Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Why feds should not fund public broadcasting

There is no logical reason for the federal government to continue funding 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.

Beyond the brass at CPB, dozens of additional executives enjoy comp that runs well into the six figures at NPR, PBS and many local affiliates. The president of PBS, to pick one example, made more than $632k in 2008, according to the organization’s tax return.

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.


Blogger Kim Smith said...

A thoughtful analysis of the situation. I enjoyed reading it.

7:29 AM  
Blogger Rango said...

I assume that you are a member of your local PBS/NPR affiliate. Or do you just switch off each time there is a pledge drive.

How does the president of PBS's salary compare with that of the president's of the major networks?

Does CPB get funding from the Dept of Education as so much of it's programming is educationally based.

$400m seems to be a drop in the provebial bucket, $1.30 for each citizen is a bargin compaed to my cable bill.

So the well known, funded NPR/PBS stations will continue whilst the poorer less well known (typically in poorer regions where they are probably more greatly needed) die.



8:20 AM  
Blogger Newsosaur said...

Yes, my wife and I are members of KQED in San Francisco and were supporters of WTTW in Chicago before we moved west in 1984. We have the tote bags to prove it.

8:27 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

While I do have a issue with the ending of federal support for public media, I might accept it - if the restraints on fundraising by public media entities are removed. As you point out a 15% budget hit can be overcome with more aggressive fundraising. But at least lift the restrictions to give those guys a fair chance in the marketplace.

12:02 PM  
Blogger palmer said...

I agree with Alan and Rango. It is most likely time to cut the umbilical cord with CPB. However, I have great issue with the political grandstanding over this. As Rango said, it is a drop in the bucket in the big scheme. The motivation is solely political and not genuine budget management. If fails Business 101.

2:12 PM  
Blogger jdvorkin said...

Alan - I disagree completely and do so as a life long public broadcaster (now a prof and so on another form of public assistance). Public broadcasting needs public funding because the marketplace as powerful as it is, can deform as well. What public broadcasting needs more than cuts to its budgets is more money so that the highest quality news, information and culture can be provided. Public broadcasting is America's intellectual infrastructure and as valuable in its own way as railroads and highways. Are there undue pressures and self-censorship on public broadcasting? Of course. But those can be corrected much more easily than if the marketplace was the only value. If we abolish public broadcasting, then public education will be the next to go...and it doesn't have far to go now.

6:12 PM  
Blogger rjl said...

What bothers me is the message being sent regarding our cultural assets, PBS being one of the big ones. While I understand the need to cut spending, am not sure we should start with the Arts. Once the money goes away it will never come back. Your math seems to present a compelling argument to make the cut, relying more on public sentiment than federal funding. If anything, I think the Fed should up its support of PBS as it should for all educational programs.

6:13 PM  
Blogger frs said...

Allan, I think you have the wrong short term fix to a long term problem. The marketplace cannot teach a generation to read or they will most certainly be spelling relief ROLAIDS. The marketplace will not offer a diversity of voices and viewpoints unless they are corporations.

I agree that in these times of belt-tightening, eliminating the public broadcasting subsidy would reduce the $1.5 trillion federal budget deficit by nearly 3 ten-thousandths of one percent. However, in a time of unprecedented corporate control and a laissez-faire attitude toward any kind of regulation or oversight, it seems to me the need for public broadcasting is more important than ever.

There were a few of us back in the Carter era who pushed Charlie Ferris's FCC to institute a license tax on commercial broadcasters as a way to finance public broadcasting. I still think that or a spectrum fee is the way to go.

I agree that the Congress should have nothing to do with funding public broadcasting. But to eliminate this subsidy without implementing an alternative revenue stream is simply foolish. Particularly when quality information is harder to come by than at any time in the past half century.

6:44 PM  
Blogger MarkW said...

As a long-time WHYY listener, I did not renew my membership after the disclosure of the WHYY CEO's exorbitant compensation. The number of commercial plugs for their large corporate contributors continues to increase yearly. But the program line-up does remain strong.

If there was ever a case for a paid subscription commercial free model it would apply to PBS and NPR. No government funding required. Better quality programming. Could be the next HBO or Showtime in terms of original content.

7:49 AM  
Blogger michvinmar said...


I take a more long range view of things and so I find much of your argument making a case for public media *reforms.*

For example, I think CPB can be streamlined. I think PBS and NPR can do more to promote investment in local public media content and infrastructure. And, I agree that public media must go through a reconfiguration that promotes innovation and growth of the public service information ecosystem (i.e., the non-profit news start-ups).

To me, the public broadcast system is not something to whack down to size but something to reimagine now that we have established it.

Thanks for the thoughtful piece!


9:23 AM  
Blogger Radio Ann said...

Throw public broadcasting into the free market of the foundation/non for profit industrial complex? I confess to being intrigued - partially because I've thought about it the other way: making CPB the Corporation for Public Media that grants out to nonprofit content producers of all stripes, such as participatory journalism startups.

But I'm not sold on the idea for one reason: why throw the baby out with the bathwater? As Jeffrey Dvorkin pointed out (who's big brain I sit at the altar of), there ways to tackle CPB's transgressions - and I might add in a way that is much more transparent and accountable than a national or regional foundation. That's the piece that's missing when you talk about lumping public media in with all the other non for profits.

Your proposal also neglects the impact on the some 250 university licensees, which are hamstrung by their caretakers in their ability to raise money from the non profit sector. Many serve rural communities: any of those hipsters in Chicago, New York or Seattle interested in applying for a grant to move out to the boonies to maintain a public service media outlet with crummy coffee and no indie bands? I thought not. They'll just stay put and add to the white noise of urbanity.

And finally, from a boots on the ground news perspective, foundations do not have the wealth to replace the journalists lost to buyouts and layoffs from the newspaper industry. Public media can play that role: cheaply, effectively, in partnership with affiliates and with the national organizations.

1:20 PM  
Blogger Robin said...

I haven't given this much thought, but as a social media junkie I have wondered why I didn't get on board with my friends' umbrage at the idea of a cut in public broadcasting. Your provocative, well-reasoned post has convinced me that the Feds should be out of the public broadcasting business. Bravo.

3:15 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Alan -- Two problems exist in the argument. As the co-author of a recent report on public media and political independence (http://www.savethenews.org/public-media/international-models), the lessons of public media in other leading democracies-- from Western Europe, to Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Japan -- are instructive.

First, US public media are woefully underfunded. Per capita federal funding amounts to less than $1.50. Adding in corporate, foundation donors and 'viewers like you' only brings that figure to $9. By contrast, other leading democracies spend between $30 to $130 per capita.

Second, achieving independence from the state can be achieved without cutting off funding. Again, the lessons of public media around the world are instructive. Policies like multi-year funding commitments, legal protection and administrative buffers all ensure that journalists working at public media are sufficiently autonomous from funders.

Why does this matter? Study after study has affirmed the crucial role of public media in creating informed citizens. In countries with strong public media systems, such as virtually all of western Europe, public knowledge about government and international affairs is substantially higher than in countries dominated by commercial media, such as the United States. This holds true across a population’s spectrum of education, income, and race/ethnicity.

6:17 AM  
Blogger Unknown said...

As Czar of Public Broadcasting, I would declare that we would leave public funding behind, offering a (say) three-year plan to wind down the take from the federal treasury. The amount we get from the feds is tiny compared with the independence we would gain.

3:11 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

My response to Mutter's post:



12:31 PM  
Blogger adfsa said...

I'm confused? How is it PUBLIC funding, when the federal government is giving the money? I think PBS can stand on its own without the political implications of whether to fund or not fund it. The amount of sources one has to provide a public message is endless now a days so allow PBS to stand on its own. Great discussion and I'm happy to see a comment board that isn't full of hate, just civil disagreements.

8:01 AM  

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