On April 7, one of the great giants of public interest in telecommunications law and advocacy died. Henry Geller, the first Administrator of the National Telecommunications Information Administration and the General Counsel of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during its activist phase around equal opportunity, banning cigarette advertising, and implementing the Fairness Doctrine. Henry died at age 96, a good long run.
It is perhaps understandable that Henry’s death should go largely unnoticed in the current coronavirus crisis. I have so far seen only one publicly available obituary Henry had been sidelined by illness associated with his age for years and in the age of broadband and digital platforms his advocacy for greater representation and more diverse ownership of broadcast media and promotion of children’s television will seem quaint or of little meaning to many in the era of Twitch and TikTok. But I would be remiss if I did not add my personal reminiscence and resect to those published by other colleagues (here and here).
I met Henry Geller when I joined Media Access Project back in 1999. It is perhaps difficult for people to understand what the world of “media reform” and tech policy were like in the highly complacent 1990s and into the 00s. What had been a vibrant sector of public advocacy in the 1960s and 1970s around civil rights and public interest obligations of broadcasters and an effort to unleash the democratizing potential of cable television (As Asst. Secretary of Commerce for NTIA, Henry Geller famously recommended that cable operators be common carriers; the proposal, like many of Henry’s progressive proposals, was rejected) had withered to a handful of true believers fighting to protect the remaining public interest obligations and a handful of pro-diversity and pro-competition obligations in the 1992 Cable Act and 1996 Telecom Act. The Adarand and Lutheran Church decisions eliminated explicit race-conscious efforts to promote diversity in ownership or employment in broadcasting. The great pushback against “corporate media” for selling the American people the Iraq War was in the unforeseeable future. It was an easy time to become discouraged and abandon any hope for the future of broadcasting as anything other than a vast, corporate wasteland dedicated to cross-promoting products and promoting an increasingly ideological deregulatory agenda.
In all this, Henry Geller remained a happy warrior for change. But importantly, he was not in favor of simply trying to do the same thing over and over. He was constantly looking for new strategies. By the time I met him, his big proposal was to try to reallocate money from the planned DTV spectrum auction to become a permanent funding source for educational children’s television. Nor was Henry naive about how the FCC had allowed the definition of “children’s television” to be morality plays and thinly disguised commercials rather than more substantive education. But he was a big believer in acknowledging the failures of the past and trying to learn from them. Nor did his hopes for big and new solutions prevent him from paying attention to the details of ongoing fights, such as MAP’s continuing efforts to push cable ownership limits and program access rules.
And unlike many older policy proponents, Henry immediately grasped both the importance of broadband and new technologies to achieve traditional public interest goals of promoting diversity of views, racial diversity, and children’s educational content. Every time I talked to him over the 20 years I knew him, he was eager to hear about the latest technology and policy developments and discuss strategy. Especially in the early days of my career, when you could count the number of people in the traditional media reform community on your fingers and the number of folks interested in broadband on one hand, talking to an established elder of the community who didn’t feel we needed to constrain our thinking to the “pragmatic” and that we had to be looking for new, big ideas was a lifeline to sanity. Henry was not just encouraging of thinking about how to approach public interest problems in new ways. He was challenging in a positive way when much of what was left of the movement 9and before its resurgence) saw cynicism for wisdom. At every MAP board meeting, and in every conversation, he was prepared to ask how this related to our mission to promote diversity in the marketplace of ideas and universal access to information from the widest possible perspectives. Always he would push us to understand how our projects — from pushing for a low-power radio service to expanding unlicensed spectrum access — would give voice to the voiceless and opportunities to the marginalized.
Henry was an inspiration. Even as his age caught up with him and his fiscal frailty made it harder for him to participate in the advocacy which was his life, he remained mentally sharp and actively engaged. I never had a conversation with Henry Geller that wasn’t worth having. It is sad to think I’ll never have another.
Stay tuned . . .