One of the difficulties that public media face as they struggle to maintain tax-based and viewer/listener-sensitive income is that the recommendations of so many people betray a misunderstanding of the very structure that exists in the U.S. This even includes our most distinguished supporters.
Case in point is an article in the April Atlantic by the great Newton N. Minow, the former FCC chairman in the Kennedy Administration and a former PBS board chairman and author of the famous “vast wasteland” speech. Surely he would get it right:
…we need to give greater support to public radio and public television. Both have been starved for funds for decades, and yet in many communities they are essential sources of local news and information—particularly public radio, which is relatively inexpensive to produce and distribute and is a valuable source of professionally reported news for millions of Americans. There is virtually nothing else like it on the air. Public-television stations, as I saw when I was the chairman of PBS, are overbuilt, sometimes with four competing in the same market. Where that is so, stations should be sold and the revenue dedicated to programming a national news and public-affairs service, built on the foundation of the splendid PBS NewsHour. And a crucial part of that service—as with public media around the world—should be to promote the country’s arts and culture. [emphasis added]
Well, not really. Here he calls for the 30 or so independently-owned overlapped stations to be sold (requiring 30 separate sales) with the money aggregated somehow (sorry, Licensee, you can’t use it to fund other problems you have), to enhance a program service that probably none of the 30 carry now. At the announced sales price of public TV stations in two top-25 markets, that could raise roughly $90 million, which, invested after sales costs, would generate about $4 million per year – again if, miraculously, you could somehow aggregate it. The CPB base grants these stations have would be easier to aggregate and yield more – $12 million per year – but then we have the problem of the remaining 140 or so eligible recipients also feeling the big hurt and needing relief. Even if these problems could be solved and the money aggregated, it’s too small. While not chump change, is a long way from being sufficient to build the kind of service Minow envisions – even if it was done far more cheaply in radio or on the web.
Mr. Minow is one of public media’s most distinguished and articulate champions, but this misses because it misunderstands the nature of what brings NPR, PBS and other programs to Americans every day.