Peggy Charren, the founder of Action for Children’s Television (ACT), died earlier this month at the age of 86, leaving behind a legacy to be thankful for. I’m grateful to Peggy because her work benefited all children, including my three children and six grandchildren—but also because she saved me from embarrassing myself on national radio. I’ll get to that in a minute.
If you were a TV-watching child in the 50’s, 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, you saw lots of ads for sugar-laden cereals, unnecessary toys and wall-to-wall cartoons. Yes, your parents might have changed the channel to PBS for ‘Sesame Street,’ ‘Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’ and ‘The Electric Company,’ but those wonderful programs were oases in a vast and unhealthy wasteland.
Then along came Peggy Charren, a Massachusetts mother of two young children who ran a gallery and held children’s book fairs. In the late 1960’s she began what turned into a successful crusade. As reported in The New York Times, she held the first meeting of what became ACT in her living room in Newtown in 1968. At its height, ACT had more than 100,000 members, and Peggy was often called to testify before Congress and the Federal Communications Commission.
Under her leadership, ACT persuaded the National Association of Broadcasters to reduce the amount of commercial time on children’s programs, and in 1974, pressured by ACT, the FCC issued guidelines that directed stations to put educational and informational programming on their channels. In 1990, Congress passed the Children’s Television Act, which established standards and limited the number of commercial minutes. That law represented a triumph for Ms. Charren, who, as The Times points out, had lost quite a few battles during the eight years of Ronald Reagan’s presidency.
I remember Peggy as smart, energetic, outspoken, generous and feisty. But I am hopelessly biased because she was there when I desperately needed her. The occasion was a Congressional hearing on children’s television, sometime in the mid-1970’s. I had started my weekly program, “Options in Education,” on NPR a few years earlier; those 1-hour programs were documentaries, recorded live somewhere and then edited to time when I got back to Washington. In other words, my mistakes went on the cutting room floor. But, hey, I was NPR’s education guy, and so someone higher up decided that I should anchor the hearings, live on NPR. The fact that I had NEVER been on radio live apparently didn’t bother anyone, and I was up for the challenge.
I knew that I would need to say something to introduce the hearings, and so I read up on the issues and the Committee Chairman, and then I typed up two pages of copy. Put me in, coach!
Congressional hearings are scheduled to begin ‘straight up’ on the clock, meaning 9AM, 10AM, 1PM and so forth. We set up in the back of the Committee Room, I put on my headphones, leaned into the mic, and, voila, I was live, coast-to-coast.
“From National Public Radio in Washington, Welcome to the Congressional hearings on children’s television. I’m John Merrow and….blah blah blah”
In front of me was a half-circle of desks where the Representatives were seated, waiting for the hearing to commence. What I did not know–but should have known–was that hearings operate on ‘Chairman’s Time,’ not Greenwich Mean Time or NPR’s schedule of events. No matter what the schedule said or when NPR went on the air, the hearing would not begin until the Chairman showed up.
So I was looking at that semi-circle of desks, oblivious to the fact that the Chairman’s chair was empty!
We went on live as scheduled, and I began reading my two pages of introductory material. How long does it take to read two pages? Not very long at all, even if you slow down and stretch out every word. About halfway through the second page, reality dawned on me: This was live radio, I was about to run out of stuff to say, the Chairman was nowhere in sight, and in a handful of seconds, NPR would be broadcasting ‘dead air,’ the worst sin in broadcasting except for those seven forbidden words. 40 years later I still remember the awful sinking feeling of impending doom. My producer, Midge Hart, was also in full panic mode, looking around desperately for someone for me to talk to.
I spotted Peggy Charren in the witness area and signaled to Midge to ask her to come over, which she did. I think I handled the transition OK, or at least I hope I did. At that point I probably didn’t care what we talked about, just as long as I didn’t have ‘dead air.’ In addition to her other virtues, Peggy was chatty and eloquent. Nobody’s fool, she was probably thrilled to have a chance to make her case on NPR, which she did, until the Chairman finally showed up 15 or so minutes later.
My national debut on live radio was judged a success, and I don’t think the suits ever realized how close we were to an embarrassment. When I next did live radio, I made certain we had a couple of guests on stand-by and I wrote more than two pages of introductory copy.
If not for Peggy Charren and ACT, children’s television might still be non-stop cartoons and endless commercials. For her work, she eventually received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the country’s highest civilian honor, from Bill Clinton.
If not for Peggy, I might have become known as “Dead Air Merrow.”
RIP, Peggy Charren, and thanks for everything.