Defunding Public Media: Disaster Or Opportunity?

Over the years, conservatives have often tried to eliminate money for public broadcasting — without succeeding.

In 1995, for instance, congressional Republicans tried to zero out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Within a few years, its budget was bigger than ever.

This year Congress gave $430 million to CPB, most of which was funneled to public TV and radio stations. And Republicans are once again calling for funding to be eliminated.

Pat Butler of the Public Media Association, which lobbies for PBS and public radio, says the odds against public broadcasting are greater this time.

"There is a $1.6 trillion federal budget deficit that there wasn't in 1995. There is a much larger and more diverse media universe than there was in 1995," he says.

Lights Out?

With the proliferation of new media outlets in television and online it's tougher for public broadcasting to argue that it's indispensable. In this climate, the defunding effort is gaining steam, and Butler says people need to understand what's at stake if CPB money is gone.

"The first thing that would happen is that hundreds of local public television and radio stations would go dark almost immediately," he says. "Many of the 21,000 jobs that are represented in public broadcasting would just disappear."

The stations most at risk are small rural outlets like KPBT in Midland-Odessa, Texas.

"We're in far West Texas," says Daphne Dowdy Jackson, the station's general manager. "We vote primarily Republican. Fact: Laura Bush was a founding member of our public television station back in the mid-1980s."

With just seven employees and no studio of its own, KPBT still produces local programs, including a high school quiz show.

KPBT gets more than half its budget from CPB. Jackson says that without federal money, there simply aren't enough local donors to keep the station going.

"I would hate to say it," she says, "but it would probably spell the end for my station and for many, many small stations across the country."

The Public Media Association's Butler says even stations that survive would suffer without federal money.

Emmy-winning TV producer David Grubin says CPB funds act as seed money to make documentaries.

"It gives me the credibility when I go out to a foundation or a corporation to say that I can get some money from PBS, even though it may not be a lot," he says.

If smaller stations die off, Butler says, the impact would ripple through the system. PBS and public radio networks make money selling programs to local stations.

"Even very large stations, successful programming stations, depend for a great amount of their overall budgets on the smaller stations," she says, "and if the smaller stations can't pay their programming fees, then even the larger stations are going to have to retrench considerably."

Opportunities And Independence

Critics scoff at the notion that public broadcasting would collapse without federal support. They say PBS and public radio have a loyal, affluent audience that will come to their rescue if funding is cut. Others point out that the media landscape has changed. The Internet gives audiences multiple ways to access national programs like Morning Edition.

U.S. Rep. Rich Nugent, a Florida Republican, said on the House floor earlier this month that losing federal funds would force stations to reinvent themselves by becoming more community-oriented.

"Local stations can create their own programs," he said. "They can reorganize their programming so that grant money they might use for membership and programming fees can go elsewhere, and can do private fundraising they need for the dues and programming they need from NPR."

Even some public broadcasting fans say weaning the system off federal money would reap benefits. Jesse Walker of the libertarian magazine Reason says stations pay a price when they take federal money. For one thing there's the perennial threat of government interference.

"I don't think that's good for freedom of speech," he says. "And I don't think it's good for broadcasters who want to do their best, and I don't think it serves audiences well."

Walker says public broadcasting needs to devise a new funding mechanism that will protect its independence, such as a private trust supported by an endowment. It's an idea that gets talked about during each funding crisis.

Grubin, the TV producer, says the real question facing public broadcasting is how to produce the best-quality programs.

"We should look at this budget crisis as an opportunity to ... look at the public television system to see how to use the money most wisely that we have," he says, "rather than to just think of it as, well, who should pay?"

PBS and public radio stations have long been governed by a web of federal regulations. They are barred from running the kinds of advertisements that commercial networks routinely air, for instance. Changing these regulations in any meaningful way won't happen overnight. Still, many people believe public broadcasting would be better off in the long run if it found a new way to support itself and did so in a way that stays true to its mission.

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