Search This Blog

Sunday, June 5, 2011

The First Lady of the FCC

The first television debut was at the world's fair in New York in 1939. Radio was wildly popular as a new medium and vital to the war effort in WWI.
After WW2, television was dawning as a new form of broadcast medium.
In New York, a young lawyer named Frieda Hennock worked many cases for those too poor to hire an attorney.

During the 40's, Hennock became politically active and campaigned for FDR and Harry Truman. Truman repaid her efforts by giving her a job with Federal Communications Commission. It was surprising to many when Congress voted her into the FCC. She was a woman first hand, and a democrat on the other; but she had heart and skill in the political arena.

As the fifties neared, television became ridiculously popular, exploding onto the scene with numerous people demanding air time. The demand was so high that a freeze was put on applications for stations until the FCC could work out rules and regulations for TV broadcasts.

Frieda became a warrior for educational television. She saw the big broadcasters muscling each other out of the way for more channels. Television meant big money, and she knew if she didn't act; educational television would never have a chance.
She campaigned across the country to adovocate for public broadcasting. She warned educators they were "sleeping at the switch" where this new media was involved. Her efforts resulted in an agreement of 500 channels to be reserved for educational television.

Detractors felt her public broadcasting efforts would lessen their paychecks with fewer channels avaliable for for profit broadcasting. Her enemies were powerful: Paramount theaters, ABC and AT&T among them.
Rumors and gossip about Frieda began to fly. There was speculation about her relationship with a co-worker and her single status. It was the fifties and a proper lady was expected to be a wife and mother. She refused to succumb to nasty rumors and continued to fight for public television. The freeze was lifted in 1952 and 12% of the channels would be reserved for noncommercial broadcasting. She protested stating the percent should be higher and continued to campaign for her cause, greater educational access to television.

She eventually got married, in her own time, at the age of 50. She was only married four years before her death in 1960.

In specualation, I have to wonder if Frieda Hennock's interest in television stemmed from her childhood. She was born a Polish Jew in 1927. she moved to America when she was six and graduated law school in 1924 (it only took 2 years back then)
Did she hear broadcasts from Europe during the war? Did she understand the Nazi use of media to spread propoganda and could this have inspired her to use education in media to combat this type of misuse in the future?

It's all assumption on my part, but I do know she took a pay cut to become the first lady of the FCC. Despite rumors, I could see no sinister motive in her interest in public television. In a culture obsessed with looks, it is great to see a woman who used her brain and heart to fight for a good cause. She's an inspiration.


Nancy Kelley said...

I'm assuming she graduated law school in 1942, not 1924.

Hennock sounds like a fascinating person. Your conjecture regarding her interest in public broadcasting is sound; it makes sense that she would have a stronger interest in putting television in the hands of the people, rather than keeping it all under the control of the fat cats who are too easily manipulated.

Jen Childers said...

I never heard of her before my broadcasting class. I think she is awesome.
When women make a list of impressive women Margaret Sanger always makes the list (don't get me started) but Hennock really deserves alot more credit than she gets for being a pioneer.

catslady said...

Always wonderful to hear about women who have achieved so much - something I think that is lacking in textbooks!