This is the view from Martin Goldsmith, then host of NPR’s daily classical music program Performance Today, who served as announcer, producer and program director at Washington’s WETA-FM between 1974 and 1986. From the same thinking that has offered “seamlessness,” “affinity,” “modes” and “appeal-driven programming” as ways of capturing the public radio audience now comes “customer service.” At first glance, this concept seems perfectly reasonable, even admirable. It conjures up images of the radio programmer as shopkeeper, hustling to fill his customers’ orders, keeping them satisfied so that they’ll continue to place their orders at that familiar stand on the dial. With customer satisfaction, so the theory goes, comes customer loyalty …
In 1995, Current asked three of public TV’s highly regarded program-makers to write “Dear Impresario” letters to the next chief programmer at PBS — a position then vacant. Danny Schechter is the executive producer of Globalvision Inc., producers of Rights & Wrongs: Human Rights Television, which the previous PBS programmer, Jennifer Lawson, had declined to distribute. PBS’s future rests on a “vision thing.” We all know that systems generally are resistant to change, and that managers of most of our most venerable and vulnerable enterprises tend to be risk-adverse and prudent, seeking to be safe rather than sorry. Yet as we look at the landscape of modern life, we can see the wreckage of those institutions that clung to old ways of thinking and doing in a turbulent world.
If public broadcasting loses its federal aid, it’s “highly unlikely” that it will recover the same amounts by increasing revenues from product licensing, individual contributors or local and state governments, an economics consulting firm reported back to CPB last week. Moreover, “the nature of public broadcasting will inevitably change” if the field loses its federal assistance, according to National Economic Research Associates, a White Plains, N.Y., firm that presented conclusions of its CPB-commissioned study to the CPB Board on March 14. Steven Schwartz, v.p. of NERA, also estimated that public broadcasting has a value of $2.8 billion to $4.3 billion to the American public–far more than the $1.8 billion from all sources that are spent on it, or the $285 million that Congress appropriated for this year. The study responded to remarks by public broadcasting’s opponents on the CPB funding issue, who contend that the field could easily replace the federal aid. No easy options
Revenues from product licensing are “too small and uncertain to be relied upon,” Schwartz told the CPB Board.
Three polls taken last month gave majorities of 62 to 84 percent favoring CPB’s federal funding. Then, a few days later, comes one showing the public 63 percent okaying cutbacks. Why such a flip-flop? “Question wording can move poll results very drastically,” replies John Brennan, polling director at the Los Angeles Times, which published the fourth poll. In the first three polls, the questions about CPB appropriations simply asked whether the funding should be continued or eliminated or, in the case of PBS’s own commissioned poll, whether it should be increased, maintained or decreased.
The little town where I grew up — Manning, S.C. — was small enough that we could walk to church on Sunday. My Sunday School teacher was a Southern matriarch named Virginia Richards Sauls, one of nine daughters of a South Carolina governor. Miss Virginia, as we called her, never tired of telling us the great stories of the Bible. Her favorite was the Parable of the Talents. In that parable, a rich man leaving on a journey entrusts his property — measured in what were called talents — to his three servants for safekeeping.
Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Wendy Wasserstein wowed a lunchtime audience at the Public Television Annual Meeting in June 1994 with her personal testimonial for public TV, relating her experience in terms far more vivid than the bland, generic phrases usually used to describe and defend the medium. Wasserstein received the Pulitizer as well as a Tony and other awards for her play The Heidi Chronicles in 1989. From the podium at the PBS conference, Wasserstein looked out on a vast dark room full of noshing broadcasters … When WNET invited me to speak to this intimate little luncheon in Orlando today, I jumped on a plane because I had nightmare visions of an imminent merger, and Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse hosting the MacNeil/Lehrer Report and Charlie Rose opening his show by singing, “Be my guest, be my guest . .
This article is based on remarks by Marshall Turner, then chair of the CPB Board, at the board’s Jan. 27, 1994, meeting. Turner is an engineer and partner in the San Francisco venture capital firm of Taylor and Turner Associates and a longtime board member of PBS and KQED-TV/FM. Some say that the advent of new media — in particular, the challenge of cable television — has decreased the need for public broadcasting and its partial federal support. The opposite is true.
The old-timers wandered curiously among the shelves, munching cookies and poking into file boxes, looking casually for their footprints in the history of public broadcasting. It was the concluding field trip of this month’s Public Broadcasting Reunion [related article] — a bus ride from Washington to nearby University of Maryland at College Park, where the new National Public Broadcasting Archives is open for business. Donald R. McNeil, the founding director, and Thomas Connors, his designated successor, showed off a facility that already has:
2,500 shelf feet of corporate records from CPB, PBS, NPR and other organizations;
360 shelf feet of personal papers and dozens of oral histories of the field;
5,600 audio tapes from the National Association of Educational Broadcasters, WAMU-FM and WETA-FM; and
3,000 videotapes from PBS, WETA-TV, Maryland PTV and other sources, among other things. Five hundred file boxes from Children’s Television Workshop are on the way, and 800 more reels from NPR. Standing in the high-ceilinged, half-empty room in the basement of the university’s Hornbake Library, Connors invited the visitors to talk with the archives about old correspondence, reports and other items that might make the day of some future historian.
The man who put New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia on the radio, reading the comics during a newspaper strike — M.S. “Morrie” Novik — talked the other day about his first trip west of Chicago. That excursion to Iowa more than 50 years ago was also the first time the head of New York’s municipal radio station, WNYC, had much contact with the midwesterners who were big in “educational radio.” Novik recognized they were up to the same thing he was, and he joined a fellowship that continues today. He was among his fellows again Oct. 8-9 , during a Public Broadcasting Reunion, where a big roomful of admitted idealists reminisced, ribbed each other, tut-tutted about things these days, and unabashedly proclaimed their values.