The Public Funding of Public Radio, Part Three: A “Creative” Recommendation For CPB   Leave a comment

February 2, 2012

A Redefined Mission For The Corporation for Public Broadcasting

In previous posts I’ve drawn a distinction between independent public radio stations and NPR. I’ve also explored the origins of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, NPR, PBS, and Public Radio in the United States. I believe that the CPB should continue to receive its existing level of funding or more. Like healthcare, the United States lags behind most other modern societies in its commitment to publicly-funded broadcasters. However, if the current Congress believes that the pitiful level of funding currently authorized must be eliminated, let me suggest a simple solution on how to accomplish long-term cost reductions. To put the idea forward, I must first make a few assumptions:

  1. There are some Republicans in congress who are not interested in de-funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, because doing so would cause irreparable harm to public radio in the United States, within their state, or within their district.
  2. The current level of funding for public broadcasters is an insignificant part of the federal budget and that the American people get a lot for the money, i.e., the government’s investment in the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) amounts to $1.50 per year for each American citizen and resident. (Did you get that? $1.50 for each person in this country. Per year.)
  3. Rural, poor, and lower-income families will be denied access to public radio’s programming that is unavailable elsewhere for free, and they are unable to pay for subscriber services from commercial broadcasters, media suppliers, basic or premium cable and satellite services, and (usually internet-based) news aggregators.
  4. Public broadcasting fills a void unserved by commercial radio and television.
  5. Most public broadcasting is local, that is public stations create programming tailored to a local audience (and tastes) and not programming dictated from some distant and/or amorphous source.
  6. Accept that at some point CPB funding, unfortunately, will be further reduced or eliminated from the federal budget one way or the other, so why not craft legislation and/or a policy to do this in the most viable way possible?

Let’s start with funding. I suggest rounding up (ever so slightly) the annual amount authorized to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in recent years, to $500 million. Using that as a base, I suggest that Congress authorize ten years of funding—$5 Billion—starting with fiscal year 2014, and all contained (and funded to CPB) within that fiscal year’s budget. There. Now Congress no longer has to deal with it, both sides can declare victory and go home. Well, don’t leave quite yet. There’s more to my idea.

Once authorized, Congress would then direct the CPB to immediately allocate the entire $5 billion to stations based on the average of each station’s allocation over the last three years. For example, if station “A” received $125,000, $135,000, and $115,000 over the last three years, station “A” would receive $1.25 million as a lump-sum grant. If a larger operation, i.e., station “B” received $900,000, $850,000, and $950,000 over the last three years, station “B” would receive a $9 million lump sum grant. Just as the funds are allocated today, there would be no strings.

Following the allocations, Congress could overhaul what CPB does, including the authorization of a level of operational funding support for CPB beyond the funding for stations, PBS, NPR, etc., (perhaps a ten-year budget allocation, say 2% of the aforementioned $5 billion in CPB’s funding.) Using the example above that would amount to $100 million, or $10 million per year). Instead of spending its time allocating grants based on formulas, station submissions, etc., CPB should become the central “ideas” clearing house for public radio stations. In short, CPB should become an idea generator or perhaps, an idea distributor. Instead of reports from stations to CPB of how deserving they are, stations would first submit profiles of both their listening audience (measured or estimated), accompanied by a profile of the entire market that they serve based on census data. Having up-to-date demographic information for each station could enable CPB’s staff to create a database where they could help move the information from one station to another station or stations whose audience and market might be suitable.

I don’t expect CPB to instantly morph into the source of all things creative for the hundreds of public radio stations, but rather they could easily refocus to become the link that helps good ideas move around the country. For example,  an oral history project among coal mining families from eastern Tennessee might be easily adapted to sustenance farmers in North Carolina; native Americans in northern Wisconsin to native Americans in northern California. Immigrant families in Pima County Arizona to immigrant families in Iowa. Understand, replicating every detail of a successful oral history, local community, investigative journalism, or human interest project is not the answer; adapting a successful project may translate from one subject to another, from one geographic area to another, from one audience to another. To borrow a phrase, “a good idea is a good idea is a good idea”. Get the ideas circulating with support from CPB on implementing the idea.

In my opinion, Public Radio would be better served by receiving these lump sum grants so that they can upgrade as needed today to compete and create, to reduce debt as needed, and most importantly, implement strategies to secure their future with or without Federal funding. Some (from the right) may complain that ten-years’ funding is too generous in these times; others (on the left) may believe that this idea abandons public radio. However, I believe that $5 billion is the bare minimum required; allocated as lump sum grants, the stations can focus on being a creative, dynamic medium within their markets and not as people waiting for their annual grant. Knowing that the lump-sum grant is it, period, they’ll be forced to be good stewards, smart operators, and creative in both the sense of ideas for programming, and for how to stretch the money to help them reach self-sufficiency.

As I indicated in my analysis of the Act which created the CPB, Congress believed that Public Broadcasting was important to this country and to its citizens, and a thoughtful argument can readily be made that Public Broadcasting and local service are still important today. I would also suggest that Congress not look at this—if they actually ever read this—as a starting point from which to offer, say, five years of funding instead of ten, or $2 billion instead of $5 billion. What I have suggested is the minimum dollar amount and the minimum years of funding necessary to give Public Broadcasters an opportunity to evolve. To do less is unfair to the thousands of people who have poured years of creativity, energy, imagination, and ingenuity into a system designed by Congress. Let them continue their mission. Besides, my funding idea allows Congress to walk away “clean” and stop bitching about Federal funding of broadcasters whose programming they don’t find agreeable. It makes sense, unless having CPB and Public Broadcasters receiving Federal money is somehow important to the messaging for those on the Right, i.e., the perpetual “whipping boy” to foment anger at the Left. Stop talking about Public Radio. Do something about it. And acknowledge that, as my friends on the right might say, the stations or market forces (or both) will decide if there is a future for public broadcasting. Give them ten years to find out. It is the very least Congress can and should do.

David Steffen
Part Two: The Public Funding Of Public Radio, Part-Two: I Win When You Lose
Part One: The Public Funding Of Public Radio, Part One: NPR vs Local Public Stations

© David Steffen 2012


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