Interview with Roger Penn
Roger Penn talks about the genesis of the Educational Radio Network, and the influence that the broadcast of the March on Washington had on the creation of a national network of stations. Roger Penn was an Associate Professor at American University in 1963. He was interviewed in Falls Church, Virginia on March 7, 2011.
Civil rights, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, Washington, D.C., 1963, Civil rights movements--United Sates--History--20th century, Segregation, Public Radio--United States--History., Demonstrations--Law and legislation--United States, Reminiscing, Civil rights movement, American University (Washington, D.C.), United Sates--Politics and government--1961-1963
My name is Roger Penn. I am the President of a charitable organization that operates out of Falls Church, Virginia. We give cars to needy families. We've given away thousands of cars to people who are referred to us by social workers and pastors, and we're supported by a number of churches that provide funds in order to do that. I've been doing this for 28 years or so.
In 1963, I was an Associate Professor at American University, and director of the broadcasting program there. We were affiliated with the Eastern Radio Network, ERN; at that time called the Educational Radio Network, or educational radio stations were involved in it. We were kind of a key part of that network, because being in Washington D.C. there were a lot of originations that came from here. My role with the March on Washington broadcast was more in terms of just watching over the staff, and listening to the broadcasts, making my input what we ought to be doing and how we oughta be doing it. We had a very capable group of people that were working on it, and my role wasn't a major one, certainly, but I was most supportive of it, and watched it through.
And also over a period of time, I grew a little bit more alarmed about the possibility of violence, which seemed to me was possible. In fact toward the end, I sent a rather lengthy telegram to the people who were running the March on Washington, just telling them that I thought that they had achieved their goal, and it would probably be a good time to de-camp, pack up and head home. And shortly thereafter, they did; I don’t know how much I had to do with that, but... we were very faithful to cover this event and made it available, along the East Coast anyway, and then through tape broadcast to other affiliates around the country.
The staff at WAMU, at the time, was made up of some very dedicated and skilled people. George Geesey was one of them, I believe Susan Stamberg was there then, and Elizabeth Young was involved to the best of my recollection. Michael Harris was on the technical side, as was David Eggleston although David also did some air work. We were the coordinating station here in Washington; I don't remember whether we had any boots on the ground downtown in the actual event or not. I think most of our work was studio work at that time.
The Eastern Radio Network...I think it grew largely out of the mind of some of the folks at GBH, Hartford Gunn was the manager there at that time, and there were others. We collaborated; we met together periodically, thought about how we might interconnect. One of the ideas was to do a radio relay concept where one station would pick up another one and then we would relay that electronically without being connected by wire lines. That was a pretty advanced idea, the problem being that most of the stations were rather low-powered, and we couldn't get a clear signal between them. So it became necessary to use the telephone company to - AT&T- as basically to interconnect our stations, rather expensive.
And we managed to do that with resources for some period of time plus some grants from the Ford Foundation until such time as the public radio phenomenon grew in the Congress was eventually funded, and my hope was that the Eastern Radio Network would be the nucleus for the National Public Radio network and we actually work with Jansky and Bailey, which was a large technical consulting firm, and developed a proposal to do that. But the powers that be thought that that wouldn't be appropriate because it put too much focus on some folks here on the East Coast and they wanted to have a wider-ranging representation for the network. However, I was on the radio board of NPR for some time, during that period. My hope was that the Eastern Radio Network would develop into the National Public Radio network. You know, we could start right away; it was already operational. And I talked with some of the folks on the ERN board at that time, and talked with Don Quayle asked him if he thought it would be appropriate to develop a plan to make ERN the beginning of the national network. He said yes, and that's why we commissioned a study with Jansky and Bailey to see if that was feasible, and that study was completed and submitted to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and it was turned down. Very disappointing to me at the time. However, I was asked to serve on the radio board, and I that did that, and we met periodically.
I think I was influential in many ways, particularly in the development of the criteria for the public radio stations. I pretty much wrote that, although some people may disagree with that, but I remember writing and rewriting and you discuss things and then it was kind of turned down and rewrote the same things, and resubmitted it. And finally, what I wrote emerged as being pretty much document the governing and stations that would be affiliates with a national network.
The March on Washington has come up in my mind over the years as being a rather seminal event; a real opportunity for the black community to express itself in a way that hadn’t really happened before. And it was a peaceful event, one that captured a great deal of attention in the press, and I think we were privileged to be part of it.
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