A Fan's Case for Ending Federal Support to Public Radio and Public TV


Jill Lawrence

Senior Correspondent
At $430 million, public broadcasting is a tiny part of the $3.8 trillion federal budget. Still, it's time to end its role as a political football and a symbol of what government shouldn't be doing. It's time to find another way to help public broadcasting thrive.

I say that as a huge fan. No one could love PBS and NPR more than I do. I'm a monthly contributor to local stations in my area and just last weekend I bought NPR's map pinpointing affiliated stations all over the country. My husband and I have "driveway moments" all the time, unable to leave the car until a story ends. One of them early this month was about the Egyptian military's vast array of business ventures, and how that was shaping its role in the protests (stability was a priority, as was not firing on potential customers). Our year already has been enlivened by "Downton Abbey" and other PBS programming.

You can't find these types of offerings just anywhere, which is why it is vital that public broadcasting survive and flourish. But we cannot ignore our debt-ridden fiscal times, or the intense ongoing debate about what government should do and what it can afford to do.

Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels last weekend laid out a vision for "limited but active" government. He is a conservative Republican and I'm sure I'd disagree with him over what falls within those limits. Still, it's clear to me that public broadcasting is not in a league with national security, a healthy economy, safe food, drugs, air, water and products (be they cars or mortgages), and a social safety net for the sick, the poor and the elderly (the better to "promote the general welfare," as the Constitution puts it).

The left and right are currently at loggerheads over the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which gives most of its money to 368 television stations and 934 radio stations, and spends the rest on programming such as "The NewsHour" and "Antiques Roadshow." Led by Sen. Jim DeMint, the Republican Study Group and other conservatives, Republicans in Congress are on a crusade to strike CPB from the federal budget. Stations are making impassioned pleas to members to protest the GOP plan. MoveOn.org, meanwhile, has mounted a petition drive to save CPB.

The public broadcasting audience is more of a mix than you might think, given the political passions raging in Washington. The most recent demographic information on NPR came in a Pew study last September. It found that 45 percent of listeners considered themselves moderates, 29 percent liberals and 22 percent conservatives. NPR has about 36 million listeners a month overall, so that means it has nearly 8 million conservative listeners. Presumably they don't want to see NPR vanish.

When public broadcasting was established in the 1960s, it was designed as an alternative to a TV industry under the influence of its advertisers, says David Schutz, a veteran broadcast industry financial and marketing analyst. "Content was heavily controlled by sponsors" back then, he told me. Multi-year funding was supposed to insulate CPB from shifting political winds.

But politics is front and center these days, especially since the abrupt firing of NPR analyst Juan Williams last fall. He had remarked on the conservative Fox News Channel that while on planes people in "Muslim garb" made him nervous. He later cautioned against lumping all Muslims together, noting that "you don't say . . . we got a problem with Christians" because Timothy McVeigh planted a bomb in Oklahoma City. But the damage was done.

It's never been clear if Williams was fired for what he said (politically incorrect) or where he said it (on Fox). Either way, the incident triggered a major controversy, the departure of a top NPR executive and the latest drive to defund public broadcasting.

The most measured approach would be to put CPB on a five- to 10-year phase-out plan, gradually reducing its budget as other means of financing are developed. Here are some ways to bring more money into the pot.

- Advertising. Schutz says federal authorities have been easing up on what constitutes a sponsorship. Fifteen years ago there were "momentary mentions" of institutional sponsors such as the Ford Foundation, he said. Now there are 15- to 20-second segments and, particularly on TV with its visual elements, they look just like ads.

That's a slippery slope to some public broadcasting advocates. " 'Sesame Street' could survive on network TV," CPB spokesman Tim Isgitt told me. "But there will be a Sprite in the scene and the kids will be assaulted by Mattel ads every 10 minutes." NPR spokeswoman Dana Davis Rehm said NPR would risk losing listeners. "Our audience appreciates not hearing five minutes of back-to-back commercials every break. That would not enhance our value to the audience. It's an important part of our commercial identity," she said.

Purity may not survive in this environment, but there are options that don't involve advertising.

- Sell PBS programming to cable and satellite companies. Schutz said PBS has never attempted to seek what he calls "re-transmission revenue" from subscription television providers. "Maybe it's time for them to re-evaluate that relationship," he said. Measured by the going rates for major commercial networks, he estimated that charging such fees would bring in anywhere from $85 million to $300 million a year for PBS and its affiliates. This model wouldn't work for radio, which is free, but the money could help subsidize NPR if a certain portion went to CPB or a successor organization.

- More listener and viewer contributions. Rehm said 3 million households now donate to NPR stations, an all-time high. But even accounting for multiple people in a household, that leaves millions listening for free. "You can definitely make an argument that there is plenty of room for growth," Rehm said. "On the other hand, it's not as if public radio stations haven't been trying to grow that number." The biggest hurdle for people who don't give is "believing that their contribution will make a difference," she said.

The loss of federal money via CPB might convince non-contributors that even small amounts of money would help their local public TV and radio stations. It likely would result in existing NPR members increasing their contributions, Rehm said. But would that higher level be sustained over time? Unclear.

- Benefactors. When philanthropist Joan Kroc died in 2003, she left about $200 million to NPR. It's now the bulk of an endowment that produces about $10 million a year for NPR's use.

There's a lot written these days about rising income inequality and the concentration of wealth at the top. It's clearly apparent in the Forbes list of the 400 richest Americans, topped by Bill Gates ($54 billion) and Warren Buffet ($45 billion). Many of these people could kick in $1 billion for a CPB endowment and barely notice. Pretty soon you'd be talking about endowment income about equal to the federal appropriation.

Of course, the CPB might have to be renamed -- maybe the Corporation for Independent Broadcasting or the Corporation for Quality Broadcasting -- if there's no public money involved. And regardless of the source, money for programming and station subsidies has to keep flowing to CPB or a successor. The seed money CPB distributes to radio and TV stations is critical, particularly in rural and poor areas with relatively few potential members and sponsors.

It's possible that over five to 10 years nobody will step up or figure out how to save the national treasure that is public broadcasting. It's also possible that we'll be in a different political moment then, a different economic moment, with money and goodwill to spare. I'd bet against that. But I'd also bet on NPR and PBS to make it in the big world. We are not going to let them die.

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