Soon, listeners will hear celebrities read James Joyce’s entire masterpiece Ulysses via satellite and Internet radio; a New York City theater will use video-game technology to invent a new medium for the performing arts; and a San Francisco-based organization will craft computer data into interactive visual artworks. The projects are made possible through the newly expanded Arts in Media category from the National Endowment for the Arts, which this year branched out from primarily supporting public TV and radio programs. Last week the NEA announced 78 grants totaling $3.55 million, with an increased emphasis on technological innovation and multiplatform reach (Current, April 23). Several of the largest grants, $100,000 each, went to high-profile first-time recipients with strong digital components. Open-source pioneer Mozilla Foundation of Mountain View, Calif. — parent of the Firefox browser — won for Open(Art), which will commission collaborations between artists and technologists to create and exhibit artwork on the Web.
“What a difference a year makes,” Patrick Butler, president of the Association of Public Television Stations, told the crowd at the group’s Public Media Summit on Feb. 27 in Arlington, Va. Last year at this time, the House of Representatives had just voted to eliminate all federal funding for public broadcasting. Since then pubcasters have notched several victories, including protecting the fiscal 2011 appropriation for CPB to $445 million. In recognition of Butler’s performance during his first year, the APTS Board of Trustees gave him an extended standing ovation.
When Gary Knell officially started work this month as NPR’s president, he probably found no shortage of ideas about what he should do with an organization that has recently survived bad headlines, turmoil at the top and a near-death experience with federal funding cuts. But he would be well advised to ignore some of those recommendations. Some say NPR should simply forgo federal funding, which accounts for 2 percent of its annual budget. Receiving even that small amount, they say, leaves NPR vulnerable to accusations of political bias in its news coverage. How much easier it would be, they argue, if public radio would give up the federal dollars and ignore the occasional outbreaks of criticism from Capitol Hill.
A drop in dues-paying members over the last three years has diminished the resources of the Association of Public Television Stations at an especially critical time for the Washington-based lobbying organization. APTS’ membership has fallen to 75 percent of public TV licensees from a high of 85 percent in 2008. With dues from fewer of the 170-some station licensees, APTS is short about $1 million in annual membership revenue and unable to fill several key positions, including vice presidents for government relations and communication and a regulatory counsel, in a year when the recession, anti-deficit worries and political opposition are bearing down on pubcasting funding. “This is a problem,” APTS President Patrick Butler said in a session at public TV’s National Educational Telecommunications Association Conference last month in Kansas City, Mo. “If we could get to a point where everybody was in this boat and supporting our efforts in Washington, it could have a transformative effect.”
Will Glasscock, an APTS director of government relations, cautioned that “the very challenging environment continues” on Capitol Hill and “the partisan atmosphere has never been quite this bad.” Just last week, GOP presidential hopeful Mitt Romney said in a USA Today op-ed that if elected, CPB will be one of his targets for “deep reductions in subsidies.”
The situation poses a dilemma: APTS needs resources to fight for federal appropriations on Capitol Hill, which has been one of the most stable sources of revenue during the recession despite the ongoing partisan fights over it.
The draft for the House Appropriations Committee’s fiscal year 2012 Labor, Health and Human Services and Education appropriations bill, introduced Sept. 29 by subcommittee Chair Denny Rehburg (R-Mont.), would prohibit CPB from funding NPR and requests a report from CPB on how to remove NPR totally from federal funding by 2014. Under the bill, CPB would receive the already-appropriated amount of $445 million for that year, including $6 million for digital projects. Other agencies in the draft bill would fare worse for the year that began Oct. 1.
After a nearly two-hour battle pitting fiscal conservatism against the value of publicly funded media, the U.S. House of Representatives approved a bill forbidding stations to use CPB funds to acquire NPR programming or pay network dues.
Last time, in 2005, the emissary to Congress was Clifford the Big Red Dog. This time, it’s an aardvark named Arthur. Last time, lawmakers showed off boxes of 1 million petitions with signatures; now, the million signatures are digital. Back then, when the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee tried for a 25 percent cut in the CPB appropriation, public support moved the House to save it by a 2-to-1 vote. This year, no such luck.
Bills to defund public broadcasting, or at least any radio network that fired Juan Williams, are beginning to seem like a real threat since the Nov. 2 midterm election gave Republicans a 60-plus majority in the House and a mandate to take huge bites out of federal spending. Last week the co-chairmen of President Obama’s National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility and Reform — assigned to suggest ways to reduce the $13.7 trillion deficit — advised dropping CPB from the budget, along with some vastly bigger federal expenditures that have even sturdier support in Congress (separate story). For conservative talking heads, ending aid to pubcasting would be a high-profile get-tough symbol. And for liberals, giving up CPB could be an attempt to avoid other more widely unpopular cuts.