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© Benton Foundation History

A Brief History of William Benton and the Roots of the Benton Foundation

William Benton (1900-1973) was both the founder of the Benton Foundation (1948) and of the advertising agency, Benton & Bowles (1929). He was a public servant, who championed free speech and civil liberties. He served as United States Senator, UNESCO Ambassador and University of Chicago Vice-President. He was the first to propose the motion for expulsion of Joseph McCarthy from the U.S. Senate in 1951.

Dr. George Gallup called Benton a "father" of advertising consumer research for his development in 1928 of the first study of its kind, measuring consumer preference. The success of Benton & Bowles was closely related to the rise in popularity of radio. Benton & Bowles invented the radio soap opera to promote their clients' products, and by 1936 were responsible for three of the four most popular radio programs on the air.

Benton admonished educators and philanthropies to use the new tools of communications: "If the great universities do not develop radio broadcasting in the cause of education, it will, perhaps, be permanently left in the hands of the manufacturers of face powder, coffee and soap, with occasional interruptions by the politicians."

His lifetime preoccupation was how to apply his understanding of, and belief in, what he termed "the high significance of the media of communications" to education and citizenship. Publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1943) and creator of the Voice of America (1945), Benton's work was driven by a fascination for the public interest possibilities of new communications technologies and techniques. From radio to educational films, he pushed the envelope with his own peers and within the foundation world, urging them to take communications seriously and to use it to build democracy.

In a number of memoranda addressed to the trustees of the foundation, titled "Guidance Notes in Case of My Death," Benton's enormous vision for the role communications should play was laid out in a series of possible directions the foundation might explore: "...the foundation might work to stimulate educational innovations in school systems; help foster the growth of educational television; conduct research on the possible uses of new communications technology in helping schools and colleges meet the challenge of quantity and quality posed by the rapid increase in student population; experiment with new means of combating illiteracy, especially in the world's underdeveloped areas; support an objective evaluation of the Federal Communications Commission, with recommendations to remedy its weaknesses; study the relationships of Congress to broadcasting, as well as the impact of the new media on political campaigns. Further...the foundation might take an educational television station and run it as a model...develop a University of the Air or Open University. It could subsidize publications like the Columbia Journalism Review, subsidize professorships and seminars in the field of communications..."

(from The Lives of William Benton, Sidney Hyman, University of Chicago Press, 1969).

"What Benton wanted in the Britannica was 'a congress of teachers' from the world over," writes Hyman. "He wanted the volumes to be a kind of world-girdling university, coherent, well organized, but without walls-a meeting place for the brains of the world, an agent to synthesize the knowledge they possessed, to disseminate that knowledge to everyone."

Today's Benton Foundation continues many of these original interests of its founder, exploring the Internet's potential as an "open university" devoted to helping ordinary citizens find the information they need to understand children's issues and campaign finance reform, to locate arts programs in their community or to find out how schools are getting wired for new technologies.

In a break with the conservative tradition of many philanthropists, William Benton admonished the trustees to "favor those things which seem risky, unorthodox, hazardous, and even unlikely to succeed-but which, with success, offer more than ordinary promise and in some cases very exceptional promise."

Today the Benton Foundation continues that legacy as a laboratory for exploring the potential of new communications technologies and techniques to help solve social problems.

The Foundation is chaired by its founder's son, Charles Benton, chairman of Public Media, Inc., and a longstanding champion of public broadcasting, public information, and public debate. Recently, he served as a member of the Presidential Advisory Committee on Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters.