Early Radio: The story of "Fighting Bob Shuler" - Activate World

Early Radio: The story of “Fighting Bob Shuler”

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Bonus Episode 2

Jennifer Petersen, Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia, continues the conversation by highlighting one of her favorite early radio stories and personalities. The character is Reverend Bob Shuler, who is sometimes known as “Fighting Bob” Shuler. Learn his story, especially as it relates to current-day social media personalities. Within his story, the need for regulation begins to stir and unfold. History may begin to repeat as it relates to the continued evolution of social media platforms.

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Jennifer Petersen, Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia

Dr. Jennifer Petersen is an Associate Professor of Media Studies. Her interests focus on media history, technology studies, communication law, and conceptions of emotion in the public sphere. Her articles in these areas appear in journals such as Media Culture & Society and Critical Studies in Media Culture. Her first book,  Murder, Media, and the Politics of Public Feeling (Indiana University Press, 2011), explores the emotional mediation of and legal responses to two of the most publicly visible and commented upon hate crimes of the late 1990s. Using textual analysis of media and legal texts as well as interviews with activists and lawmakers, the book analyzes the ways that media texts encouraged and conveyed feelings about the men and their murders, and traces how these feelings became the grounds for local political action and the eventual passage of hate crimes laws.

She is currently writing a second book, How Machines Came to Speak: Media Technologies and Freedom of Speech. Drawing on close readings of legal texts and “distant reading” of a large digital corpus of legal decisions, the book traces the history of legal conceptions of speech in free speech law. While most histories of free speech focus on the expansion of rights and freedoms granted under the First Amendment – the “free” in free speech—this book focuses squarely on the historical evolution of “speech” itself, from a narrow, self-evident category of strictly deliberative and linguistic communication to a broad category that encompasses symbols, aesthetics, and feeling. The book argues that this transformation has been driven in large part by media technologies and social scientific ideas about communication.

Dr. Petersen earned her PhD in the Radio-Television-Film Department of the University of Texas at Austin. She was a 2016-2017 Fellow at the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences (CASBS) at Stanford University and the 2015-2017 Fellow at the Institute for Advanced Technology in the Humanities at UVA; her work has also been supported by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities (NEH). She will be on leave for the academic year 2018-2019, while she is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS) at Princeton University.

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Early Radio: The story of “Fighting Bob Shuler”

Jennifer Petersen, Associate Professor of Media Studies, University of Virginia

Bonus Episode 2

Jon Mertz:         00:02          Welcome to The Activate World podcast, a series on how business leaders have more power to solve societal issues than any elected official. We explore business activism with substance and depth of thought. From time to time we do bonus episodes. Here we continue the conversation with Professor Jennifer Professor Peterson from the University of Virginia.

Jon Mertz:         00:26          Professor Peterson you mentioned that there’s a few characters that leverage radio in a new way to gather an audience. Can you give us a sense of one of those characters and how they used radio to amplify their voice?

Professor Peterson:           00:37          My favorite for the current moment is Reverend Bob Shuler, who is sometimes known as “Fighting Bob” Shuler. He was a preacher. He’s actually a Texas preacher who moved to Los Angeles and for a reason that those of us around today, and know the Los Angeles today might think is funny, is that he thought it was one of the purer places in the United States, where there were still good strong Christian values. So he moved to Los Angeles to speak to and infiltrate these good strong Christian values and Americana. So he spoke about Los Angeles in a way that I think is opposite I think to its media reputation today.

Professor Peterson:           01:11          So he starts broadcasting Trinity radio station and like a lot of the other radio personalities in the day and people who took advantage of the new medium in all meanings of that word. Like Father Coughlin, like Doc. Brinkley, Huey Long, he started out, or like many of those people, he started out using radio simply to spread his message, spread his religious message. His particular gospel was he was protestant so he was, well he was very moralistic. He was anti-corruption, gambling, a number of other cultural vices he had a lot of anti-Catholic church messages. He railed a lot against the Catholic church, against local politicians. He was quite antisemitic as well. So he had kind of this ideology he was espousing, but he also realized he had reached a large audience and that this was a means of amassing power and I think he and a number of these other early radio demigods began to sort of become addicted to or interested in using radio as a means to get power and money.

Professor Peterson:           02:26          As much as or more than an ideological outlet, and I think there’s a lot of parallels between say, Alex Jones today, and some of these other guys in the way that they might have started with a purely, kind of ideological, or perhaps fame desire, but they also then began to see, they’ve become business in a sense and use this as a way of making lots and lots of money off of people. For example, in the case of Reverend Shuler, he would do things like, as he realized that lots of people were listening to him and really responding to him, he would do things like say, “I’ve got the secret on somebody out there, and I know what you did.” It may have been an allegation. It was either corruption or of adultery and he said, “And if you don’t send me $100 I’m gonna release your name.” Well lots of people wrote in giving him $100 and similarly like Father Coughlin would say occasionally, and he made a lot of money, he built a wonderful new church for himself, but every once in a while he’d say, “I’m running out of money and I’m gonna have to quit spreading my good word,” and people would send him tons of money.

Professor Peterson:           03:37          So these guys are asking people to send in their hard-earned cash to them. So Reverend Shuler would take these cash contributions and keep them for himself, and in a sense, this was part of his downfall. When the FRC at the time, Federal Radio Commission, which is a precursor to the FCC, denied him the renewal of a license and part of the reason that it did this, is he was making all kinds of allegations about corruption in the local government and courts and in addition to antisemitism. So they’re denying him a license and he takes them to court. This is actually one of the first free speech cases in radio and in the end the FRC, the courts decide for the FRC and it’s, they decided for the FRC because they say that Shuler is making use of the public air waves for private profit and that he’s really not engaged in the public interest or public good, because all that he’s really interested in is his own fame and his own money. So this is part of how he was shutdown, was partly because of a very different regulatory environment, but also a different understanding of public, private, and the social role of media time.

Jon Mertz:         04:59          It sounds like he was more successful than Father Coughlin in getting that initial radio license. So he wasn’t as controversial in the beginning?

Professor Peterson:           05:07          Well I think actually Father Coughlin had a longer and more … Had a longer career and was in many ways, more successful. Like Father Coughlin first was on network radio, then he got his own radio station. He was then denied a license and denied syndication, but he was able to go through more iterations. Bob Shuler was a more short-lived radio personality, and didn’t really, after he was denied his radio license renewal, I don’t think he was ever really had the same kind of public reach again. I think he continued preaching to a physical congregation in Los Angeles, but that really sort of was the end of his national, or regional career. He was interesting in the way that he would just make stuff up. I mean he would just make stuff up and he would just say it with no sense of consequence, of having any kind of accountability or consequence and also that lack of accountability I think was one of the hallmarks of early radio and I think it became harder to do that as radio stations actually became part of larger corporate chains like NBC, CBS, where you had a parent company that you had to, that you were part of the face of.

Professor Peterson:           06:25          So there was more accountability in those places. So as radio became institutionalized in a number of ways, as we came to, the public came to expect certain norms like telling the truth on the air and also as the actual radio shows and programming were in bedded within institutional structures.

Jon Mertz:         06:47          The other side of that is the rise of governmental institutions to help regulate that as well.

Professor Peterson:           06:50          And they’ve taken on, the regulatory agencies have had very different understandings of their role in different era’s and in the 1930s and 1940s we did have a more active regulatory agency. They saw their job as doing more to establish a fair playing field in a sense. Whereas now, there’s been kind of a different … We’re in a different phase of regulation, where the regulatory agencies are a lot more hands off.

Jon Mertz:         07:19          Thank you Professor Peterson for sharing that story.

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Activate World is a team endeavor. Special thanks to Kaela Waldstein, and Kent Nutt. Music by Jason Goodyear. For Activate World, I’m Jon Mertz.

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