations for nonprofit use and which even Variety estimated had a 50-50 chance of passage.

But the NAB and their allies fought off these attempts and in 1934 were able to enshrine in law the commercial framework of American broadcasting. That commercial bias was only enhanced with the subsequent emergence of television, which saw nary any opposition and fell under the same framework. The primacy of the commercial broadcasters' status was chipped away in the coming decades -- with attempts by regulators themselves to force the NAB and its allies to improve their content with efforts like the FCC Blue Book, nonprofit radio efforts like Pacifica and low-power radio, the (eventual) emergence of (somewhat) public broadcasting services like PBS and NPR, the emergence and rise of cable and satellite television, and the internet. But over all this time, despite all the changes, the commercial framework remained sacrosanct.

Plus, the NAB during all this time was as feared a lobby as any in American government and for good reason: politicians needed to use the media for their re-election campaigns, with more and more of a reliance on the media for outreach to voters. Over time it grew to the point where the strong majority of money raised by politicians goes towards the purchase of political advertisements on broadcast media. What's more, the NAB held a power unique among political lobbies -- the ability to control awareness of their own existence.

I think that fear has now broken to an extent, and I count four factors as responsible: neoliberalism, continued media activism, the rise and commercialization of the internet, and the COVID-19 pandemic. To elaborate:

(1) Neoliberalism, which can be defined as the primacy of markets and private corporations in our economy. As neoliberalism gained primacy in force from 1980 on, more and more media (including broadcast) were increasingly held in concentrated ownership arrangements. News and journalism, which were critical for the broadcast media to gain the victory they got in the Coup Years, got reduced and cut and scaled down over the decades.

(2) Continued media activism, particularly in the 21st century and which I've been chronicling to some extent in this newsletter in the past year, showed that the NAB was not invincible. That resulted in tangible policy victories like the media ownership uprising of 2003 and the expansion of community radio (both low-power and high-power).

(3) The internet, particularly commercial social media with computer-powered and hyper-targeted advertising at scale, beat the broadcasters at their own game. They could provide audiences to advertisers more cheaply and with greater precision, and thus the internet grew as a commercial force and the broadcasters who couldn't do that as well were thrown overboard, their future in question, whose coup de grace was...

(4) The COVID-19 Pandemic. With the global economy at a standstill, broadcast advertising revenue dropped. Ironically, the source of their greatest strength -- accumulated cash from a business -- became their greatest weakness since as businesses they were forbidden by law to ask for donations.

The NAB and commercial broadcasting, which a century earlier had achieved total dominance, now was fighting for its very existence. They were reduced to asking for the government to help -- calling in effect for a bailout. But with little support in the community due to decades of cutbacks and poor investment in local communities and memories fresh from policy fights over the past two decades, there was little overt support. As one measure: the main bailout bill at this writing remains in limbo, and given poor progress on federal legislation anytime soon, the likelihood of passage in the short term appears dim.

They who were without mercy now pled for it; I thought they were made of sterner stuff. The National Association of Beggars, indeed.

The state of the NAB appears to have only gotten worse. The NAB lobbying spend has shrunk over recent years, though there was a brief upturn in 2022. The number of lobbyists on the NAB's retainer has also shrunk. The NAB, to counter these trends, has...a blog, complete with broken links. (Note to the NAB: You're linking to some old broken ASP code, but you're using Wordpress -- Wordpress!? -- which runs on PHP. You might want to fix that. It's embarrassing.)

The apparent present weakness and possible future demise of the NAB doesn't mean that all our problems are solved. You could say that the NAB have fallen victim to the very institutions that propped them up over the past century -- those related to neoliberalism, which themselves are leading us to manifold disasters here and worldwide. But there are opportunities to address this as well. Neoliberalism is facing its own crisis of legitimacy, and I have made building a response to this a focus of my own activist work in recent years. It behooves us all to continue and deepen our work on this score, to build networks of solidarity in contrast to the NAB's networks of profit.

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