Loss of federal aid will stifle diversity, innovation in public media

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As the political battle over federal aid to public broadcasting focuses narrowly on NPR, two public media leaders describe what’s most vulnerable to funding cuts: diversity and innovation in content.

“[W]hat bothers me about this debate is the lack of true understanding in the public eye about just what public media is,” writes Jacquie Jones of the National Black Programming Consortium for the Huffington Post. “Despite NPR’s and PBS’s enormous contributions to the media universe — their bedrock news and information services and their role in the documentation of American life, history, culture and experience — public media is a whole lot more than NPR and PBS. . . .”

“Public media is a tapestry of independently produced media that represents the full range of experiences in our society — from the very good to the very bad,” Jones writes. “Are there redundancies? Yes. Are there areas for improvement? Absolutely. But it is in public media that you’ll find some of the most culturally diverse, substantive and provocative content.”

Jessica Clark of American University’s Center for Social Media points to the field’s recent progress in launching innovative digital news projects and cross-platform content distribution and writes that these efforts would be strangled by funding cuts and prompt an exodus of talent and private sources of support.

“It is exactly public media’s mandate to inform and involve the whole public — not just targeted partisan clusters or market niches — that drives such content innovation,” Clark writes for MediaShift. “Beloved shows such as Sesame Street and This American Life broke new ground in terms of voice, aesthetics and inclusion of differing perspectives. They served new waves of users, influencing commercial formats in the process.” The new generation of innovative public media content — public radio’s Snap Judgment, the Public Insight Network, and the Public Media Corps — could be lost before their full potential for creativity and innovation in media is realized.

Clark writes: “Such losses could mean sure and slow (or maybe not-so-slow) death for the sector. They’ll drive a brain-drain of younger, more creative and wired staffers just at the point when Boomers are beginning to retire in droves out of stations and national networks. They’ll choke off funding for independent radio, film and online producers. They’ll disgust foundations and major donors who have poured millions into trying to jump-start the shift from public broadcasting into public media 2.0. What’s more, they’ll render public media mute in a national conversation that is increasingly 24-7 and cross-platform.”

Without getting into specifics, Clark describes CPB’s direct annual appropriation for digital initiatives as a cornerstone of public media innovation. This is one of several lines in the federal budget that are vulnerable to budget cuts beyond CPB’s forward-funded appropriation of $460 million for fiscal 2013.

Congress provided $36 million to CPB Digital in 2010. President Obama has proposed cutting it to $6 million.