Why to Save Public Media: It's Yours

One of my favorite routines from George Carlin is about people wanting to save the planet. He said, It's not about saving the planet. "The planet is fine. The people are f***ed... The planet isn't going anywhere. We are."

I feel the same way about public media. Once again, some members of Congress want to kill funding for public media. Now, not only do I disagree with that, but I also disagree with a lot of the ways people are framing why and how to "save" public media. We can talk all we want about saving NPR and PBS, but really what we are saving is our own access to information and community.

First of all, America's public media is a shadow of that in many developed countries. If we want to wallow in our own ignorance, then we can try to eliminate the funding pipeline. At the same time -- not to be dismissive, but not to be alarmist -- what we call public media is already vastly funded by private individuals and underwriting.

That doesn't mean that cuts don't matter. Anyone who's pinching their pennies in this economy knows that money is money, and money counts. Does the Federal Government need to balance revenue and expenditures? Of course. But the total Federal funding for public media, $430 million, is not only a drop in the total $3.7 trillion proposed budget, but a fraction of what's spent on political pork. And note -- 70 percent of Federal public media funding goes to local stations.

Those stations are also facing state budget cuts. Blue Ridge PBS, which says it serves 26,000 square miles, has had its state funding cut by 25%. The money could be eliminated. As they state in an online piece, "Will Sesame Street Stay On":

Right now state funding makes up 20 percent of the station's more than $3.5 million dollar budget. Another 20 percent comes from the federal government. The rest comes from viewers and corporate donors.... In 2008 the state funded more than $1-million to Blue Ridge PBS. This year it's down to $732,000. Under the current budget proposal it would be slashed to zero over the next two years.

The question facing public media now is what to do and how to frame an argument for continued funding, while still doing the job of reporting the news. That's no mean feat. But here are a few trends that are changing the game.

First, people, under economic duress, are cutting their cable and other bills that seemed essential in better times, but less so now. Some are turning to broadband for video and audio programming, but others are using radios and rabbit-ear televisions. You can get PBS and NPR on those, and while there are commercial news and entertainment sources, they're not the same. (Note: I didn't say better or worse, but different, tonally and substantively.) People deserve choice even if they don't have a lot of money.

Second, public media is doing some internal mentoring/tough love. I'm thinking of organizations like the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, under CEO Maxie Jackson. The NFCB represents smaller public radio stations, and it's working to ensure they have a game plan for these times. As Jackson says about the proposed cuts, "FEAR is not an option, ANGER has little value, and DISGUST is not a solution. This dire forecast requires immediate strategic, rigorous and impacting action." (Disclosure: I'm speaking at their June conference, on the topic of social media for radio.)

Third, to circle back to outlets like Blue Ridge PBS, public media isn't about some remote system. It's about communities... communities that need information, tools, and choice, now in this economy more than ever. It's up to us to make sure that those tools are available, for free, to everyone.


Some articles of note supporting continued funding:

The Argument for Funding Public Media, by WNYC CEO Laura Walker and Kohanic Broadcast Corp. (Anchorage, Alaska) CEO Jaclyn Sallee