Professor Dennis Lebec
Department of Journalism and Mass Communications
Marshall University
Huntington, West Virginia
A second-place-winning paper presented at the National Broadcasting Society Convention paper competition, New Jersey Meadowlands, March 1999

The Federal Communications Commission has regulated American broadcasting for more than sixty years. In the history of the FCC, seldom has there been a Commissioner like Nicholas Johnson. Serving during the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s, Johnson was a visible and often controversial figure, who fought for reform by battling the status quo in the broadcasting industry.

Appointed as an FCC Commissioner at age 33, Nicholas Johnson often dissented with the rulings of his colleagues in a blistering manner. His drive and idealism made him popular with the younger generation that was challenging established power at all levels. He was even featured on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine.

From his stint at the FCC to his current post as Visiting Professor of Law at the University of Iowa, Nicholas Johnson has been an intriguing voice in American broadcasting.

The late 1960s and early 1970s were a time of enormous social change in the United States. That change was reflected in the broadcast media of the day. And even the Federal Communications Commission, more than thirty years old at the time, could not avoid the tide of social change. The FCC manifested change in the form of one of its Commissioners, Nicholas Johnson.

In June 1966, President Lyndon Johnson appointed Nicholas Johnson to the Federal Communications Commission.1 A native Iowan, Nicholas Johnson previously had clerked for Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black and also had worked for a Washington D.C. law firm. At age 33, he was appointed to the FCC while an assistant professor of law at the University of California at Berkeley. Johnson knew Bill Moyers, who in 1966 was press secretary to the President of the United States.2 Most likely, the President had no idea what controversy he was unleashing.

Nicholas Johnson began his FCC tenure inspired by former FCC Chairman Newton Minow.3 In 1961 during President John Kennedy's administration, Minow made his famous "vast wasteland" speech, decrying the quality of American television. Johnson picked up where Minow left off, and greatly accelerated the criticism. He was vocal and visible, and took many anti-industry stances in broadcasting. In the late 1960s, Johnson spoke to public interest groups and wrote for upper-brow magazines.4 He urged television viewers to organize into consumer groups. Early in his FCC post, Johnson said of the Commission that it
"preserves the status quo and the profitable stability of the industries involved.”5 Such remarks by Nicholas Johnson upset President Lyndon Johnson, who quietly wanted him to leave the FCC and even offered him another job.6

Typical of Nicholas Johnson's action at the FCC was an incident in 1969. In October of that year, the FCC granted a short-term renewal to radio station WIFE in Indianapolis. WIFE was owned by Don Burden, who owned four other stations at the time. It had been determined that WIFE was guilty of "hypoing" and had also run a fraudulent contest in which no entries were received from the public, but winners were created by station personnel.7 In addition, there was evidence of fraudulent billing. Nevertheless, the FCC granted a one-year renewal. Nicholas Johnson dissented with his colleagues at the FCC, calling the decision "utterly fantastic" and remarking, "how many chances must we give licensees for fraud and misconduct?"8 Several years later, Johnson said of the practice of short-term renewals:

Johnson continued his verbal crusade against the status quo by commenting: Regarding children's programming, Johnson had this to say,

"Saturday morning cartoons may not incite our nation's children to violence and rioting in the street, but they may put the best parts of their minds to sleep. Which is worse?”11

Nicholas Johnson served only one term as an FCC Commissioner, ending his stint in 1973. However, it is apparent that he left a legacy in a short time. Midway through his time at the FCC, he wrote a book entitled How to Talk Back to Your Television Set. Within this book, Johnson revealed the gist of his philosophy while serving on the FCC. He regarded the broadcasting establishment as the single most economically and politically powerful industry in the history of the United States.12 In addition, he saw television as a bearer of tremendous responsibility, noting that broadcasting turned out differently than the early regulators had envisioned. Johnson mentioned McGeorge Bundy, former adviser to President Kennedy, and an interesting perception: "I am sorry that the men who run commercial broadcasting have come to think of it as an 'industry' when it is necessarily so much more."13

Quoting economist John Kenneth Galbraith, Johnson notes in his book, "The industrial system is profoundly dependent upon commercial television and could not exist in its present form without it . . . the prime instruments for the management of consumer demand.”14

Continuing on the theme of television's responsibility, Johnson cited Brooklyn College sociologist Clara Appell, who found that 60% of American families changed sleep patterns because of television; 55% changed eating schedules; and 78% used television as a babysitter.   And Johnson agreed that children from lower economic classes often have no competing or contradictory information about society, and therefore are more apt to believe television.

Even though his book was written nearly thirty years ago, Johnson's perceptions seem relevant today. He wrote of concern of letting broadcast properties fall into a few hands or assume monopoly proportions. Many critics today cite the radio industry and its consolidation, especially since the passage of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Johnson reminded us that in the 1920s, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover warned that broadcasting could "come under the arbitrary power of any person or group of persons.”16 Also, in 1956 Senator Warren Magnuson warned that the FCC "should be on guard against the intrusion of big business and absentee ownership.”17

Interestingly, Johnson had ideas then that may have already come to fruition. He talked of conglomerates that regard communications acquisitions as prestigious, profitable, and a necessary complement to operations and projected exploitation of technological change. Many today see this happening in an age of continual mergers between communications companies. In addition, Johnson said, "I fear that we have already reached the point in this country where the media, our greatest check on other accumulations of power, may themselves be beyond the reach of any other institution.”18 During the past year, much criticism has been directed at broadcast media regarding constant coverage of the scandal that led to the impeachment of the President of the United States. Johnson's observations of some three decades ago now seem quite prophetic.

Another area that Johnson was concerned about during his time at the FCC was crime coverage by the media. He pointed out that mostly we hear about "the crimes that are the easiest for the poor and the disadvantaged to commit."19 The question was raised as to how often we hear of white collar crime in the media. For example, in the late 1980s, the savings and loan scandal surfaced in the media. This scandal involved scores of elderly people losing money from their pensions. The losses literally added up into the billions of dollars. Upon reflection, however, it doesn't seem that the amount of coverage devoted by the media to this issue was even close to being adequate. Some have since said that the savings and loan story was perhaps the most underreported one of the decade, considering the money involved and the number of people affected.

Today the word "convergence” is the hot topic in communications. In 1970, Nicholas Johnson spent some time talking about the communications system as a whole. He concluded that one must consider communications problems in the context of a total communications system. This insight sounds curiously like today's convergence talk. Johnson mentioned that when you are talking about one communications problem, you are talking about the whole problem. He compared it to the transportation industry of the time. Any malfunction in one area affects the entire industry.

Also, Johnson made a prediction of sorts nearly three decades ago. At that time, he said the most significant trend was toward "instantaneous, ubiquitous, no-cost access to all information.”20 He surmised that this trend was likely to continue for thirty years. Today, we are able to realize his vision of communications included the Internet.

Today's headlines are being debated by many as to whether the impeachment of a President resulted from private behavior. Nicholas Johnson addressed this issue in his book. He was somewhat concerned about invasion of privacy, especially with technological development. He realized then that power could be measured by access to information and people. If access to information is diffused, so is power, according to Johnson.21 He also made reference to the issue of "cultural imperialism" before it became a buzzword in the 1970s. The same music, television shows, and movies become seen and heard around the world. Johnson thought when this happens, every country loses a little of its character and in a sense, is culturally invaded.22

Most of the time in his book, Johnson saw the emerging communications trends with amazing clarity. But he miscalculated also. He was a backer of cable television, deciding it "could be a vigorous check on the telephone monopolies.”23 Cable's narrowcasting appeal was evident to Johnson, but he thought alternative technologies could wipe out cable by 1980. 24 He probably had DBS in mind, but maybe he just misjudged the length of time it would take to become successful.

Nicholas Johnson was perceived as having an anti-business attitude while serving on the FCC. However, he had an explanation for those in the business community. In his view, government regulation of business sought to make free enterprise work better, not to stifle it. As an example, he referred to antitrust laws encouraging competition and therefore establishing ground rules for the perpetuation of business.25

Johnson looked at public broadcasting as a professional training ground for commercial broadcasting. He likened it to a graduate school, or a farm club for a sports team. He favored adequate funding of public broadcasting, and saw it as an entity that could benefit everyone. Johnson also was a big backer of citizen participation, especially in license renewal proceedings. To him, this was a way of fighting city hall. He even proposed to set up a Citizens Commission on Broadcasting, with eleven specific functions.26

Regarding public service in broadcasting, Johnson said the industry was at a disadvantage because of the total absence of programming standards from the FCC. He hinted that the Commission could require public service specifically, even going as far as not allowing any commercials to air in news programs.27 Also, Johnson was critical of broadcast staffs and management in the United States because they had no specific professional standards to meet, like lawyers, teachers and others. He quoted Harry Skornia from the University of Southern Illinois: "News, like medicine or education, is too important to be entrusted to people without proper qualifications.”28

Continuing in his pro-consumer stance, Johnson raised the issue of legal liability for broadcast programmers, especially when children were involved. He favored endowments by corporations to noncommercial programmers for things such as educational, scientific, or cultural concerns. He lambasted corporate arrogance, saying it "posted a high wood fence around the television business with 'Keep Out' written on one side and 'First Amendment' on the other.”29 One only has to think of the struggle between the television networks and Attorney General Janet Reno several years ago over the issue of violence to put Johnson's thoughts into perspective. A quarter century before Reno's threats against the networks, Nicholas Johnson was quoting Arthur Schlesinger Jr.: "No rational person wants to reestablish a reign of censorship or mobilize new Legions of Decency . . .. Yet society retains a certain right of self-defense.”30

Johnson concluded his book by stating that the FCC is not effective. He believed the Commission was captured by the industry it was established to regulate. Johnson urged citizens to get involved, such as John Banzhaf, a New York lawyer who complained about cigarette commercials on WCBS in the late 1960s. Basing his complaint on the "fairness" issue, Banzhaf eventually was able to force the airing of millions of dollars worth of free antismoking ads.31 It was determined that his action led to a decline in usage of cigarettes, and ultimately cigarette advertising was banned in broadcasting by 1971.

According to Nicholas Johnson, broadcasters are like elected officials in that they should serve the public. He cited the United Church of Christ case in 1966 as a turning point for citizens. WLBT-TV in Jackson, Mississippi had been accused of promoting segregation, and black citizens in the community filed a petition to deny license renewal. Nevertheless, the FCC approved license renewal. But the D.C. Court of Appeals ordered the FCC to accept new applications for the license. The ruling included harsh language by Judge Warren Burger, who a short time later would become Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court.

Johnson also had some thoughts on the quality of broadcast programming. The best defense against bad programs, according to him, is to turn off your set or change the station. This First Amendment stance was reinforced during his final year on the FCC. In 1973, Johnson declined to participate on hearings by the FCC into the so-called "topless radio" format, a trend of sexually explicit discussion that was novel at the time.32 The idea of consumer sovereignty was crucial to Johnson.

He believed that letters to the broadcast networks and advertisers could indeed influence decisions. Johnson claimed that if one-tenth of 1% of the audience of the average network series show were to request its continuation, then it probably would not be canceled. He favored participatory democracy and saw the legal process as the easiest route to results. Some may see Johnson as a revolutionary figure on the FCC, but he considered himself a reformer.33 As has been said, who said democracy was going to be easy?

At the age of 40, Nicholas Johnson left his position as FCC Commissioner after serving one term. President Richard Nixon replaced Johnson with James Quello, who gained a reputation as being friendly to broadcasting interests. Quello remained on the FCC well into the 1990s. Johnson had a brief political career, running for the U.S. Congress in his native Iowa, but losing the primary election. His post-FCC career included becoming the chair of the National Citizens Committee for Broadcasting.

In 1995, Nicholas Johnson was teaching at the University of Iowa College of Law. At that time he gave a print interview to Multinational Monitor. It is interesting to hear his views on broadcasting more than twenty years after leaving his term on the FCC. He seemed somewhat alarmed that there is little objection for the continuing trend of just a few firms owning more and more in the media. He also noted that "hype has an enormous amount to do with bottom line."34 Specifically, he cited the millions of dollars used for movie promotion and how this can overpower word of mouth promotion.

 Johnson related that advertising can shape and manipulate and encourage consumer buying patterns.

Regarding the media environment, Johnson laments the fact that most people get their information from television, and that fewer young people are reading newspapers. Indeed, he applauds that there are many more outlets available today, but he believes few people are using it the way they should. And he believes we tend to have monopolies in the newspaper business.

Johnson favors telephone companies getting into the delivery of video, thereby competing with cable. However, he does not like the telcos owning programming content. Johnson has an interesting insight into the two newest television networks, Paramount and Warner Brothers. His belief is they started networks so that they could control content and carrying capacity.35

Radio is an industry that troubles Johnson today. He sees little diversity, noting that:

The loss of localism also bothers Johnson. His comment on broadcasting power falling into fewer and fewer hands is "woe be to those who would dare disagree with them.”37

In the history of the Federal Communications Commission, it is probably safe to say there has never been a Commissioner like Nicholas Johnson. He was opinionated -- he held television partly responsible for the great majority of American people not performing at more than 5% of their capacity (to perceive, to produce, to understand, to create, to relate to others, to experience joy).38 He was a champion of the common person -- he echoed a Supreme Court decision that said nothing is more important in a free society than ''the widest possible dissemination of information from diverse and antagonistic sources.”39 He battled the status quo -- Johnson said many broadcasters are fighting not for free speech, but for profitable speech. 40

Johnson realized the power of broadcast media. He saw all television as being educational. But he thought it does not always teach the truth. Thirty years ago he declared that the responsibility of the media was never greater. He was a visionary who saw satellites relaying communications across oceans; computers becoming increasingly significant; and the availability of home video devices. He once commented that the FCC has changed little since 1934, but the broadcasting industry certainly had. In his mind, the challenge is to make technical advance serve human needs, to define those ends, and to mold those techniques accordingly.

Nicholas Johnson served well during his time at the FCC. He tried to live up to the tradition of broadcasting in the United States being in the public interest, convenience, and necessity. His legacy will endure, and the industry he oversaw may not have liked him, but it would be much better with others who acted like him.


1 James L. Baughman, Television's Guardians: The FCC and the Politics of Programming 1958-1967 (Knoxville: The  University of Tennessee Press, 1985) 151.

 2 Barry Cole and Mal Oettinger, Reluctant Regulators: The FCC and the Broadcast Audience (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley,  1978) 18.

[Nicholas Johnson note: Through no fault of Professor Lebec, who has properly relied on his professionally done scholarly research, the historic “facts” are not quite correct. Although technically on leave from the University of California, Berkeley, law school (“Boalt Hall”) I was, in fact, serving as Maritime Administrator (1964-1966) at the time President Johnson appointed me to the F.C.C. At the time of the Maritime Administration appointment contemporary newspaper accounts not only reported a friendship with Bill Moyers, they actually asserted we’d been roommates at the University of Texas. Although we both attended UT at about the same time, the truth was that we never met at that time and did not know of each other. The day I was to meet Moyers for the first time, at his invitation at the White House, he was too busy to see me. It ended up being the day I met President Johnson for the first time, in the oval office, and experienced his persuasion regarding the Maritime appointment, which I resisted. I subsequently heard that Moyers was the only one on the White House staff to oppose my appointment – on grounds I was too young (29) for such responsibilities. (So much for the influence resulting from the  “friendship” of my “former roommate.”) In later years, Bill Moyers and I did meet and developed what I believe to be a mutual respect – not only for his outstanding work in government, but a respect that has heightened over the years as I have observed his career since leaving government.]

 3 Baughman 151.

 4 Baughman 151.

 5 Baughman 151.

 6 Baughman 152. [Nicholas Johnson note: Again, through no fault of Professor Lebec, the details offered him by others may leave a misleading impression. Although I had numerous contacts with President Johnson before the F.C.C. appointment, and some thereafter, in my experience he was meticulously respectful of the independence of this “independent regulatory commission” (not subject to executive branch control, like a cabinet-level agency). In fact, I recall no communications from him whatsoever during my seven-year term – least of all any having to do with another job. This was, incidentally, in stark contrast to President Nixon, who invited all the commissioners for a conversation in the oval office, and, as the famous tapes reveal, was not above using the agency for political purposes.]

 7 William B. Ray, The Ups and Downs of Radio-TV Regulation  (Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1990) 54.

 8 Ray 54.

 9 Cole and Oettinger 189.

10 Cole and Oettinger 196.

11 Cole and Oettinger 255.

12 Nicholas Johnson, How to Talk Back to Your Television  Set (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1970) 6.

13 Johnson 19.

14 Johnson 26.

15 Johnson 27.

16 Johnson 48.

17 Johnson 49.

18 Johnson 71.

19 Johnson 88.

20 Johnson 132.

21 Johnson 140.

22 Johnson 143.

 23 Johnson 152.

 24 Johnson 163.

 25 Johnson 172.

 26 Johnson 193.

 27 Johnson 178.

 28 Johnson 184.

 29 Johnson 198.

 30 Johnson 198.

 31 Johnson 203.

 32 Ray 76.

 33 Johnson 205.

 34 “Media Monopoly," Multinational Monitor May 1995: 18.

 35 "Media Monopoly," 20.

 36 “Media Monopoly," 21.

 37 “Media Monopoly," 21. [Nicholas Johnson note: Much as I would like to take credit for this quote it is, in fact, the creation of someone much more prescient than I. The words were spoken on the floor of the U.S. Congress during the debates over what became the Radio Act of 1927 – later folded into the Communications Act of 1934 under which the F.C.C. still operates.]

 38 Johnson 8.

 39 Johnson 76.

 40 Johnson 82.