Maybe we’re at a 1967 moment again,” says Ernest Wilson III, shortly after his election as chair of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting on Sept. 16 . He’s making a hopeful comparison with the year when a Carnegie Commission report slid into President Johnson’s in-box in January and returned for his signature as the Public Broadcasting Act in November. Wilson, who is dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California, admires the way the stars are aligning for an advance of federal policy on public media:
Foundations are examining the plight of journalism and reengaging with public media. Congressional leaders are supportive.
The scene: a small conference room of the Senate Committee on Commerce, late on a February afternoon. The players: a senior committee staffer and her longtime acquaintance, a public broadcasting general manager. The author is president of Colorado Public Television (KBDI) in Denver. Illustration: Elene Usdin. ‘Well, the bastards have you right where they want you!” growled the aide, barely looking up from her papers spread across the conference table.
The plan was for a Public Television Act with no mention of dusty old radio. Not everyone signed on to the plan. Readers’ sympathies will be divided by this narrative adapted from Jack Mitchell’s new book, Listener Supported: The Culture and History of Public Radio, issued in March 2005 by Praeger Publishers.You may root for the TV side or the radio side out of professional allegiance. Or you may instinctively align with the underdog, despite its rascally tactics — or perhaps because of them. The underdog in 1967 was radio, then a has-been technology that TV expected to leave behind.
A professional campaign firm has begun setting up a Citizens' Committee for Public Broadcasting to coordinate grassroots support for "full funding" of CPB. Proposed and organized by a New York consumer rights lawyer, Donald Ross, the committee has startup funding from about five major public TV stations, Ross says. The initiative is the latest in a long line of citizen interventions to support or protect public broadcasting. Separate plans for a big-name commission of prominent citizens to resolve "serious issues" in the field's future were announced by CPB Chairman Henry Cauthen two weeks ago, but have been delayed, according to CPB. The citizen's committee's handful of staffers, meanwhile, is starting to recruit field activists and organizers out of the downtown Washington branch office of Ross's firm, M&R Strategic Services.
In a Roper Poll taken March 18-25, Americans ranked public TV and public radio among the services that provide the best value for the tax dollar. Only military defense of the country and the police had higher percentages of the sample calling them an "excellent value'' or a "good value.'' Highways, public schools, environmental protection and the court system ranked lower. The pollsters asked: "Here is a list of some different services that the government provides using tax dollars it collects from the public. Thinking of what you get for what you pay in taxes, would you read down that list and for each one tell me whether you feel you get excellent value for the dollar, or good value, or only fair value for the dollar, or poor value for the dollar?" These were the results:
Services provided with tax dollars
Percent excellent or good value
Military defense of the country
Police and law enforcement agencies
Public TV broadcasting
Public radio broadcasting
Medical, technological,d other research
Overseeing the safety of food products
The space program
Overseeing safety of prescription drugs
Highways, roads and bridges
Sponsorship of the arts
Overseeing soundness of financial institutions
International intelligence gathering
Contributions to the United Nations
Social welfare programs
"Quite frankly, I was really surprised,'' said CPB researcher Janice Jones.
Here are brutally shortened summaries of proposals in the two funding plans that went to Congress in spring 1995: "Common Sense for the Future" from CPB, and "The Road to Self-Sufficiency" from the quartet of the public stations' major national organizations, APTS, NPR, PBS and PRI. CPB
PBS and PRI
Recommends a trust fund and says it has examined options for financing it, but doesn't name them. "We look forward to exploring these and any other alternatives Congress may suggest to make such a trust fund viable." A temporary financing mechanism would build up trust fund until it becomes large enough to pay out sufficient annual interest. As payout grows, federal appropriations could decline.
Having emerged from the first 100 days of the 104th Congress with most of its advance funding intact, public broadcasting is entering the most crucial stage in renegotiating its relationship with the lawmakers. Rep. Jack Fields (R-Tex.), chairman of the House telecommunications subcommittee, moved up the schedule for that stage in an April 5 meeting with top pubcasters, asking them to submit by the end of the month their plans for replacing the annual CPB appropriations that congressional Republicans want to eliminate. The Senate, meanwhile, declined to accept House leadership, voting April 6 to continue CPB funding at this year's $285.6 million level for the next two years. CPB funding was one of the major sticking points that delayed final action on the Senate bill, as conservative Republicans sought bigger cuts and Democrats pushed for smaller ones. The legislation goes next to a House-Senate conference committee, which will have to hammer out substantial differences in the two chambers' proposed cuts for CPB and other programs. (The conference will be scheduled after the House returns from recess May 1; the Senate returns a week earlier.)
While substantial CPB funding for fiscal years 1996 and 1997 seems likely, the big question is now whether the field will receive any federal aid at all in 1998 and beyond.
In this time of unprecedented threat to public broadcasting, people are responding with unprecedented generosity to station's pleas for support. TV station WPBA in Atlanta beat its $75,000 pledging goal by 39 percent, with pitching help from hometown boy Newt Gingrich. The boon fell just short of doubling WPBA's in-take during last year's March drive — $42,000. If donations to the system expand permanently by 15 percent, the increase would amount to about $58.5 million — one-fifth of this year's federal appropriation to CPB. Pacifica station WBAI in New York broke a record for community radio stations with an $820,000 January drive.
Fundraising pitches by House Speaker Newt Gingrich drew unprecedented media coverage and helped to boost March pledge receipts at WPBA, Atlanta, home-town public TV station for the powerful Georgia Republican who has vowed to end federal aid for public broadcasting. Gingrich taped a series of spots urging national and local viewers to "open your wallets'' and support public television. "Tell them Newt Gingrich asked you to help make sure that PBS stays on the air and Channel 30 stays strong because more than ever it's going to need our support as individuals to make sure it has the funding it needs,'' the congressman said in a self-scripted 45-second message for Atlanta viewers. Late last week, only a handful of stations elsewhere had begun to use national versions of the spots in their on-air campaigns. WCET, Cincinnati, reported that viewers had responded negatively to its use of the pitch.