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An interview with former FCC Chairman Al Sikes who, in 1991, predicted the future we live in now

Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
Former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Alfred C. Sikes. He was born in Cape Girardeau, Missouri.

It’s hard to imagine a time in which laptops, iPhone and satellite television weren’t immediately accessible and yet, in 1991, those opportunities were merely considered a brave new world. Imagine trying to set up a system of governance for a world that doesn’t exist yet. That’s exactly what former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Alfred C. Sikes, a Missouri native, was tasked with doing.

As the New York Times wrote in 1991:

“As chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, [Sikes] sees a world in which people could use satellites and high-speed fiber-optic communication lines to take college courses at home, have television sets double as multimedia computer work stations, use communication networks to transmit the contents of an entire library in seconds and track down a person anywhere on the globe to deliver the data.”

On Thursday’s “St. Louis on the Air,” Sikes joined host Don Marsh to discuss his tenure as FCC Chairman and what he thinks of that “brave new world” as it has become a reality. Sikes recently released a book entitled “Culture Leads Leaders Follow,” which is part memoir, part cultural critique. 

Here are some excerpts from the conversation:

On the expansion of television networks, voices in communications:

“When we were just three networks, everything got filtered through a handful of people. It really was ‘elite TV,’ coming out of New York and filtered through those New York executives. Now more people, often with something good or constructive or encouraging to say, are able to speak out as well. When you have that, you also have the other side with people who are raging racists or bullies or extremes of one sort or another and that is, of course, not good. There’s no filter anymore. We need active families that can protect us from what is a much more wide-open society.”

On media literacy:

“I’m for that, depending on who the teachers are. When I was a first year law student at [University of Missouri-Columbia], some radical came in, some anti-Vietnam radical, they were Marxist and loud-mouth and boisterous and we all went to one of the assembly halls and listened to them. That was just fine. That was not my point of view, of course, but I thought it was just fine to listen to them. Campuses seem to be incapable of hosting people of sharp differences. I find that unfortunate. You can get so bland that you end up with an uninterested student contingency, whether grade school or high school or college. I’m all for media literacy, economic literacy but to some degree, who are the teachers is the most important question.”

On events at Mizzou: 

“First of all, I’d love to be governor of Missouri for about a month because I’d like to knock some heads and say, ‘Listen, this is one of the state’s most important institutions, we need to get people pulling together to strengthen the University because constant attack, counter-attack about the university is debilitating and hurtful to the state.”

Credit Alex Heuer | St. Louis Public Radio
Alfred C. Sikes

“You have to have an outlet for free speech. Perhaps it is an outlet that you attempt to contain to some degree. I can holler Nazi stuff at somebody and that’s free speech and that, of course, is incendiary at the same time. I like to talk about the Charleston South Carolina, the shooting that occurred at that AME church and the forgiveness that followed that from the family of the victims and how that turned the culture.  In a couple of days, on a bipartisan basis, political leadership got together and that Confederate flag came down from its place of importance in Columbia, S.C.”

On the Republican party:

“When Barry Goldwater  in 1964 lost all but three or four states, there were a lot of commentators that said ‘The Republican party is at an end,’ and it wasn’t. To some degree, it might be necessary for the party to implode before it can be redirected.”

On Citizens United:

“When I was at the FCC, I was trying to enable digital technologies. And the incumbents, the companies in power, they didn’t want that because that was a threat because they were analogue, used analogue transmission streams. My only point is that huge government attracts huge money and then it tends to compromise, if not corrupt, politicians.

“Citizens United, which freed up money in politics even though there wasn’t much restriction on it before, is maybe reason to relook at how politics are funded. You’ll probably have to look at that through a constitutional process, through amendments to the constitution. That, of course, is heretical to many people but I use that in the area of free speech. I don’t think that Madison anticipated that absolute free speech would result in what we see today.”

On that 1991 article:

“I had the good fortune of having all sorts of really creative people coming in to see me and saying we need to get rid of this government regulation, get this new protocol. I’ve always had a reasonably strategic mind and I was getting a lot of people coming in to see me and I was synthesizing that. It turned out to be fairly prescient.”

“At the time, there was a lot of head-scratching on the part of some. The NAB, the National Association of Broadcasters, they tried to slow it down. They didn’t want satellite radio because they wanted terrestrial radio to prevail. They didn’t want satellite television because they wanted terrestrial television to prevail. I understand that, but it struck me that I was there to represent a larger interest and not just stand still on the part of broadcasters. “

St. Louis on the Air brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. St. Louis on the Air host Don Marsh and producers Mary Edwards, Alex Heuer and Kelly Moffitt give you the information you need to make informed decisions and stay in touch with our diverse and vibrant St. Louis region. 

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Kelly Moffitt joined St. Louis Public Radio in 2015 as an online producer for St. Louis Public Radio's talk shows St. Louis on the Air.

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