Nicholas Johnson — who is likely the only Iowa City native who ever appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, in 1971 — foreshadowed his career as a troublemaking FCC Commissioner when he was an adolescent boy in the mid-1940s.
“My first experience with radio was Allied Radio in Chicago,” Johnson recently told me. “This company had something called 10-in-1 Kit, and you could build a receiver or you could build a garage opener and all kinds of stuff. One of the things you could build was called a Phono Oscillator.” By connecting a record player to this device, one could broadcast a low-power AM signal to a family radio in the living room.
“It said you should not use more than six feet of antenna,” Johnson recalled. “Well, that’s not something you tell a twelve- or thirteen-year-old boy.” Across the street lived Willie Weber, son of Iowa City historian Irving B. Weber, and these two mischievous playmates went downtown and bought a five hundred foot roll of braided copper wire. “We strung it around the roof of my house, in the trees and whatever, down into where we had our little Phono Oscillator.” They set their supercharged broadcasting device to the frequency allocated to WSUI, which is now an Iowa Public Radio station.
Willie Weber had a learner’s permit, so he tuned the car radio to AM 910 and drove around to test out their new toy — only to discover that they were drowning out WSUI’s signal across Iowa City. The next day, a classmate told Johnson that he had seen an FCC truck rolling around town. “I went home right fast after school, and I turned it back into a radio receiver,” he said. “That was the end of our Phono Oscillator broadcasting.”
So began Johnson’s iconoclastic career in media and law. “I was born here in 1934,” he said. “Both my father and mother were graduates at the University of Iowa.” Nicholas Johnson’s father was Wendell Johnson, the famous and controversial University of Iowa professor for whom the university’s Speech and Hearing Clinic is named. Soon after graduating from law school (University of Texas–Austin) in 1958, Nicholas Johnson took a job at the venerable Washington, D.C. law firm Covington & Burling.
While living in D.C., he was called into the White House for a meeting, where he met future Motion Picture Association of America president Jack Valenti (who worked for the Johnson administration). “Valenti opened the door, told me sit in his chair, and I did. I looked up and the room looked kind of familiar. I’m going, ‘Son of a bitch! This is the Oval Office.’ There I looked, and it’s Lyndon Johnson sitting there.”
LBJ wanted to recruit him as the head of the Maritime Administration, a job Nicholas Johnson had never heard of, and definitely did not want. “The more I protested, the more interested he was in having me serve,” he said. “And I came to realize later why that would be — because you would reasonably be suspicious of anybody who would want to be Maritime Administrator.”
He relented and took this government job, which led to Johnson’s appointment to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1966, where he served until 1973. “I somehow had, from the very beginning, a notion of the power and importance of the mass media in a democratic society, and that’s … kind of been my focus all my life,” he told me. “I was interested in technological ways to bring about a more real public service to a democratic society, through media.”
Johnson was a self-described “hippie federal official,” which attracted a lot of media attention. “I was outspoken. I was doing the late night network television shows. I was traveling around the country making speeches.” He added, “More than anything, I was just a part of the times, because there was the black movement and women’s movement and antiwar movement — a lot of artistic creativity, a lot of stuff was going on. I was kind of identified with it because I chose to be identified with it.”
“We were inspired by Nick Johnson and those other authors who were challenging the status quo,” said Skip Blumberg, a member of the pioneering DIY video collective The Videofreex. “Nick Johnson was part of a group of people like Marie Winn, who wrote the Plug-In Drug and did boycotts of watching TV. These people were heroic because they were smart, they were tough, and they worked inside the system, but they were doing something entirely different than us,” Blumberg continued. “We were making a new world. We were creating a new world and we were having a lot of fun doing it.”
After a screening of the new documentary Here Come the Videofreex, Johnson echoed this sentiment to Videofreex member Nancy Cain, who joined him via Skype during the Bijou’s Film Forum series at FilmScene. “I was just running interference, trying to make space for you all,” he told her, “and you were doing the heavy lifting.” Cain recalled that he had their back when the Videofreex set up America’s first pirate television station in Upstate New York, during the early 1970s. “We were a little disappointed because the FCC didn’t seem to care,” Cain told me. “They knew about it, but they didn’t do anything.”
“The FCC was just vicious about pirate stations,” Johnson recalled. “They would go out with sledgehammers and destroy their equipment and all that kind of stuff … I just thought it was a little heavy-handed and overreaching.” He added, “In general, I’m always going to come out on the side of the person who I think is illegitimately being harassed or suppressed.”
“I think he helped create some credibility for what we were doing,” said Skip Blumberg, referring to Johnson’s advocacy of public access television and DIY videomaking. “Here’s a guy who’s an FCC commissioner who is saying, ‘Go for it. You got the right idea.’ ” As Johnson observed, “I was kind of Paul Revere, going around the country saying, ‘The communications revolution is coming. The communications revolution is coming!’ ”
Kembrew McLeod’s first experience with wireless radio technology was as a twelve-year-old, when he hacked his Kmart home stereo using RadioShack gear — creating a DIY speakerphone. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 199.