Why feds should not fund public broadcasting
Fortunately, public broadcasters can afford to tell the feds to get lost. Thanks to nearly $9 billion of sometimes-grudging federal support since 1969, public radio and television have become mature, powerful and self-sustaining businesses.
While I cherish This American Life and the PBS NewsHour as much as the next guy, continued public funding for this select group of non-profit media companies is unnecessary and unsustainable at a time when government at every level is cutting support for desperately needed health, education and welfare programs.
In a reprise of a theme that’s almost as old as the history of federally subsidized broadcasting in the United States, Republicans in the House are trying to kill some $400 million in annual appropriations for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which has distributed a total of $8.85 billion in federal funding since 1969 to the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio. The ups and occasional downs in that annual funding are illustrated at left.
Although the loss of federal largesse initially would stress the nation’s 368 public television stations and 934 public radio outlets, these generally well-funded, well-known and well-established organizations for the most part could carry on, because only 15% of their backing on average comes from Uncle Sam.
While an instant 15% drop in revenues would ruin anyone’s day, it pales against, say, the nearly 50% plunge that newspapers have suffered in ad sales in the last five years.
So, yes, public broadcasters would have to retrench. Yes, they would have to step up fund-raising from foundations, from corporations and from listeners and viewers like us. And, yes, that would mean more pledge breaks.
But it would be worth it, because public broadcasters would gain the independence they – and viewers and listeners like us – deserve. Once and for all, the broadcasters could concentrate on broadcasting, instead of worrying about the next budgetary challenge from Capitol Hill or the White House.
Given the bold, powerful and valuable journalism often produced by the public media, CPB has been caught in multiple political crossfires from the time it was established in 1967 as a federally funded but non-government organization with non-profit status.
Its news coverage, budget and management have come under attack from the administrations of Richard M. Nixon, Ronald W. Reagan and George W. Bush, not to mention legislators on both sides of the aisle in Congress.
As detailed in an excellent history of CPB at Funding Universe.Com, Nixon challenged its news coverage, Reagan slashed its budget and Bush installed a number of highly politicized executives at CPB in an effort to combat what was regarded as liberal bias on the public airwaves.
CPB hasn’t only been criticized from the right. Lawmakers spanked it in the 1970s for a lack of programming for racial and ethnic minorities and for employing only two non-white individuals among its top 29 managers.
Despite periodic political strafing and occasional budgetary setbacks, CPB grew formidably over the years.
From a modest $5 million federal grubstake in 1969, the annual budget for CPB rose to $476.8 million in 2009, according to its tax return. Adjusted for inflation, the original $5 million is equal to a shade less than $29 million in 2009 dollars. Thus, the budget of the organization in four decades has grown by some 1500%, or three times faster than the rate of inflation in the the same period.
Although CPB distributes 95% of its budget to its broadcast affiliates, the organization reports that it spent $21.8 million to fund its own operations in 2009, including the compensation of a dozen executives whose pay ranged from $200,000 to $369,514 per year.
As big as federal backing of CPB has become, the organization provides only about 15% of the budget for the typical NPR or PBS affiliate, according to the corporation.
As illustrated below, 57% of the funding for public broadcasting in 2009 came from foundations, corporations and individual donors. In 2009, the private funding supporting public broadcasting totaled $1.5 billion, proving rather convincingly that the public media have the fund-raising infrastructure and skills to sustain themselves.
The other large chunk of funding for public media ($655.7 million, or about 25%) comes from state and local government, including tax-supported educational institutions with radio and TV operations. With fiscal stress not confined to the federal government, some of this funding admittedly also could be imperiled. In that event, public broadcasters will have to respond by finding new revenues or tightening their belts – just like everyone else.
The fact that the public media operate with only a modest degree of federal funding is not only fortunate for them at a time of aggressive budget cutting but also a sign that government support of the public media has been an unqualified success.
When Congress first enabled the CPB, the idea was to foster an alternative to commercial programming that was famously characterized as a “vast wasteland” in 1961 by Newton Minow, who at the time was chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.
Although commercial TV is vaster and waste-ier today than it was back then, the public media successfully leveraged their federal seed money to build perhaps stronger and healthier organizations than the founders and their funders had dared to imagine.
In an advertising campaign seeking to drum up support for continued federal funding of the public media, the industry argues forcefully that its audience consists of 170 million Americans, or an impressive 56% of the population.
At a time when health, welfare and education programs are being slashed and burned at the federal, state and local levels, it is illogical, if not to say offensive, to argue that the large and well-heeled public broadcasting infrastructure needs government help more than hungry children, ailing seniors and unemployed people freezing in their homes.
Of course, society cannot live alone on decent nutrition, proper health care and comfortable shelter – though you sure miss them when you don’t have them.
To the degree there is public or charitable money to spend on intellectual nourishment, sophisticated entertainment and enterprising journalism, it makes sense in these straitened times to spread the support as widely as we possibly can.
If the feds are to continue any funding whatsoever for non-profit media, then let’s give all non-profit news ventures – from New America Media to MinnPost to Lexington Commons – an equal chance to compete for the sort of seed money that helped build public broadcasting into the powerful organization it is today.
If the feds completely turn off the spigot, then all non-profit media are going to have to compete among themselves for support from foundations, corporations and individuals. It won’t be a fair fight, because the public broadcasters already have a formidable head start among all non-profit media. But, at least, they won’t have the unfair advantage they long have enjoyed of access to Uncle Sam’s checkbook.