This commentary traces public broadcasting back to its earliest days and its root principles of populism and public education. Media historian Robert W. McChesney, founder of the citizen group Free Press, draws on his 1993 book Telecommunications, Mass Media, and Democracy: The Battle for the Control of U.S. Broadcasting, 1928-1935 (Oxford University Press). This is an edited version of McChesney’s March 1995 talk at the University of California, San Diego. Though the federal contribution to public broadcasting is being extended, if at a reduced rate, for two or three more years, the handwriting is on the wall: there may be no more government subsidized broadcasting in the United States by the end of the decade. I believe that it is very much in the public interest for the nonprofit, noncommercial media to be expanding instead.
A longtime NPR correspondent — then vice president in charge of the network’s news division — adapted this article from his remarks at Washington State University. Buzenberg later held top news posts at Minnesota Public Radio before moving to a prominent nonprofit newsroom, the Center for Public Integrity. Critics of sleaze, sex and violence in movies, music and the media have given public broadcasters their best chance yet to make a positive case for the value of public broadcasting to American society. In contrast to the anything-goes-as-long-as-it-makes-money values of some commercial media, public broadcasters have a compelling story to tell. It is a story of high standards and public-service journalism, even though public broadcasting also has been under attack, the most serious since it was established by Congress in 1967.
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.
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.
When President Clinton had just taken office in 1993, Current asked an assortment of outside-the-Beltway people connected with public broadcasting to write open letters to him about the field’s public-service potential. One was Jill Godmilow, an independent filmmaker then in residence at the University of Notre Dame. Her films have included “Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman” and “Waiting for the Moon” (for American Playhouse). President Clinton:
I’ll start with a quote from the German filmmaker and television producer Alexander Kluge: “If I look through the window — a television window is something like an artificial window — then it represents what’s going on in the world. In former times, people looked onto the marketplace.
When President Clinton had just taken office in 1993, Current asked an assortment of outside-the-Beltway people connected with public broadcasting to write open letters to him about the field’s public-service potential. One was Bill Kling, president of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and founder of American Public Radio. Dear President Clinton:
I know that as a listener to public radio around the country, you know its national programming well. At a time when the spirit of a new national agenda is high, the mission of public radio fits well into the public understanding and assimilation of that agenda just as it has for every administration since Lyndon Johnson’s.