Public Broadcasting at Fifty: From a Proud Beginning to an Uncertain Future

Republished with permission of The Progressive
Signing of Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 (S.1160). LBJ Library photo by Yoichi Okamoto

Throughout this year, National Public Radio is celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of its flagship news program “All Things Considered.” The system of public broadcasting in the United States was codified into law in 1967 when President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act. Here is a story about those days, written by longtime community radio activist Norman Stockwell in 2017.

Fifty years ago, on November 7, 1967, President Lyndon Baines Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, which set the foundation for what we know today as National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). It also created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nongovernmental agency to fund the two fledgling broadcasting services. The amounts were small ($5 million in the first year) but helped keep these new services afloat as they developed a new national broadcasting system.

Today NPR has 989 member and affiliated stations and serves more than thirty-seven million weekly listeners; PBS has 350 member stations and serves 82 percent of U.S. households. But President Donald Trump, from his earliest days in office, has threatened to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which currently receives $445 million in federal funding.

That’s 0.02 percent of the federal budget, or about two dollars per person each year. The balance of the operating costs of public broadcasting stations are funded by listeners, viewers, and some business donations. In comparison, France spends $54 per person per year on public broadcasting and Norway spends $134 per person per year.

Already, public broadcasting in the United States is largely listener-sponsored. Every dollar of federal funding is used to leverage approximately six dollars of local matching funds. Meanwhile, noted veteran public television broadcaster Bill Moyers in a 2006 speech, “Congress even gave the media mogul Rupert Murdoch a tax break equal to about one fourth of public broadcasting’s annual appropriation from Congress, money he might well have turned around and invested in his own ministry of information, Fox News, which regularly beats up on public television for being publicly funded.”

Moyers spent the majority of four decades in public television, but before that he worked for President Johnson, including two years as his press secretary. Beginning in 1964, Johnson asked Moyers to join a series of meetings on “educational television” that eventually became the Carnegie Commission. Moyers, in his speech, recalls that the commission looked at how television “could be more diverse, exposing us to the experiences and thoughts of people living on the other side of the country or the other side of the globe.”

Johnson, Moyers recalled, was fully on board with these discussions. “The President sat in on some of these meetings,” he said. “He liked what he heard, and when he sent to Congress what became the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, it was with a ringing request that ‘the public interest be fully served through the public airwaves.’ ”

On signing the Public Broadcasting Act, Johnson said it “will give a wider and, I think, stronger voice to educational radio and television by providing new funds for broadcast facilities.” But, as Moyers noted, getting the bill passed into law was no easy task.

“This was no immaculate conception,” he said. “We had a fight on our hands. A zealous band of opponents tried to kill the idea altogether. Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina said public television would be taken over by communists.”

“Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina said public television would be taken over by communists.”

In an odd twist of history, radio was almost left without a seat at the table; the bill was originally called the Public Television Act. As Jack Mitchell, the first producer of the daily news program All Things Considered and NPR’s first paid employee, wrote in Wisconsin on the Air: 100 Years of Public Broadcasting in the State That Invented It: “UW [University of Wisconsin] president Fred Harvey Harrington was one of those who had urged Congress to insert the words ‘and radio’ into the legislation.” As part of his testimony, Harrington read letters from “enthusiastic radio listeners throughout Wisconsin.”

Before All Things Considered, Mitchell was public affairs director at WHA radio in Madison. He later served as director of Wisconsin Public Radio for twenty-one years. During his time there, he helped transform the Wisconsin Educational Radio Network into Wisconsin Public Radio, which today provides two statewide networks to serve its audience.

Bill Siemering, a member of NPR’s founding board, grew up in a small Wisconsin town listening to WHA, as he recalls in a recent interview: “I went to Silver Springs School, outside of Madison, and listened to the ‘school of the air.’ So from first grade on, I looked to radio as a source of information and imagination. I learned art, social studies, science, and all about nature from radio.”

It was Siemering who wrote NPR’s original mission statement. He had been working in radio in Buffalo, New York, and had become involved in programs with the city’s African American community.

“So I had this kind of practical experience with diversity,” he says. “That’s why that theme or phrase is reiterated throughout that mission statement about celebrating differences with joy and respecting the plurality of the country.” The goal of public radio, in his mind, was to “encourage a sense of active, constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.”

WHA, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, began as an experimental station, 9XM, on the University of Wisconsin campus. Its first broadcast was a transmission of a phonograph record. From the start, writes former WHA employee Randall Davidson in his history 9XM Talking: WHA Radio and the Wisconsin Idea, the station “sought to serve the state’s rural residents with useful programming and live up to the spirit of the Wisconsin Idea,” the Progressive Era principle of education beyond the classroom.

Wisconsin public broadcasting, too, has faced threats to its funding in recent years. In February 2015, Governor Scott Walker proposed cuts of more than $5 million to the Educational Communications Board (the agency that oversees Wisconsin Public Radio and Wisconsin Public Television stations). The size of the cut was eventually halved by the state legislature.

When these cuts were first threatened, the board’s executive director, Gene Purcell, warned that they could have a devastating impact. “We would lose an element of what we have now, and what we have now is a combination of national material, of national journalism, of local journalism, of local arts—that mix of being national and being Wisconsin-centric.”

Trump’s proposed budget calls for zeroing out funding for public broadcasting, which it says would be “consistent with the President’s approach to move the nation toward fiscal responsibility.” As of this writing, it is unclear what the Corporation for Broadcasting’s final federal budget allocation will be.

U.S. Representative Mark Pocan, Democrat of Wisconsin, said during a recent town hall meeting, “What we’ve seen from the Republicans so far is a willingness to trim it back, and trim it back means cut it, but not go as far as what Donald Trump did. I think this is one of those issues where people calling their elected officials is extremely helpful because I don’t think there’s a mass movement to want to get rid of Big Bird and the Cookie Monster. So people have to show the support they have for independent public broadcasting.”

“I don’t think there’s a mass movement to get rid of Big Bird and the Cookie Monster. People have to show the support they have for independent public broadcasting.”

Trump’s call to end funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is consistent with a 2016 proposal by the conservative Heritage Foundation, called “Blueprint for Balance,” which states: “Many nonprofits manage to stay in business without receiving federal funding by being creative and reacting to market fluctuations. Public broadcasters should be no exception. NPR and PBS should seek to find new sponsors, create new shows, and find alternative ways to generate viewership without receiving taxpayer funding.”

Yet the majority of voters across the country support federal funding for public broadcasting. According to a recent bipartisan poll by the firms Hart Research and American Viewpoint, more than 70 percent oppose eliminating funding for public television, and only 14 percent of voters would like to see it decreased. According to the poll, “83 percent of voters, including 70 percent who voted for President Trump, say they would tell elected representatives to find other places to save money.”

Many studies have also shown that arts funding actually grows the economy and creates jobs. But the support for public radio is perhaps most important in rural and minority communities where residents often lack other sources of local broadcast programming. Without public funding, says Sally Kane, head of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, “a public media service in less densely populated areas of the country would be decimated and as a result there would be less diversity of voices and less coverage of critical issues impacting rural communities and communities of color.”

Julie Drizin, executive director of Current, the newspaper of public broadcasting, says the funding from the federal government “is sort of a floor, a guarantee for communities around the country, which include places of deep poverty, isolated rural areas that don’t have access to information and cultural programming.”

And, as Drizin notes, public broadcasting is actually an economic engine. “Public media employs more than 20,000 people full time in the country,” she says. “And when you start to add some of these other institutions and organizations, it gets closer probably to 25,000 people employed in this industry. And they are all over the country.”

She adds that in the twenty-first century, public broadcasting is developing “a much greater commitment to featuring a diversity of voices—diversity politically, diversity racially and ethnically, diversity in terms of geography and age. So, like everything in this country, it’s an ongoing evolving experiment, but the vision and the mission are really clear about what the purpose is.”

Drizin remains optimistic about the future of public broadcasting. “No other media has a mission like public media,” she says. “Other media have a different mission and that is to make money for the owners and the shareholders. Our shareholders are the American public. They’re the ones who public media has to serve, respond to, reflect, in everything that we do.”

Maria Hinojosa, a longtime public media journalist and NPR’s first Latina correspondent and founder of Futuro Media Group, agrees.

“Everybody who works with public media as an independent producer has to have a tremendous amount of resilience, patience, we call it the never giving up part of who we are,” she says. “We do it because of the love of the work, because of our role in understanding and being responsible to that mission of bringing the diversity of voices into the public media system. And, in this moment in history, what I’m hearing from people is ‘Thank you, we need you, please don’t stop.’ ”

As LBJ said fifty years ago on signing the Public Broadcasting Act: “Today we rededicate a part of the airwaves—which belong to all the people—and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.”

Norman Stockwell is publisher of The Progressive. Previously he spent more than three decades working in noncommercial radio.

This article original appeared in The Progressive, and online.