Magazine article The Progressive

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

Magazine article The Progressive

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

Article excerpt

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."

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. …

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