The System

Go to a meeting of public broadcasting managers and you’re likely to hear them talk about “the system.” They’re talking about the government-chartered system that was established in 1967 with passage of the Public Broadcasting Act.

See Outside Help → 1967 Public Broadcasting Act

This act of congress lays out the high-spirited mission that drives our system to this day. It established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which gave life to two primary programming entities: The Public Broadcasting System (PBS) for national television programming; and NPR — National Public Radio.

Probably the best online collection of content relating to the issues of public media in America is that provided here by Current.

History

Prior to 1967, there wasn’t much of a system. There were many educational stations at universities and schools (educational stations have been around since broadcasting’s beginnings). These and some community oriented stations may have been loosely confederated but they were not organized as a national system.

The government first officially acknowledged the need for a non-commercial radio system during the 1940’s when it approved FM radio and in so doing set-aside the non-commercial spectrum from 88.1 to 91.9 FM.

For a full historic overview, see
Outside Help → Current: History of Public Broadcasting

Today, there are roughly 1000 broadcast stations in the public broadcasting system (about 3/4 on radio and 1/4 on television.)

There are also many non-commercial stations that do not conform to CPB requirements and are not in the system. These include religious broadcasters and some community and educational stations.

CPB

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting is the largest single funding source for public radio and television. CPB is not a government agency under the executive branch. It is a private, non-profit corporation that exists to foster and support public media in the United States. It is based in Washington, D.C., and is governed by a nine-member board, appointed by the president, serving staggered six-year terms.

Link to the CPB website.

The CPB’s main function is to go to congress and ask for annual appropriations for the system. It tries to “forward fund” the system as a stabilizer for station budgets, and as a form of insulation against political influence.

CPB may not pay itself more than 5% of the federal appropriation. The bulk of funding (89%) must go to stations and program producers. Of that money, CPB sends 75% to television and 25% to radio. And most of that goes directly to stations in the form of “community service grants.”

News Directors should not wonder if their coverage of congress might have political implications for public broadcast funding. Aside from the inappropriate chilling effect this might have, ND’s need to know that the CPB funding system is designed to insulate them and protect our editorial independence and integrity.

System Issues

The past and future challenges in the public broadcast system would take volumes to explore but here are a few key matters for public radio news directors to think about:

Are we one big system? In fact, public broadcasting is a highly factionalized confederation of stations and networks and organizations and vendors that may share a lofty mission but don’t always see eye to eye on how to achieve it. It’s been clear for decades that the radio side of the system operates quite differently than the television side. Moving ahead to a converged future may force the system to reconcile these differences. In some places that is happening. See Case Study → Ideastream: The New Public Media.

Money, money, money. The egalitarian ideal of public service broadcasting is far more visible in the well-funded models we see in the BBC and the CBC. Here in the United States, a decentralized public-private system relies heavily on direct dollars from users. There’s nothing wrong with that except far more people use the service than pay for it (beyond their 50-cent tax contribution). The ensuing gasping for funding has led to some dicey approaches to program funding. See Case Study → KQED and Mondavi: A Matter of Distance?

Local station bypass. It’s well known that listeners tune to local stations first and foremost to receive the high quality national news and cultural programming provided primarily by NPR. Stations rightly want to keep this arrangement as they regard NPR as a product of years of investing or at least the key to offering a complete news service. Now that NPR has the technical capability to bypass the local stations and serve listeners directly via the internet, the system is wrestling over how to advance together in a way that balances the varying interests with the demands of users. This Current article captures one obvious idea: Strong Local/National News Site.

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