Public Media Is America

Although the airwaves that all media travel over are, in fact, owned by the public, commercial entities continue to expand and dominate them, and it is critical that American citizens demand a stake in the information coming into their homes.
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Public media is once again on the chopping block.

Friday, the House of Representatives passed a bill that withdraws all public funding from NPR. Even an amendment that would have allowed for some federal money to pass through to NPR for the sole purposes of facilitating Amber Alerts failed. The Senate is expected, however, to vote down the bill. But that's not the end of it. The House is then expected to introduce another bill that would, if passed, completely cut federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the entity, which, in part, funds NPR as well as PBS, local public broadcasting stations, content makers and other service providers.

This dizzying outcry against public media is not new.

And it's not really surprising that most of the discussion on the value of public media centers on NPR and PBS. These organizations, after all, are viewed as cornerstones of public media in the eyes of most Americans and the most prominent direct targets of the calls for defunding.

But what bothers me about this debate is the lack of true understanding in the public eye about just what public media is. Despite NPR's and PBS's enormous contributions to the media universe -- their bedrock news and information services and their role in the documentation of American life, history, culture and experience -- public media is a whole lot more than NPR and PBS.

Public media is our public square. Without it, we are not America.

Opponents of CPB argue that in today's digital media landscape of 500 plus television channels, exploding social media, YouTube, blogs and Internet radio, the need for federally funded media entities is over.

But not so fast.

To be a fully functioning society, we need good quality public media the same way we need good quality public schools, colleges and universities, public hospitals, transportation, libraries, parks and recreation, and arts and culture. It is not, as some have said, a "frivolous" expense that has no place in a maxed-out federal budget. What it is, instead, is the fabric that binds us together in tough times. That allows us to tell our story and to make sense of events that often seem disjointed, disempowering and that come to us without context or a sense of history.

Think about it: in that crowded landscape of 500 television stations, Twitter, Facebook, blogs, vlogs and whatever is coming at us next, how does the average American compete with multi-billion dollar media empires when it comes to telling the American story? I, for one, am part of a generation of people who know the history of the Civil Rights Movement and Vietnam because of public television. I know about the intricacies of Watergate and African American spiritual music traditions because of public radio.

And this is the piece often missing in today's conversation.

Public media is a tapestry of independently produced media that represents the full range of experiences in our society -- from the very good to the very bad. Are there redundancies? Yes. Are there areas for improvement? Absolutely. But it is in public media that you'll find some of the most culturally diverse, substantive and provocative content. You will find unvarnished, deeply fact-checked history and truly inspiring performance of our highest arts - from jazz to architecture. You will find the voices of young people from the rolling hills of West Virginia to the outback of Alaska. And you will find communities convened around important issues like education and the mortgage crisis.

For over 30 years, at the National Black Programming Consortium (NBPC), for example, which I have been honored to lead for the past five, we have been engaged in increasing the ability and opportunity for underserved communities to not only produce public media content but to have a platform for their voices to be heard in crucial public dialogue.

Over the years, NBPC has helped launch the careers of numerous African American filmmakers including documentarians Stanley Nelson and Louis Massiah, who are MacArthur "genius" grant recipients, Orlando Bagwell, Julie Dash and the late Marlon Riggs, who have all won numerous awards, and many others.

Since its founding, NBPC has re-invested millions of dollars in iconic documentary productions for public television and partnered with local stations as diverse as Howard University's WHUT, WGBH Boston and Mississippi Public Broadcasting to tell American stories from American points of view. We've trained, mentored and supported a diverse array of producers who create content about contemporary African American experiences and have initiated important models to help people connect to technology and use media to participate in and shape their own stories. NBPC also distributes engaging content online. CPB has made this rich legacy possible.

Currently at NBPC, we are partnering with public schools in the District of Columbia to increase the digital literacy of disadvantaged high school students. In today's world, although the public square is now a digital media environment, public media continues to provide necessary access points for all citizens to participate. Digital literacy and training is public media.

Another CPB-funded organization that stands out is the Center for Native American Public Radio, started in 2004 to provide technical, fundraising and programming support to the more than 30 radio stations serving the Native American community from Alaska to Wisconsin. On many Native American reservations, as in other rural areas, public radio stations are often the only freely available local news and information residents have access to. This is public media.

There are also programs like Radio Rookies on WNYC in New York, which gives teens an opportunity to develop radio broadcast skills by creating their own content, and StoryCorps, an oral history project that makes it easy for American families to document their most treasured memories - memories that often overlap with major historical movements and moments. All of this is public media, too.

Every industrialized nation in the world has federally-funded public media. And the current debate is a tremendous opportunity for taxpayers to begin to pay closer attention to what public media is and has been and to shape its future. As in other aspects of government, oversight is particularly important in the areas of transparency and diversity.

In the legislation that created CPB in 1967, it was clear that the intent was for public media to reflect the voices, aspirations and concerns of the American public.

Lost in the conversation on public media today, nevertheless, is the fact that most of the beneficiaries of federal funding are, in fact, not NPR and PBS. According to the Washington, D.C-based Benton Foundation, which works to ensure that public media and telecommunications serve the public interests, 70% of public broadcasting funds go to the literally thousands of local of public radio and television stations across the country; it reaches the many underserved constituencies, from the inner cities to rural town America.

Black public radio stations are also public media, and they depend on CPB. A number are affiliated with historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) like Atlanta's WCLK at Clark Atlanta University or Morgan State's WEAA in Baltimore. When we say we want to eliminate funding to CPB, we are advocating eliminating services to these important organizations that serve often marginalized, unheard voices that this country needs to engage to be able to move boldly into the future.

There are some encouraging signs that the public does value this important service. According to Arbitron's 2010 Public Radio Today study, public radio continues to be a vibrant and relevant part of many Americans' lives by providing important programming not available elsewhere.

Arbitron also points out that public radio is meeting the challenges of a crowded media landscape by taking full advantage of technological innovations including podcasting, Internet streaming and HD Radio®. What I found most hopeful - in our news-challenged universe - is that the report also revealed that the News/Talk format captures nearly half of all public radio listening and remains the most-listened-to public radio format in the nation, with twelve more stations adopting the format in 2009.

What tends to be often misunderstood on the television front is that very nature of PBS, which is essentially a distribution service. PBS itself doesn't produce content. It doesn't own any stations. Because it is a subscription service with local stations paying dues, it's really the local stations (there are over 300 local public TV stations operating independently) and their communities that will feel the impact of any defunding.

Many of these local stations receive as much as 30% of their funding from CPB. In other words, it will be the little guy, those already vulnerable media outlets, which will get burned the most by a defunding of CPB.

So what does this all mean? It means that in an increasingly consolidated media world dominated and controlled by large corporate, market-driven entities, in an era where hard news divisions of the mainstream media continue to morph into entertainment and opinion-driven formats at the expense of hard facts and information, public media is more important than ever before. Without support for public media, the public square will be completely compromised.

As local newspapers fight for survival and local commercial radio continues to yield to nationally syndicated programming, public media has been and will continue to be the go-to place for objective news and information nationally and locally. It is on local public media that quality programming time can be devoted to issues like local elections, police brutality, corruption at city hall, teacher evaluations and the impact of the financial crisis on the local economy. It is this watchdog function that is critical in any working democracy.

Now, all this is not to say, that there is not important work ahead if public media is to remain the vital resource it has been for the American people.

As our country becomes ever more diverse, both PBS and NPR must continue to step up their efforts to reflect the changing demographics of American society in their hiring, funding and programming practices. Diversity is needed not only in terms of race, but also in terms of age and different perspectives. Decision-making should not rest in the hands of a few people who share very similar ideas about what the American taxpaying public considers quality and engaging programming. That power should rest in the hands of the taxpayers themselves.

Although the airwaves that all media travel over are, in fact, owned by the public, commercial entities continue to expand and dominate them, and it is critical that American citizens demand that they have a stake in the information coming into their homes, that their tax dollars serve the people. We can do that by recognizing and valuing the tremendous history of public media in this country and helping to ensure its vital role in our democracy going forward.

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