NCMR: The Dicey Future of Public Broadcasting

When I first walked in I’d just been in the hip-hop panel, and actually started to giggle. The audience for this panel was like the polar opposite of the hiphop audience, I thought maybe there was a nice baroque music concert or a showing of a Jane Austen film — mostly older, even elderly, middle-class white people. Before the panel started the audience got a little younger and more diverse, but I still couldn’t shake the feeling like I’d gone to hear the panel in a church basement somewhere.

I don’t mean to be disrespectful or rude to anyone ( I listen to a lot of public radio myself). But I think this observation alone gets at a problem and a split within the media reform movement. Who is public broadcasting for? I think the stereotype is exactly that it’s for middle-aged middle-class liberal white people. But if that’s what much of media reform is fighting for — better public media for middle-aged middle-class white folks — then is that really furthering a larger program of social justice?

I didn’t really think this panel is going to address that question, but I was wrong.

Leslie Fields-Cruz,, of the national black programming coalition, adressed it directly, asking us to look around and notice the lack of diversity, both in age and race. She noted that the biggest fight she faces is where her coalition’s programs get placed in a stations’ broadcast schedule. Too often their programs are simply placed during Black History Month. But Kruse emphasized that the black experience is more universal and should not be ghettoized.

Peter Hart, from Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting, was the first panelist and he wasted no time in slaughtering the sacred cpw. Hart recounted the last few public broadcasting funding crises as situations where Republican administrations threaten funding, causing activists to rally to its defense, but then accept a wounded but still breathing public broadcasting as a victory.

He asked, “What is public broadcasting supposed to do?” Even according to the CPB public broadcasting is supposed to serve unserved audiences, especially children and minorities. But instead public broadcasting often replicates what’s on mainstream broadcast already — especially public TV programs like the Newshour, Charlie Rose and the McLaughlin group who feature the same (white, male, Republican) politicians. He observed that public broadcasting is bullied into featuring more conservative broadcasting as a result of false accusations of being left-wing and needing to protect federal funding.

Hart questioned if this is a system worth retaining, and urged structural changes in how the corporation for public broadcasting is funded, removing political appointments from the process.

I agree that the political vulnerability of the CPB is one source of public broadcasting’s increasingly conservative outlook. But so is the constant reduction in public funding–which Hart also noted–that requires more dependence on corporate and foundation funding. Ursula Ruedenberg from Pacifica pointed to community radio, which relies much less on the CPB, as being able to remain more independent because stations rely more directly on listeners.

Of course community radio funding can be pretty precarious, too, but is far less susceptible to political or corporate influence and force.

While public radio seems much more secure, given a growing audience even while the overall radio audience is slowly shrinking, I still think it merits asking if American public broadcasting, especially television, is worth saving in its current state. Reforming and restructuring funding might mean there’s less power forcing it to the right, but does that mean it would really be better?

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