CPB considers expansive options for future of public media funding

by Steve Behrens and Dru Sefton, Current Online

When the president-to-be got elected, in part, by mastering Internet social media, and now wants to spread the Web’s powers to citizens as part of his platform — how does public broadcasting fit in?

Barack Obama’s educational and public-service goals track closely with pubcasting’s. This is the candidate whose February 2007 candidacy speech had the ring of public broadcasting’s classic inclusiveness pledge in an applause line: “... and let’s lay down broadband lines through the heart of inner cities and rural towns all across America!”

But despite its online successes, pubcasting still puts most of its sweat into what webheads demean as a “legacy” platform. And what about that geezer name — public broadcasting?

More than a few people inside the field are thinking it’s time for a name change. Forty-one years ago this month Lyndon Johnson signed the law putting “public broadcasting” into law and CPB into the federal budget.

A name change is likely to be on the agenda for discussion by the CPB Board, says Ernest Wilson, the board member just named chair of its new Digital Media Committee, who admits to having advised the Obama campaign but disclaims any official connection.

Leaders of the Association of Public Television Stations also have talked about a shift involving the phrase “public service media,” says Lonna Thompson, acting president.

Adopting the name “Corporation for Public Media” already has been put forth by a Democratic think tank closely aligned with the president-elect. The renamed CPB would endowed with $5 billion to $10 billion to replace its annual appropriations, according to a slim chapter about CPB in the extensive Change for America proposal to be published in January. [PDF of proposal.]

John Podesta, head of the president-elect’s transition team, also runs the Center for American Progress Action Fund, which jointly prepared the book-size agenda. The other partner behind the proposal is the New Democracy Project, headed by New York politico and longtime public-interest activist Mark Green.

Obama has named no fewer than 15 of the book’s authors to his transition team.

Volunteer for a makeover?

What’s necessary, according to Mike Riksen, NPR’s v.p. for policy and representation, is “a reintroduction of what public broadcasting is today in the context of enormous and rampant change that we’re both bringing about and encountering.”

APTS is working on a statement “to add a lot of meat” to its conception of public media, says Lonna Thompson, the association’s general counsel and interim president. The association plans to work with CPB, PBS and NPR to “collectively define what public media is, and the services it can provide.” Oft-mentioned as an example is the CPB-funded online work by St. Louis station KETC in civic education about the mortgage crisis.

Meanwhile, APTS is gearing up to lobby Congress during its annual APTS Capitol Hill Day event, Feb. 9-11 — 3 weeks after Obama’s inauguration. It’s recruiting a Leadership Council made up of articulate and often prominent citizens associated with stations who can lobby for public broadcasting, Thompson says.

Can public broadcasting persuade Obama’s team to see it as a vital participant in his vision for American democracy and Public Media 2.0 interactivity?

Gordon Bava, a Los Angeles attorney who chairs the KCET Board and sits on the APTS Board, says pubcasting’s best hope is to present itself as part of America’s dated infrastructure. “It’s broken, old, in need of repair and remodeling,” he says. “We cannot believe realistically that public broadcasting will get any more money,” says Bava. “It’s not in the cards.”

“We should take a lesson from the auto industry,” he says. “Before we go asking for money, we have to clean up our own mess.”

For example, he says, the system needs to eliminate spending on redundancy. “It’s painful—some people may be out of jobs,” Bava says. But, for instance, in Los Angeles, “we don’t need four public broadcasting stations offering the same PBS content.” By cutting costs, the system could invest more in new technologies and programming.

To fulfill their public-interest hopes, a new generation of activists and policymakers turn to the Internet. So do many public broadcasters, who would gladly march under the flag of “public media.”

But should a Corporation for Public Media send checks only to media organizations that own an FCC licensed transmitter? What about the web-based nonprofit news services arising around the country, aiming to fill reporting gaps left by the shrinking newspapers? Can public media include unpaid bloggers as well as paid professionals?

Carol Pierson, president of the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, anticipates pressing questions about grant eligibility. “Right now there are Internet-only stations. Should some of those groups get funding as well?” It’s an issue that CPB should be looking at, “as public radio also needs to be looking at how to be more inclusive.”

David Liroff, until recently a senior v.p. at CPB, says reconceiving public broadcasting holds major threats to the status quo as well as major opportunities for society. Grant eligibility is “the third-rail question”—a difficult policy quandary that many won’t want to touch. For grantmakers, few criteria are as objective and easy to certify as having an FCC license plus a transmitting tower in the yard.

The National Federation of Community Broadcasters is joining with groups such as Free Press, Common Cause, the Media Access Project and the Media and Democracy Coalition to make pubcasting more visible. “Some of these groups may have quite a bit of influence,” as Pierson says.

“It really behooves public broadcasting to be proactive here and bring in a new generation, including nonprofit newspapers,” says telecom policy advocate Jeff Chester.

“If PBS doesn’t take a proactive role, it will become increasingly irrelevant,” Chester predicts. “Or these groups . . . will come in on their own and organize a political challenge.”

Chester had experience with such things in the 1980s. He was active in independent documentary producers’ challenge to pubcast grant rules, which led Congress to create the Independent Television Service. The congressman behind that 1978 legislation was Henry Waxman, now incoming chair of the House committee that oversees the FCC.

There’s another timely reason to expand aid to public media, Chester says. He suggests that the government boost economic activity by creating jobs in a new “public media corps.” It would revitalize public TV’s “vastly underutilized” stations—doing investigative reporting, creating cultural programming and devising online services.
Who chooses the choosers?

If Congress laid billions on a newly renamed Corporation for Public Media for endowing future grantmaking, as proposed in Change for America, grant eligibility questions also would have to be answered, along with brain-teasers defining how to choose the grantmakers who choose the grantees.

The chapter by Lauren Strayer, executive director of the New Democracy Project, suggests that the board of the new Public Media Trust be selected by a nominating panel of “university presidents, leading writers, artists, scientists, and citizens of accomplishment.” The board shouldn’t include either large political donors or members and owners of commercial media, she wrote.

Strayer credits past PBS President Pat Mitchell and former NTIA chief Larry Irving for assistance with the research.

Such a big investment may not be possible until the economy heals, the proposal says. In the meantime, Strayer suggests integrating PBS and NPR websites and creating a “unified, expansive public media web platform.” For every broadcast program, the website would offer links to related online programming that is “shut out of increasing sanitized public broadcasting lineups,” she says.

“Public broadcasting is in a unique position,” Strayer told Current. “It’s failing because of its poor funding structure, increasing political manipulation and commercial influences. Part of it is we just didn’t set it up right. The problems the Carnegie Commission warned us about, we’re seeing now.”

“We’re getting to the point where we need presidential leadership to fix it.”

article originally published at http://www.current.org.

The media's job is to interest the public in the public interest. -John Dewey