Adorno, Lazarsfeld and the Birth of Public Broadcasting with Josh Shepperd

Josh Shepperd joins Money on the Left to discuss the research and activism that hastened the rise of public media in the United States. Assistant Professor of media studies at the University of Colorado-Boulder, Shepperd shows how public-interest broadcasting platforms like NPR and PBS exist in the U.S. today in large part as a consequence of hard-fought battles by committed scholars and advocates throughout the inter- and post-war periods. In particular, Shepperd traces the untold aftermath of the Communications Act of 1934 which, in addition to creating the Federal Communications Commission, gave overwhelming legal support to private for-profit networks, while stripping radio licenses from public and educational broadcasters committed to serving the common good.

Deepening this narrative, Shepperd draws special attention to the Princeton Radio Research Project, spearheaded by noted sociologist and communication studies scholar Paul Lazarsfeld. Through the Project, Lazarsfeld developed influential quantitative research methods that fundamentally shaped the discipline of communication studies. Fascinatingly, however, Lazarsfeld hired then-immigré critical theorist Theodor Adorno to assist in the research program. As Shepperd tells it, Lazardfeld welcomed and even incorporated the critical theorist’s incisive contributions into the Project. Yet, Adorno ultimately repudiated the Project’s efforts to build a robust U.S. public radio system, unfortunately divorcing the developing tradition of Critical Theory from the domain of public media research and advocacy.

Fast-forwarding to the present, we ask Shepperd about his argument that contemporary humanities research ought to be politically constructive. We then conclude by exploring his important archival work for the Radio Preservation Task Force at the Library of Congress.

See here for Shepperd’s article, “Theodor Adorno, Paul Lazarsfeld, and the Public Interest Mandate of Early Communications Research, 1935–1941,” published by the journal Communication Theory in August 2021.

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Music by Nahneen Kula:


The following was transcribed by Richard Farrell and has been lightly edited for clarity.

William Saas: Josh Shepperd, welcome to Money on the Left.

Josh Shepperd: Thank you for having me.

William Saas: So to kick things off, we would like to invite you to tell our listeners and us a little bit about your personal and professional background, especially as it relates to your current work on public media.

Josh Shepperd: So I’ve got a background in continental philosophy. And I never was able to shake the ideas and the different kinds of idealisms that philosophers carry into their assessments of ethics, aesthetics, and other approaches. So when it comes to research in media studies, or film and media studies, I really tend to focus on how people frame the why of what they’re doing, not just the case example that’s at hand. I tend to listen more to the precursory investment of why the phenomenon is being studied. So when it comes to public media and studying a topic like that, there are two factors. The first is that public media is a mission statement based industry. It doesn’t follow from logics of accumulation like the private and commercial industries do. It pulls from certain concepts of social amelioration about equal access to education and cultural uplift, and sometimes that’s very paternalistic or patriarchal along the way. But there’s an ideal there that they’re trying to realize through media as opposed to creating a kind of mechanism that is both profitable and can predict what content audiences won’t respond to so that they can continue to produce content, which is the basics of commercial industries.

So the second factor is, with those investments in mind, I ended up at the University of Wisconsin for grad school, and they had the National Association of Educational Broadcasters archives there, or NAEB. And NAEB built NPR and PBS. But no one had ever actually written the history, going back to the onset of educational media, that traced where non-commercial logics came from in media production, and how it went through a series of concessions and shifts and evolving concepts to reach public media between the 1920s and late 1960s. So I really just sat in the archive for a very long time in grad school, and even went back after grad school, to look at the personal letters. And the beauty of that was that educators are bureaucrats. They saved every single piece of paper. So as a historian, I had kind of the opposite problem of what other historians have where they have to travel intrepidly around the world to find that one smoking gun document. I instead had literally millions and millions of pages to work through over about 10 years leading to the book that I have coming out, hopefully next year. So yeah, there’s just been a huge amount of trying to trace the concept of why we have a non-commercial system, why people really believed in it and gave their careers to it over multiple generations, and then what the actual machinations were of building that system from scratch without advertising income, or to do it from a nonprofit perspective.

Maxximilian Seijo: So jumping into what you’ve already sort of described as the stakes and scope of your project, you’ve communicated to us and argue that political economic research should be applied in ways that not only clarify, but change institutional practices, and that for you, humanities scholarship has important roles to play in such efforts. Could you situate this claim and perhaps flesh out this argument for our audience with maybe some reference to some of the broader scope and stakes of your project that you’ve already started wading into?

Josh Shepperd: So one thing I’d like to say about political economy in particular is that the tradition of political economy of media turns out to have been a policy strategy of non-commercial media in the 1930s and 40s. It’s a methodology that was developed to solve a problem. So I’ll sketch that out a little bit and then say a couple more words about it. So essentially what happened was, and this is part of the paper I recently published on Adorno, is that the FCC and the Office of Education began to work together for the first time after the Communications Act of 1934, which as Robert McChesney has very famously written–and other colleagues, Victor Pickard, Nelson Perlman, and other scholars have addressed it–it privatized the American system, but to such an extent that it was impossible to build any non-commercial, sustainable entities within the post-1934 Communications Act environment. Okay, so usually the history ends there.

What I have found in the archives is, from 1934 to roughly at least the late 1950s, the media reform movement, as it’s been called in our field, began to organize in a decentralized, parallel way by which multiple sectors were working for the same goal, but perhaps in the ways that they deemed suitable to their specific sector. In other words, philanthropic groups started to fund research around these topics. The government began to create clearinghouses and mandate different kinds of research projects in concert with the government. Our intrepid grassroots, local broadcasters began to develop best practices that would differentiate commercial broadcasting from educational broadcasting at the time, while at the same time taking the best practices cues from commercial broadcasting for what audiences seem to like. Then, out of that, they had to make a case, the non-commercial broadcasting side, for why there should be special frequency allocations for non-commercial media when it was not profitable, when it was not well supported by universities at that point, and when it was not even clear what the effects were of education on classroom audiences, on students in classrooms listening to the radio for education.

So what happens is they end up bringing over the director of talks of the BBC, a guy named Charles Siepmann, who becomes a kind of a mentor to a generation of NAEB broadcasters. And one of those people in the process was Dallas Smythe. With a guy named Dallas Smythe, they wrote something called the “Blue Book” for the FCC in the mid 1940s. This has been published about by Victor Pickard. He has a very excellent piece. In that “Blue Book,” there’s a suggestion for the relationship between public good, even public defense, and non-commercial broadcasting that’s not in the hands of private interests. Dallas Smythe is Canadian. He went back to Canada eventually, but he helped build the very first communications program ever, which is the Illinois School with Wilbur Schramm and others. He also did a huge amount of work for the FCC and NAEB to make an argument for why media serves as a kind of a public good that requires attention to path dependencies, sociological path dependencies, and institutional and policy decision making. This is the foundation of political economic research in media studies.

So Dallas Smythe is often credited, then the Illinois School researchers that followed him, who were super excellent for many decades, and were conducting essentially a moral, sociological assessment of the effects of commercial media on broader democratic discourses, and in the process, pulling from traditions like Marxism. Political economy is usually a Marxist term, but in this case, I would say this is more of a post-Deweyian, American, and pro-capitalist, but anti-monopoly viewpoint. So we should be clear about where political economy came from, which I would say is a liberal, mildly left tradition when it began. Then, it actually moved further left and then began to disappear in our field at the same time. But the key point here is that political economic research began as an empirical solution to a policy problem to address non-commercial media allocations within the government. This engendered a series of types of reports that became a mechanism of communications research itself over time.

So in terms of the practice of political economy, when I learned this through the archives and just through the personal letters of the founders of the tradition, one thing that really struck me is that political economic research can’t merely be critical. Political economic research is not merely a critical piece that we’ve written for a metrics-based evaluative journal. It’s actually a mode of practice that attempts to adjust how institutions and policies work. One of the things that I love about non-commercial media history is that it’s one of the histories in the 20th century that did change policy. It actually changed the Communications Act and the commercial broadcasting structure into something that at least designated a role for non-commercial media. And there’s a lot to say about that. But when I enter into a political economic approach to research, I think about my public role with different policy and institutional structures beyond my assessment of what the archives tell me or something like that.

So I was very fortunate to be placed in DC for my first job at Catholic University of America back in 2013 or so. And I was invited right away, as many people in DC are who move there, to join a research project with the Library of Congress. And we realized that radio was basically not preserved whatsoever. So the Radio Preservation Task Force is the name of the project at the Library of Congress. We realized, “Okay, we have an opportunity here to actually work with the path dependency of a specific institution, and one with a huge amount of international weight.” We’ve been studying these principles, my friends and I, for all this time on the project. What could we do with this that would be a public facing political economic project with some influence of Gramsci and cultural studies–we could talk about that later–but within the logic of the institution so that it sustains itself? What we realized was that there was already a film preservation plan.

There was a recording preservation plan that was new, but that radio was probably the most untapped primary source archive maybe in the world. It had not been preserved. There was over a million hours of material. And it was a non-theatrical modality. People think of like Jack Benny for the radio. They think of the great theater of radio. I love these things, of course. But most of radio is community organizing, talk shows, sports talk, and so what you actually end up having are these primary sources of people who may not be in the paper trail describing their perspectives about events as they’re happening in real time. So we realized pretty quickly, within the first year, that what we had was a potential political economic project from memory studies, which is to diversify the archive through sound history where paper trails ended with alterity experience. But of course, to do that, you have to go through all these steps. You can’t just say, here’s an archive, let’s preserve it. There turns out to be dozens of steps, huge numbers of personalities, policies, state claims, copyright, there needs to be applications, grant writing, and then we need implementation in the classroom.

So we just started building this political economic project. We ended up with about 300 professors after the second year on the project to just account for this and it still wasn’t enough. It still has been a very difficult project to facilitate. But so, in other words, the political economic research in the archive for all those years influenced my willingness to really dive into, with an opportunity at hand, the institutional decision making processes, and see how we could interject specific kinds of moral, ethical, or structural changes to the machinations of how the institutions work. And we’re still going. I think we’re the longest lasting–I don’t want to be too bombastic about it–media research project in Library of Congress history. I can’t find an equivalent at the US National Archives. So it’s all built around the precedent that we are working together in a horizontalized way to diversify the archive through sound. So the project is really more of a media studies and political economic project that learns the institution to get something else done, which is to make our curriculum better and more diverse when it comes to studying media history. So that’s part of the political economic story here.

I have this conviction that the work that we’re doing in media studies comes from two places. The first is a mission statement that we should be invested in non-commercial media. And I’m mostly alone in the belief that that is a crucial mission statement for media studies. But the second, I think, is super fascinating, and I hope will resonate over time, which is that media studies was founded as a system building approach. We used to build things in our discipline. Our discipline came from people who built an entire alternate media system. And, at some point, we just sort of turned to critique and we stopped building things. So that’s super fascinating to me. I’d say, what we’re doing at the task force, is one tiny fraction of the division of what was accomplished in the Cold War era. But at the same time, I do think there’s something there that could be recaptured.

Scott Ferguson: That’s beautiful. It’s such a really helpful and comprehensive summary and situating of your work. I was wondering, for our next question, if we can focus a little bit and pick up something that you mentioned in your response, which is that Communications Act of 1934. You and your work show this really looms large in both the history of public media activism and in the rise of communication studies. And in your published writing so far, you’ve begun to lay out the significance of the 1934 Act in an article titled, “The Political Economic Structure of Early Media Reform Before and After the Communications Act of 1934.” Maybe you can walk us through some of the details of that Act and what it did? I mean, you’ve already kind of addressed this. But I wonder if you can say, in more particularity, why this Act is so important and what did it end up doing?

Josh Shepperd: So, I mentioned him already. There’s a really important book that I admire by Robert McChesney about the foundation of, essentially, the media system in the US. And again, it has a huge amount of attention in the early 90s for its comprehensive archival research, but also its political economic framing of where essentially we went wrong, or where the paradise was lost in the American system, and why we don’t have a BBC like system, or at least why our public system isn’t as robust as it should or could be. So this is kind of the word for the field. Like people look to this work and a few other foundational works from like Susan Douglas and Michele Hilmes, who was my mentor at Wisconsin. And these are really excellent books that are the foundation of my work. But his book ends with 1934 with the loss for educators, which is completely accurate. And politically, I agree with what he takes away from this history. But if you go one year later, the same people that are in his book begin building public broadcasting right away.

So what happens is this 1934 Act is, from what I can tell, the watershed moment, good or bad, for American media. What you have is this moment in which some of the rhetoric of Coolidge and Hoover about public interest, convenience, and necessity as the grounds for station allocation rules–so who gets to have a station and broadcast–becomes ossified into policy in 1934. That’s essentially what McChesney’s book looks at. And I agree with him completely that this notion that station ownership should be dictated on the question of interest instead of service, this is a big distinction he makes, is like this break, it’s almost like this epistemic break in what was possible during the New Deal. So all the consequent decisions that are made during the New Deal by the FCC follow from the senatorial rules that were passed that essentially equate to technical mastery and technocratic understanding of measurement of audiences and the broadcast range and all that stuff are the single grounds by which American systems can be created. This gave a huge advantage to advertising based media who could have just constant income coming in with vaudeville and Tin Pan Alley performers. And I love that stuff by the way. I love the performances on early radio.

But at the same time, it’s like, why don’t we have that other system? So what happens is the Communications Act becomes the grounds by which, I argue, future advocacy is also shaped. And one way that I do that in the article is, and I’ll just give a little spiel about it, McChesney covers two groups in his book and shows how there were two fundamental responses to an inevitable retraction of opportunity for educational media. There’s the National Committee on Education by Radio, the NCER, that was funded by something called the Payne Fund out of Ohio and was connected to the National Education Association. Then, there was the NACRE, or National Advisory Council on Radio in Education, which was really just a single person. It was a guy named Levering Tyson. And he was appointed by the Carnegie Corporation and the Office of Education commissioner pre-New Deal to investigate opportunities for different modalities of broadcasting practice to work together for a common goal of education.

So what happens is, and I love this in McChesney’s book, he points to the NCER as kind of like the Bolsheviks pushing against the system, and then the NACRE as the Mensheviks passive with the system. He creates this like super lefty dynamic between the different institutions and how that kind of complacence led to the Act itself. So the fact that there was not unified resistance to the oncoming changes in policy. But if you look at the same exact people, and they all left all their papers, like thousands and thousands of pages, personal letters, not just reports, but letters about these things. I had to go work on research in Cleveland, Ohio, which is its own problem. I spent all this time in the Payne Fund papers, and the same people after the Communications Act completely changed their methodologies and their strategies for how they approach the question.

So the NCER says, “Okay, we tried to, during the hearings for the Communications Act, state a reason that there should be a certain amount of frequency set aside.” This is usually referred to as the Wagner-Hatfield Act. It’s 15% of the reallocation, and argued sometimes as much as 25%. That was denied completely; it was just rejected outright. Then, by 1935, they’re saying, “Well, why don’t we just build a non-commercial media system.” So the same people who were built as these lobbyists and resisters to the system actually become practitioners within like two years, and they built something called the Rocky Mountain Radio Counsel out, not where I am now in the Denver area, but up in Wyoming. And they call it public broadcasting. So they actually invented the term. And this had never been discovered. I discovered this by accident in these papers. This is where the term came from originally.

It’s from this guy named A.G. Crane, who became president of the University of Wyoming and who was chair of the NCER after the Communications Act. He says we can’t just allow and wait for other people to do this work for us. We have to build a decentralized system based around philanthropic funds–the Rockefeller Foundation in this case. And from there, we will do shortwave or program transcription, which is a recorded program distribution of non-commercial media to classrooms. And, you know, dang it if they didn’t get it done, at least until about 1940. Then, one of the guys they have running the project named, Robert Hudson, goes on to help build the Illinois School with Dallas Smythe and Wilbur Schramm, the first communications school, about seven years after that. So there’s a few takeaways from these pieces.

When we are faced with failure on the Left, where do strategic changes get implemented that do change path dependencies of policy and institutional decision making? It’s a highly problematic case study. We’re talking about a bunch of white guys here. And we’re talking about people at universities. There is a huge amount of privilege with these things. But it reveals something about the policy itself without assuming that it’s like the same thing as a kind of rights advocacy. It’s still like a lefty political economic advocacy to increase equal access to education, which is a pretty important thing, I think, at that time, especially. So I’m really interested in these moments in which there’s a pivot within a strategic advocacy by which the rules change internally to the discursivity of the group itself. And what different decisions are made about the practices and then what worked and what didn’t. So I go very tediously and procedurally through how that worked within that piece.

Then, the NACRE guy, Levering Tyson, ends up being placed on something called the Federal Radio Education Committee, FREC, which was founded by the FCC and Office of Education in 1936. Because, it turns out, we should be clear that the FCC was formed by the Act. It didn’t precede the Act to make these decisions. So the new FCC members were like, “Why aren’t universities and school districts able to broadcast?” So right away the FCC is like trying to help build during the New Deal some kind of educational system. So they built this committee. And the committee becomes the funding line and becomes the precedent for all of the model of non-commercial media’s underwriting. We call it underwriting instead of sponsorship. And that’s the Rockefeller Foundation and Carnegie Commission. So yeah, the NACRE guy ends up on FREC. He becomes the chair of a committee that just wants to research what works with audiences or not in terms of broadcasts. It wasn’t actually successfully educational when it was broadcasting. Anyway, that becomes the Princeton Radio Research Project. And that is the foundation of all communication studies in the world. It’s Paul Lazarsfeld, it’s Frank Stanton from CBS, it’s Herta Herzog, who helped build survey group research and was Lazarsfeld’s wife, it’s Hadley Cantril who was a social psychologist who did propaganda for the government later. 

But what happens is, in this process, the same people that are in McChesney’s book end up building communications studies, research, or at least underwriting its origins, and building the first model for non-commercial media that’s networked, that’s not one of the commercial station forms of networking. So that’s what that piece is kind of about. It’s like we have got to keep working on these things. Where is the institutional change or development by which something becomes sustainable? This is what I think we’re missing on the Left a lot. It’s like, where is the durability of the belief? It’s always going to be in something outside of oneself. Like when we’re gone, we leave our projects, we pass away, or something like that. What is that thing that we did that survives in the practices of others? I think that that’s where institutions become both the problem and, not the solution, but at least the strategy.

William Saas: It’s such an amazing and essential history. And I think we’re all nodding our heads just going, “Yeah,” to everything that you just said about institutions and institution building and the promises and perils of doing that. And the need to look to history for some guidance. I think one of the things that, and this is not a question so much as it is a comment and a riff, but the discovery of the first use of public broadcasting and the development of a public broadcasting network, it seems to me like, “Okay, that’s great.” And we like that that institution was built, but it was because it was philanthropically funded. It was precarious from the jump, or private in a sense, from the jump. I guess what I’m trying to say is, you listen to public radio today, and it is lousy with like Kaiser Family Foundation and all these sorts of sponsorships. And you start to start to wonder, is this public broadcasting? How does it work? I don’t know, maybe this is just a throwaway, your research is cool and thought provoking comment. I don’t know if you have any thoughts on the sort of inherent problems with public broadcasting being grounded in philanthropic endeavors from the beginning?

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, I think this is one of those great Raymond Williams points about what are the limits and pressures that are exerted like hegemonically over institutional decision making and the determinants that have to be followed within like the homological structure of how discursivity works, or something like that, within cultural studies. I think this is something that’s been thought through really importantly, critically, and appropriately. So yeah, I think public media has always been a series of concessions to maintain a vision of the mission statement. So I think what you see over time is that, within our system, in a US capitalist system without a huge amount of earmarked money, there’s very sparse money compared to other public systems, you end up with the Koch brothers like underwriting NOVA. You end up with, in my experience working with public media and history stuff, a huge amount of worry about, if we do the right thing, what kind of damage will come back at us? So why don’t we occupy some kind of soft middle that sort of winks at political economic questions, but is actually more of a middle of the road centrist service.

And yeah, when you go back to the origins, and you look at the philanthropic funding as a solution, the goal was, of course, some kind of earmarked money, which has never happened, honestly, to this day in the way that it should have or could have. And then, the philanthropic system ends up exerting certain limits and pressures on the way that broadcasts would unfold. I can give you like one or two quick anecdotes. So first, with empirical research of audiences, the Rockefeller Foundation wanted proof that educational broadcasting was, in fact, educational. And this leads to decisions on the part of early experimenters about how to frame what they’re doing for income. So a certain kind of logical positivist intervention begins to occur in the framing of the institutional logics.

Now, this is true in commercial media, too, because they like to break down audiences into sub-demographics, and do predicative work about who they think will watch and when. This doesn’t seem to have been necessarily part of where non-commercial media went, because it’s supposed to serve every audience, including small audiences. So it’s a legitimate question to see like, well, where is the audience going with this? Are they listening? Are they paying attention? Do they understand? Are they actually learning? Can it be tested? And then there’s another side, which is, does everything have to be substantiated in terms of a content production within previous tropes that have worked in commercial media and could be quantified as opposed to qualified. So I think that’s one point. I agree with you, in the early parts of it, immediately, there were effects upon the approaches.

Now, I’m a very qualitative, humanistic researcher, but I’m not against my mass communications peers at all. Like there’s sometimes some strife there. There’s a lot of questions that get answered with good quantitative research. I learn a lot by reading it and stuff, too. But is that the normative investment of how to understand an audience, which is the quantification of the subject as listener? So I think that’s one thing to consider. I have never written about that. But I think about it sometimes. And yeah, is it a mode of privatization? Another comment that I think is a very good comment. Does it become a mode of privatization to have an alternative funding model that is philanthropic? One thing about a third party that is itself a nonprofit institution is that the kinds of pressures that it exerts tend to be in remittance of funds, and then future reporting, less than day to day operations. Whereas in commercial media, there’s a huge amount of influence over what can even be on screen. So it’s a softer form of power, but it does exert some power.

William Saas: Well, just as a quick follow up on that, I’m still thinking through and really energized by your provocation that the Left needs to think about taking up these building projects again and how your work has, in a fell swoop, challenged the foundational narrative in McChesney’s work, or at least extended it, and says, “Hey that’s not the end of the story.” And then, the next year you discover public broadcasting was a phrase or a term coined as a sort of compromise in response to the limits and pressures, but baked into that, it’s not what you think it is, and it never has been. So let’s think about it and what it could be, which I really appreciate.

Josh Shepperd: Yeah my investments are in the concepts more than like just following and supporting what every practice has been. And then, just also on the McChesney note, I would call it like a mild or supportive revisionism of his work, because I do agree in principle with his politics on these questions.

Maxximilian Seijo: Perhaps shifting gears a little bit and, especially, as someone who’s done some work on Siegfried Kracauer, I found your recently published article in the journal Communication Theory really interesting, particularly where you sort of hone in on a understudied chapter of the story, which is the relationship between Paul Lazarsfeld and Theodore Adorno. So for those who don’t know, for his work with the Federal Radio Education Committee, Lazarsfeld of the Princeton Radio Research Project did hire Adorno “not only to develop techniques to inform educational music study,” as you explain, “but to strategically formulate advocacy language for the media reform movement to help non-commercial media obtain frequency licenses.” What circumstances occasion this historic convergence between these two, we could say, maybe, intellectual titans of communication studies and critical theory? What have we overlooked about Lazarsfeld and Adorno’s relationship, and perhaps could you also say what lessons we can draw by reflecting critically on this moment today?

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, thank you for that. So I have a few things going on with that article, I think. One is the revisionist history. Where did communication studies come from and what are its commitments? And why does it have certain commitments? My answer to that is that it’s not just a matter of answering a question, which it does really well. It originally came from this public ameliorative mission statement. So communication studies, I would argue, is at least in part a consequence of media reform advocacy, which I think has not really been written about in the field. I think that to understand communication studies, it wasn’t just that they were able to create a more efficient model of understanding audiences, which became public policy research, which is all true. It is a functional approach to social science research. And in that functionality, it answers questions designated to it by either an institution or a social process.

Communication research is fundamentally different from the humanities in that way. Humanities tends to begin with concepts, existential experiences, storytelling, myth, there’s all kinds of ways that the humanities pull from a source if it’s problematic or not. Communication studies is a 20th century American phenomenon that attempted to answer technocratic questions within the constraints set for it by the institutions that underwrote early research. So that’s kind of what that piece is about. But what I found, of course, along the way, is that we have this discipline that doesn’t know where it came from. We’re probably the only discipline that has not traced its own history fully. And there’s really good work being done by Jeff Pooley, David Park, Peter Simonsson, who’s here at Colorado and the history of communication division at ICA, the International Communication Association. So my work stands on their shoulders. I think that because they were doing this work, I was able to begin this kind of work. So what I would say about the origins of communication studies and Adorno’s role is that Adorno is always taken for granted as someone who was brought to the United States as some kind of brilliant thinker. Of course, they wanted to bring him, but in fact, he was trying to escape Germany at the time.

He was brought here for a reason, which was that, mired within their attempts to develop reproducible models of audience analysis at the Princeton Radio Research Project in 1936 and 1937, they discovered that they had no way to translate the consequent assumed neutrality of quantitative results back into the policy language that the FCC was looking for to allocate the frequency assignments. So they said, “Well, we should bring somebody who has a different methodology,” Lazarsfeld says this in one of his letters, “that is a parallel analysis to this quantitative functional approach that we are implementing.” So Adorno gets brought to the US by really the founder of communication studies, Paul Lazarsfeld, to work on this problem of persuading the FCC to create 15%, 10%, or whatever allocations for non-commercial media. It hedged under his expertise, which is musical analysis, or analysis of musical syllabi, and these kinds of things. This has made it to Martin Jay’s work and David Jenemann’s books–these are really good books. But what everyone had seemed to have missed was the backdrop of the invitation and what that meant or what that revealed.

So what that article does, at Communication Theory, is it goes back to the start of where the mandate for the project even came from, it works into the questions they were assigned to research within it, which points to the functionalism of communications research itself. They weren’t trying to answer some major, Weberian question about how different social structures work. They were trying to answer how to get around the Communications Act and the limitations of that. Then, they begin to conduct research specifically to address the problem of educational audiences to report back to the Office of Education and the FCC. In the process, they bring on Frank Stanton. Frank Stanton becomes president of CBS not too long afterwards. He’s very young and just graduated from Ohio State in educational psychology. He and Lazarsfeld have this moment, and it’s just a remarkable, historically important moment in which they figure out how to triangulate audience responses across expanded models of demography.

So one thing they did before those two is they would get all this data and they would say, “Here are five categories. Where do you fit in these categories?” And Stanton, Lazarsfeld, along with Herta Herzog, were able to figure out that you could ask people what categories they would associate themselves with, and then create broader and broader demographic categories. And from there, they were able to triangulate that with people who would answer in similar ways across geographic spaces of separation. So in other words, that person who believes the same thing in New Jersey as they believe in Nebraska, or something like that. What they realize is that it’s not geographically defined in terms of how one understands oneself. There are actually these modalities of discursivity that people associate with culturally, which parallels critical theory in this understanding at that moment, as they’re both developing, that actually define embodiment. So, in other words, Lazarsfeld and Stanton are able to successfully triangulate responses across geographic spaces for the first time in ways that are reproducible by different researchers. If different researchers all conduct the same kind of work, they can get the same answers.

So this was the gold. This is the foundation of modern sociology in some ways, too. And they’re super excited about this. It kind of blows their mind a little bit that they discovered it themselves. So that’s where Adorno comes in, like, “Well, how do we get this back to keeping this along the social ameliorative questions?” That’s where Adorno comes in. But their work is so profoundly impactful within its first year that they basically abandon the educational question, first of all, and they go all in. Rockefeller loves it, the government loves it, the advertisers love it, the network’s love it, and the commercial networks love it. Immediately, it becomes research and development for all media and public policy. By the early 1940s, it becomes propaganda research for the OWI. It literally changes how all institutions work, like almost immediately. Adorno is brought in, he says, “You’re quantifying audiences. You’re separating the questions from the context in which they’re asked. You’re turning agents into subjects. It’s a form of subjection. And this work cannot stand in support of media reform.” So they’re like, “What are you talking about? This is like the biggest discovery of social sciences of this decade. Everyone loves it.” And he puts his foot down on this so they fire him.

So within like a year or year and a half, Adorno was famously kicked off of this project. But what I love about what he’s kicked off about, is that it’s a fundamental disagreement over what embodiment means. It’s an ethical distinction that they’re making between each other about what counts in terms of recognition. Can you be quantified into a category? Or do you need to be described thoroughly. But then, of course, the twist of that is that Adorno abandons media reform altogether. And the quantitative guys stick with it. So the irony is that the equal access to education question mobilizes the creation of an entire academic discipline in the 1930s, and then the critical theorist abandons that completely and just continues to write brilliant, critical work, in my opinion. But you have this paradox that happens at the end of that moment that I try to account for in the article, by which part of what we have is the Left’s abdication of its role within the development of an alternative model of media.

So I just can’t believe that part of the history. And I have a lot of respect for Lazarsfeld and the mass communications guys in their ability to get right to the point in research. I kind of wish that we had that additional moment in which critical theory became the early foundational form of communications research. We almost had critical theory as the founding qualitative approach of communications and media studies. But we didn’t. And who did they bring in? I mentioned him earlier: Charles Siepmann. Political economy, in its empirical approach to analysis of audiences, but from a production standpoint and an ethical standpoint, actually better matches what they’re doing with that project. So with the invention of political economy in media studies, there was actually a reaction against critical theory in the late 1930s. And in my opinion, it has done a really good job for the field of political economy. It’s not like we should have had critical theory, but we almost had critical theory. We ended up with an empirical form of critical analysis that was not quite as far left, I think, as Adorno was on these questions.

Scott Ferguson: This is just such a fascinating story that feels really revelatory. And I’m particularly preoccupied with this split. You’ve suggested that your sympathies go both ways. But there’s also kind of a tragedy at the heart of it, that the kind of really nuanced, sophisticated approach of Adorno and critical theory is cleaved from the institution building, commitment to public reform and public world building, which as you suggest, Adorno would be right on this, was quickly sold out and became an arm of propaganda in all these complicated ways.

Josh Shepperd: Like immediately.

Scott Ferguson: I guess our conceptual and political commitment in our project and on our podcast and beyond is to bring these two impulses together. That we can be really smart and nuanced critics of the system and its history as it has developed, at the same time as we can keep our commitment to imagining new positive futures that basically don’t capitulate the future to mere critique, essentially. I don’t know if you share that way of framing it or if you have your own way of framing it. Do you care to comment on that?

Josh Shepperd: One thing I like about Lazarsfeld, personally, is when you go through his letters, he was, besides being encyclopedic and really just intellectually cutting and able to fulfill the mandate that he was given by the government and Rockefeller Foundation, he really was trying to play with empirical methodology and Adorno’s ideas. Like there’s all these letters about how he was trying to implement what Adorno was telling him in spite of them arguing. And one point that I make in that piece is that, I would give it like a 5% influence on what becomes the two step flow model in understanding the context of audiences, not just response or demographic quantification of audiences. And of course, Lazarsfeld then goes on and works with Elihu Katz, who recently passed and was just a giant of our field, and Merton and others. And they do kind of begin to streamline the capacity for this method to understand context. And what this becomes is, and Dallas Smythe writes about this very famously, the prediction model within research and development. Almost the entire commercial industry is predicated on predicting behaviors that haven’t happened yet. And they do that now through micro analytics. Before that, it was niche broadcasts, and before that, it was lowest common denominator, least objectionable programming, and mass produced programming like westerns.

But they’ve always been trying to create content based upon this formulation of data that comes from Lazarsfeld to be psychic about what people’s behavior will be. It’s a behaviorist approach. And I think that’s super fascinating. To think that a little piece of it actually might come from Adorno, in that they started to pay attention to context as much as mere affiliation along the way, that’s how Lazarsfeld interpreted it. There was really no stopping that tsunami once it began because it was so effective for every media and education institution along the way. It was to be able to understand the audiences, minimize chance, and minimize gambling for the amount of money that they put into a program development. So it maximizes profit, it reaches audiences as something that they already would like and know in advance. So I’m just super fascinated by that part of this too. The ability for mass communication to do research that predicts audiences comes at least a little bit from Adorno and his forcing their hand to pay attention to context as a determining factor in decision making.

Scott Ferguson: He’s rolling in his grave.

Maxximilian Seijo: One aspect of this that fascinates me, and it relates to someone who you brought up earlier in this discussion, Victor Pickard, who we’ve interviewed on this podcast, so for listeners, you can check back to get some of this genealogy, is the question–especially as we hover within this Adorno-Lazarsfeld complicated split, but also, as you’re suggesting, influence–is the question of the public funding of media. And I think, in a more general sense, Pickard is offering a new model through his history for thinking about the way we publicly fund media structures and media infrastructures in the US and beyond. To me, what I find interesting about a part of this split, and you framed it in a lot of ways as a methodological point. And I think that’s really crucial. But I guess, because we’re Money on the Left, I wanted to just raise the question of the money that sits at the heart of these structures and how maybe Adorno would think about the determinisms of money as what we would call capital in his critical and theoretical structure versus a more public funding, we could bring up MMT here, model for thinking about building futures and institutions. To me, there seems to be a tension that perhaps rhymes with this methodological split that you’re describing on that point as well, whether it’s explicitly articulated or not. I figured I’d raise it to see if you had any thoughts about it.

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, so I like Victor’s new book. I’m not a journalism historian. I’m not a journalist. So I want to be clear that I can’t give a sufficient answer for how it shall be funded. However, at the same time, I think that this notion, and Victor calls from these similar histories in his work, that there are alternative models that we not only have imagined, but have been implemented over time, and that it does not have to be a logic of accumulation when other logics are already present and successful within modes of production and divisions labor. And that not trying them is a decision to not try them. This is actually resembling an issue of political will. It’s an ideological problem, not an institutional problem, because we have the means and we have the history. We know how it works and what doesn’t work. So when he talks about alternative modes of funding that are government-based or public sector-based and these types of things, once you end up with something like the Sam Zell model of maximizing profit and limiting journalist freedom to do investigative reporting or something, it incentivizes different things like clickbait forms of journalism, glibber forms of reproduction of the AP story over and over again. There’s all kinds of problems with the relationship between how a funding model creates or engenders consequent content.

So in that way, I completely agree with him that if we have a funding model that doesn’t interject itself into media ethics within a journalism process, then this would probably be one model that’s worth pursuing to see how it might be better or not. At the same time, I’ve worked with a lot of people in the public sector since 2015. And I want to be gentle about this, but we can’t over idealize who the people actually are in that sector. There’s a lot of parallels between the private sector and public sector in the same ways that the academy talks about itself in a meritocratic way, but in fact, is a pretty toxic and exploitative environment for a lot of people. So we have to also be careful that the concept doesn’t automatically translate into the best practices. But I say this without any knowledge of how journalism works. I’m not an employee of journalism or some kind of expert. So I want to be very careful here to not overstep in that way. But in terms of what Victor’s talking about, with having these alternatives at hand, and then choosing to not follow them, I think that’s a great contribution.

Scott Ferguson: Yeah, I think there’s another part of this that Maxx is trying to get at that I don’t know if you have any comments on. There’s a commitment that is coming through Marxism and is being arguably amplified in Adorno’s work and related contributions to critical theory that numbers, that quantified abstraction, is seemingly intrinsically alienating, and violent to particularity and to material reality in its history unfolding over time. It seems like the methodological split between the communication quantifiers versus Adorno’s qualitative approach–it’s so funny, I never use this language, because I’m fully qualitative. I never say the expression “qualitative research.” But anyway, I am a qualitative researcher, who, in our theoretical commitments, while we learn so much from Adorno and critical theory, we feel strongly that the reduction of quantification or the reduction of counting or accounting to a kind of flat alienation is part of the blind spot of critical theory. And again, not to say that we endorse certain kinds of narrow and positivistic social scientific methods of quantification either. But when we’re trying to politicize money as a public good, part of that is politicizing public accounting and accountability. So I think that’s another part of this kind of methodological question that Maxx is trying to get at that maybe you can get into.

Josh Shepperd: So where are the commitments in the applications? I think one issue with public sphere theory is that it assumes a certain kind of instrumentalized behavior that didn’t take into account the actual life worlds, as Habermas says, that were at hand. So you get these correctives from Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner, and we also could reframe the public not as a mode of deliberation but as a site of violence or humiliation. This is also true for different types of publics historically. But at the same time, if we go too far away from publics, I usually think of that as concessionary politics, by which we just leave it for the Right to make all the decisions. So it’s almost like a way of saying, “Well, I don’t believe in publics, and I’m going to let the Right make all the decisions for everyone else.” The way I kind of track it with the work, and you could probably extrapolate this from what I’ve been saying, is, “Okay, we don’t need a capital P public. But we do need public services.” So instead of a capital P public, it’s a capital PS or something.

So like we should be all in on underwriting journalism, public media, public parks, public education, and public health. These are crucial instrumentalizing forces within how people understand the relations to others. And they achieve certain kinds of, honestly, just moral visions for how interaction can go, that call from everything from liberation theology to Marxism. I mean, there’s even religious dimensions to these kinds of responsibilities that we imagine. I say that as someone who’s very secular, but I’ve been around people who have quite eloquently articulated even better models of brotherhood, sisterhood, or personhood, and all these kinds of relationships when I was at Catholic University in DC. And I’m not even Catholic. But I really enjoyed listening to liberation theologists talk about what a better society would look like. Not just like, we should have it, but here’s what it takes. This kind of stuff. So yeah, I think that these are great questions, and that if we can get away from a concept of a public that frames people within the model as opposed to examining the bottom up relations of people and what they need, and then building systems around those needs, I think that that’s one good way to approach a concept of publics.

William Saas: I’m trying to think of the best way to articulate this question. I wanted to kind of return to your work with the Radio Preservation Task Force. We’re talking now on a podcast that’s being distributed through a private hosting service and people are downloading it through private infrastructures of the internet. And we’re hoping to, I think, serve a broader public educational purpose, but ultimately, we are funding this through various forms of crowdfunding and our own jobs. It’s part of my job now and I think it’s part of Scott’s, but it hasn’t always been. So thinking about podcasting as a public, a broad platform, and trying to imagine where it fits, podcasting as a medium, form, or technology, how do you understand it fitting or not within the ambit of the Radio Preservation Task Force? And also along those lines, if you are aware of any promising trajectories for public funding for things like podcasting, because it seems to me that there’s so many Left projects in podcasting, but there is a correspondingly vanishingly small, maybe non-existent exploration of how to do this other than through things like Patreon, crowdfunding, and the familiar technologies. I don’t know how to put it other than crowdfunding platforms like Patreon. So what’s the place of podcasting in the history of radio preservation and are you concerned with that? I actually read with some students last week some work from your mentor, Michele Hilmes, in the Savings New Sounds anthology about podcast preservation. But yeah, podcasting in the history of the medium, and is there any concern in the task force for that? And then, if you have any ideas or are aware of any proposals for a more public form for podcasting?

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, so podcasting in the task force. I do see podcasting as a kind of natural progression out of radio. It does have its own preservation head at the Library of Congress already just for podcasting. And as you mentioned, there’s been some work around the task force that actually came out of the task force for podcasting preservation out of University of Wisconsin, which are by Jeremy Morris and Eric Hoyt  and that came out of our first conference, which was in 2016. I feel like the thing about podcasting is that it is not appointment listening. I think that that’s really crucial these days. You can just listen whenever. You don’t have to tune in at a certain time. You can create a podcast for the smallest possible audience, which actually meets the public media mandates that goes back to the 1930s. This imagination that it doesn’t matter, you don’t need the biggest audience because you don’t have to get advertising dollars. The reason we want bigger and bigger audiences isn’t just to get bigger audiences. It’s because that’s what pays. That’s part of that model for commercial media.

Podcasting also provides an artistic space to do variations of radio flows. Radio flows are predicated on the model of interruptions. There’s a commercial in between and the entire content is built around those interruptions. Raymond Williams, who I mentioned earlier, has written about this with TV that comes out of radio. So it’s really positive in that way. And the relationship between the task force and podcasting is very positive. A lot of our colleagues kind of work on both. I have a very good friend Andrew Bottomley at SUNY Oneonta who wrote a book about podcasting that’s fabulous. The task force is mentioned in the book I just mentioned by Morris and Hoyt. And what we’re all trying to do is say, and this isn’t exactly something I work on directly, but my colleagues are working on it, “Well, what about stuff that’s happening now that hits the ephemera of the ether?” So we’re worried about where radio history went, we’re worried about what materials are available, are degrading or decaying, and what we’ll lose of historical memory. But what about stuff that’s happening now? Can we preserve it now so it doesn’t happen to that, to the podcasts. So I really love that project. It’s a NEH funded project called PodcastRE. I wrote a letter for that, for the grant when it went up.

And what they’re doing is two things. They’re creating the metadata that explains what’s on the content, which is something we don’t have for radio. And people don’t even understand how crucial that is for searchability and for funding for later. And second, they are cataloging it when they can, just the materials. And these guys are brilliant at Wisconsin, because they’re also doing preservation of journals with the Media History Digital Library there too. So they have all these different preservation of media history initiatives happening simultaneously. It’s a great service to the field. But fundamentally, podcasting is the contemporary, non-appointment remediation of radio structures. So it still carries a radio structure of interview, performance, breaks, music, and segues. It is still aesthetically radio in most ways. But it is something new at the same time. And there’s a certain amount of creativity to it that I don’t think we’ve seen since like Musique Concrète out of France with Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry. You get these artists and Stockhausen who played with radio. But podcasting does it almost more pragmatically, and innovates at the same time, so there’s these aesthetic shifts and engagements while it’s still resembling something that is more accessible and fills time with listening. So yeah, I love the work that my colleagues are doing. I’m more of an early media historian, obviously, an early media preservationist, but yeah, there’s absolutely correlation.

Maxximilian Seijo: One thing I wanted to make sure we covered before we closed was your article co-authored with Shawn VanCour, “Radio Preservation and the Orphan Agenda,” where you historicize and theorize your own work with the Radio Preservation Task Force that you’ve brought up quite a bit in this interview. You make this point, and I would like you to explain this for our audience, why, essentially, on your reading, sound preservation is politically meaningful, in a sense that goes beyond mere antiquarian interest. So this interest just in the antiquity of these media forms. And could you explain what you mean by that?

Josh Shepperd: Yeah, thank you for that question. This actually gets to the heart of what it means to put humanists who are trained in philosophy, because Shawn had a philosophy background too, on a logistical project. So one thing that we think about all the time is we really should attend to the memory studies components of the task force. Our goal is to expand and diversify the historical record through sound that takes a certain number of political economic steps to get there, that humanists don’t typically understand, but we had to learn along the way. And then, what is the outcome? Okay, it’s new syllabi, a new curriculum. But then something else kind of happens there. And I pull from people like Stuart Hall on these things, or even like Alain Badiou I like a lot on these kinds of questions about how fidelity to truth procedures unfold. And by that, I mean that when new information about historical events is introduced into some kind of circulation of discursive reception, there’s a selectivity process that takes place by which a discourse will say why I like that part of the information and not that part, or I’ve been waiting for this part to consolidate this conceptual belief in why I’m affiliated with this discursivity.

And in the process, if the right kind of information is introduced in the right discursivity at the right moment, there’s a retroactive actuation of the concept of continuity about how we got to a certain place. Which is to say, when you introduce new historical events into the historical record, sometimes, and you can’t predict with who or when, it changes how memory understands what already happened, which is part of the mobilization of the Left in my opinion. Part of the mobilization of the Left isn’t just changing how things work or decrying it after it already happened, which is what happens too often, in my opinion. We’re always a step behind. It’s changing the concept of where we came from and how we got to where we are so that it meets the criteria of the ethos of the movement. So one thing that history does, when it’s done really well, and I’ll point to something that I think is excellent like the 1619 project or something, when you redefine the contours of a continuity, it is actually fodder for mobilization and for grassroots organization. So that’s why we’re really deeply invested in civil rights histories.

I’m working right now with a radio program called This Way Out. It is the longest running LGBTQ community organizing program ever. It’s been around for 30 years. They have 1800 hours of recordings, and we’re going to get that canonized at the Library of Congress. That’s one of our projects for this year with the task force, getting This Way Out into the recorded sound reading room for research as something that’s accessible there. So yeah, these kinds of histories are important because the omissions that we have in the record are also erasers of possibilities. So it is our responsibility, I think, as humanists to saturate the circulatory apparatuses of media with as much new information that overturns biases that we can. And that doesn’t just mean saying something is a bias or resisting something. It means giving voice to the different experiences that have not previously been recognized within those circulating apparatuses. So that’s kind of what we’re getting at in that article there. You might be one of the few people that pick up on that element in the article. But there is a humanistic investment in the project for us that also has to do with our political commitments.

William Saas: That’s an excellent place to leave it, I think. Josh Shepperd, thank you so much for joining us on Money on the Left.

Josh Shepperd: Thank you for having me.

* Thanks to the Money on the Left production teamWilliam Saas (audio editor), Richard Farrell (transcription), & Meghan Saas (graphic art)