In Memory of The PICAN Man: Robert L. “Doc” Snyder (1928-2008)

Media Rants

By Tony Palmeri

from the May, 2008 edition of The Scene

In April the Fox Valley lost a media giant. Robert L. “Doc” Snyder, founder of the UW Oshkosh Radio-TV-Film program, passed away after suffering a stroke following surgery. He is survived by Irene, his wife of 55 years, 4 adult children and their families, two sisters, and thousands of former students and fans of his long running “Doc’s Jazz City” radio program.

The UW Oshkosh Department of Communication hired me in 1989, and Doc immediately became an unofficial mentor. I loved his cool radio voice and classy demeanor, and stood in awe of his wonderful rapport with students. Doc encouraged me to get active as a producer and host of campus radio and television public affairs programs while offering me invaluable advice on how to communicate with an audience. He was a great department leader and colleague. Current Radio-TV-Film program coordinator Doug Heil says it best:

“Bob consistently and universally treated everyone the exact same way. Whether he was interacting with students or colleagues, it was impossible to determine whom he liked and whom he didn’t like. There were no perks or pork or privileges for special pets, nor was there any silent treatment or back of hand for people he didn’t care for. This is a leadership attribute — I am now convinced — that helps establish a more positive, stable, and productive work environment. I will never possess this grace to the extent that Bob did, but it is a quality I seek to emulate, and I think of him often as I struggle to attain his admirable impartiality.”

Doc retired in 1993 but continued to mentor faculty and staff, engage students, and host his radio show. His 2001 induction into the Wisconsin Broadcasters Hall of Fame represented official recognition of Doc’s grand accomplishments as a media educator and practitioner.

Tributes and statements in memory of Doc have rightly given prominence to his legendary love of jazz. Aldous Huxley claimed that “after silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” Doc was fond of the idea of jazz as “expressing the inexpressible,” an idea he exposed listening audiences to for more than 40 years. On April 13th the historic Grand Opera House in Oshkosh hosted a jazz tribute concert for Doc featuring the Valley’s top jazz talents including Janet Planet, John Harmon, Marty Robinson, Tom Theabo, Mary Catterton, Tom Washatka, Janet Macklin and Donna Ruzicka. On that memorable evening the music made it possible to express the love and admiration for the departed that grief sometimes makes inexpressible. A more fitting tribute was not possible.

Though it is fitting and proper that we recognize Doc’s long-standing commitment to jazz programming, his media legacy is much bigger than that. To generations of media students, Doc preached an ethic of broadcasting as fundamentally a public interest activity. You would never know it by observing and listening to the rot that passes for most commercial television and radio these days, but “operating in the public interest” is supposed to be the operational standard for Federal Communication Commission broadcast licensees.

In 2006 I had the good fortune to do a radio interview with Doc in celebration of the 40th anniversary of WRST-FM, and he told me this: “Commercial radio has lost a lot of what it used to be, including the legal commitment to the public interest, convenience, and necessity. One time on an exam a student used the acronym PICAN and I’ve never forgotten it. That means a lot to me and I’ve tried to instill that in our people and I wish the commercial broadcasting industry, both radio and television--and now to a degree cable--would keep that it mind.”

The public interest standard was most clearly defended in a 1937 law review article by then FCC Vice-Chairman Irvin Stewart:

“’Public interest’ is more than a phrase to which an applicant for broadcast facilities must give lip service. It is a constant reminder that the station licensee has the temporary use free of all charge of an invaluable facility which belongs to all the people. The American people control the frequencies which are the sine non-qua of broadcasting; they have made a temporary and condition loan of those frequencies to the present licensees of broadcast stations. The condition is that the operation of these stations will be in the public interest.” (quoted in Robert W. McChesney's Telecommunications, Mass Media & Democracy. Oxford UP, 1993: p. 247)

I spoke with Doc Snyder many times about the breakdown of the public interest standard in commercial broadcasting. His style over the years was never to lament that breakdown, but rather to demand high public interest standards from himself along with staff and students associated with WRST radio and other campus media. To the end he remained convinced that college media could and should provide a model of how to meet the PICAN standard.

Doc Snyder was a loving husband and father, gifted teacher and media practitioner, and legendary jazz enthusiast. These qualities will never be forgotten. But as a media professional, he will be remembered as the PICAN Man, the man who never stopped preaching the responsibility of media to operate in the public interest.

Preaching PICAN is a profound Doc legacy. And that’s no jazz.

Tony Palmeri (www.tonypalmeri.com) is an associate professor of communication at UW Oshkosh and holds a seat on the Oshkosh Common Council.