Henry Geller: Fifty Years Ahead of His Time

There’s no such thing as a “new” idea, said Mark Twain.

In the FCC World there really isn’t because someone thought of almost every great new idea 50 years earlier. That someone was the FCC world’s Visionary-in-Chief, former FCC General Counsel and National Telecommunications & Information Administration Director Henry Geller.

On April 7, at the age of 96, Henry passed away.

Who in their field has matched what Henry accomplished in ours? Irving Berlin (songs). James Brown (dances). Abe Lincoln (oratory). Yes, he was that prolific.

Consider this short and incomplete list of Henry’s Greatest Hits:

  • Viewer and listener standing in broadcast cases (1966 – along with Dr. Everett Parker)
  • Opening the FCC commissioners’ offices, and the Office of General Counsel, to minority lawyers and law clerks (1967)
  • Prohibiting racial discrimination by broadcast licensees (1969)
  • Minority media incubators (1969)
  • Banning cigarette advertising on television (1970)
  • Exempting presidential debates from the equal time rule (1975)
  • Replacing comparative hearings with auctions (1977; implemented 1992)
  • Spectrum fees paid by commercial broadcasters to underwrite noncommercial ones (1978 – but never implemented)
  • The Children’s Television Act (1990).

Think of how much better off we are as a nation because of Henry’s unparalleled creativity, moral force, determination, and brilliance.

How much brilliance?

I found out when I became a “Geller Groupie” – one of about a dozen young lawyers who would visit the U.S. Court of Appeals’ D.C. Circuit to watch Henry argue complex cases with no notes. Not a scrap of paper. Not even a 3x5 card. Everything was in his head, right down to the winning words of the winning footnote in a case citation. Then, after the court was gaveled closed, Henry would come to the back of the courtroom and greet us – just as kind and modest as a person could be after walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope with no net.

Two years ago, Henry devoted goodness knows how many hours helping me with difficult briefs at the FCC on EEO and in the Third Circuit on media ownership structure. Never did he say “no.” Just refused to completely retire as long as he could think, and write, and advance social justice.

Now he’s gone.

Henry is the only person ever inducted into MMTC’s Hall of Fame twice. That’s how great he was.

I miss you Henry. I always will.

And, yes, you can rest in peace. When it comes to keeping your social justice legacy alive, all of us Geller Groupies you mentored have “got this.”

A remembrance from David Honig, President Emeritus and Senior Advisor, Multicultural Media, Telecom & Internet Council (MMTC)