The argument for funding public media

By Laura R. Walker and Jaclyn Sallee
Thursday, February 3, 2011; 8:00 PM

Federal funding for public media has once again become a target in the debate about fiscal prudence. Attempts last fall to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting were defeated along party lines. CPB provides financial support for locally owned and operated public radio and television stations, and acts as a journalistic firewall between the government that provides this funding and the public media journalism it funds. When the new Congress convened last month, legislation was once again introduced in the House. If there is to be a battle about the funding of public media, we should all know how it works and what is at stake.

The CPB's federal appropriation this fiscal year is $430 million - about $1.39 per American. More than 70 percent of that funding goes to local stations around the country, accounting for, on average, nearly 16 percent of their annual budgets. For some, such as New York Public Radio, CPB funding is a smaller - although important - part of the operating budget because their audience size and urban location enable them to rely on a mix of membership, foundation and underwriting support. For stations in rural or economically hard-hit areas that aren't able to attract as much other support, CPB funding is their lifeblood.

Most of the rest goes to producers of content, including station-based producers, independents and national entities such as PBS and NPR. This funding is critical to programs such as "PBS NewsHour," "Nova," "Frontline" and "On the Media," as well as to local programming, and has been used to leverage millions of additional dollars from other non-governmental sources. Without the CPB, these programs simply might not exist.

Public radio and television stations are important sources of information in their communities. This is all the more significant given the contraction in journalism. According to the 2010 Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism, print newsrooms nationally have shrunk 25 percent in the past three years; similarly, local television stations have lost more than 1,500 jobs since 2008.

In Akron, Ohio, for example, the lone local newspaper is struggling and only one commercial broadcaster provides local news. The public radio station in nearby Kent helps fill the void by focusing on local and regional reporting. Stations in places as varied as Oklahoma City; Seattle; Ames, Iowa; and throughout Wisconsin are using blogs, podcasts and other new technologies in addition to their broadcasts to educate and inform their communities.

In rural states such as Alaska, CPB support enables stations to provide information and communication services in areas that are so isolated and sparsely populated that few commercial broadcasters reach them. KNBA in Anchorage, an Alaska Native public radio station, offers such shows as "Native America Calling" and "National Native News." Some public stations offer a daily message service to inform people who lack telephones about planes to be met, packages and supplies to be picked up, or the whereabouts of hunters, trappers and fishermen who haven't checked in recently.

Some will argue that public broadcasting should not be funded by the government it needs to hold accountable. But CPB's role as a buffer has worked remarkably well. The Pew study found that 72 percent of Americans feel that "most news sources are biased in their coverage." But they don't feel that way about public broadcasting - among the most trusted news sources anywhere.

Others rightly argue that public media could and should cut costs to operate more efficiently. Stations should be given incentives to streamline back-office costs and share services to use resources more efficiently. This would enable more stations to provide critical services, as KETC did in St. Louis by developing Web resources to help hundreds of people deal with mortgage foreclosures and how Detroit's WDET, which partnered with the nationally distributed public radio news program "The Takeaway," did in revealing how a Latino neighborhood adjacent to the single busiest border crossing in North America was being destroyed by large commercial tractor-trailers.

Some steps have been taken. In 2010, the CPB launched the Local Journalism Centers initiative, a regional program in seven areas, to hire an estimated 51 journalists to report in-depth on issues such as immigration, education, agribusiness and health. The resulting work is being shared across public radio and television, including on some nationally syndicated shows.

CPB funding to the nation's 1,300 locally owned public radio and TV stations is also indispensable to cultural and educational programs, whether it is Acadian country fiddling shared by communities in Maine and Louisiana; the independent music scenes in Seattle, Minneapolis and Philadelphia; or classical stations that would have long ago disappeared from the airwaves were it not for public radio.

Every month, more than 170 million Americans use public radio, television and online services for news, education, arts and cultural content. That's a majority of the country. At its core, public broadcasting belongs to the American people; it stands as a testament to our generosity and curiosity. In the midst of cynicism, public media organizations firmly believe that learning is a lifelong and joyful pursuit. Democrats, Republicans and independents must consider all of this when trying to determine whether public media's unique commitment to local communities and learning is worth the cost.

Laura R. Walker is president and chief executive of New York Public Radio. Jaclyn Sallee is president and chief executive of Officer Kohanic Broadcast Corp. in Anchorage.

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