Pubcasters warned to up their advocacy on Capitol Hill

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Efforts to build political support for continued federal funding of public broadcasting have gained little or no traction on Capitol Hill, a parade of speakers told the CPB Board during its Sept. 10 and 11 meeting in Washington, D.C.

Two members of Congress, a CPB staffer and heads of three national pubcasting organizations encouraged CPB’s leaders to do more to convince lawmakers that public broadcasting would be irreparably harmed by the loss of CPB’s $445 million appropriation.

Dire warnings from this summer’s report on scant alternative funding sources haven’t swayed lawmakers who’ve pledged to defund CPB. The Booz & Co. financial analysis, requested by Congress in December 2011 and delivered in June, concluded that withdrawal of aid would have a “cascading debilitating effect,” starting first with stations serving rural areas and ultimately leading to the collapse of the public broadcasting system.

Regardless, “there’s a continued and pervasive feeling on the Hill that public broadcasting needs to go on its own,” said Tim Isgitt, CPB’s departing senior v.p. for government affairs, noting that some Republican staffers have negative opinions embedded so deep that “you’re not going to change their minds.”

One Republican who enthusiastically supports CPB’s appropriation told the CPB board that pubcasting isn’t sufficiently making its case.

Rep. Don Young, a 39-year Congressional veteran from Alaska’s at-large district, told CPB directors that pubcasters would have more friends in Congress if they presented a more effective case to critics.

“Can we help you? Yes. But you’re going to have to have a better selling program on the Hill,” Young said.

Young stressed the importance of communicating directly with elected officials rather than staff members, and recommended emphasizing the extent to which pubcasting relies on private funds and donations.

Board members asked Young why congressional Republicans continue to target CPB’s annual appropriation for elimination, and why GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney puts pubcasting atop his list of programs to lose taxpayer funding if he is elected. The lawmaker’s answer was straightforward: Public broadcasting is an easy target.

“You’re easy to attack; you’re small in number,” Young said. He also pointed to frequent complaints that public media’s national programs focus too much on oversaturated markets. One example: NPR’s and PBS’s coverage of the recent major party conventions featured many voices from New York but few from Alaska, Young said.

Some of the anti-public media fervor is driven by ideology, Young acknowledged. Romney doesn’t need a better reason to go after public media as long as attacking it remains “popular” among his base, he said.

Young, whose rural state stands to lose the most money if federal funding for pubcasting is discontinued, distanced himself from Republicans who oppose CPB’s appropriation. “This is probably one of the most important public services we have going for us today in Alaska. . . . You don’t have to convince me.”

Earlier in the meeting, Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) pledged his continuing advocacy on behalf of pubcasting, saying that he hoped there would be continued opportunity on Capitol Hill “to help people understand the power of what you do.”

Blumenauer is the founder and co-chair of the Congressional Public Broadcasting Caucus, which disbanded in 2010 amid the political fallout over NPR’s dismissal of news analyst Juan Williams. Recently Blumenauer revealed that he’s been stealthily working to reassemble the caucus, meeting under the radar with pubcasting proponents on both sides of the aisle.

The leaders of the Association of Public Television Stations, PBS and NPR also spoke about their work to preserve federal funding.

On Capitol Hill, “we’re trying to understand what’s on people’s minds, why they oppose federal funding,” said APTS President Pat Butler. “It’s important that we understand the nature of the opposition, and where we might find common ground. We are beginning to have some converts without making concessions. We have no interest in selling our birthright in the interest of making converts.”

Gary Knell, NPR president, criticized language in the House Labor, Health and Human Services Subcommittee bill that would prohibit pubradio stations from spending their 2013 CPB grants on NPR dues or program fees.

“Congress is saying, basically, we’re going to micromanage how local radio stations choose the programs they air,” Knell said. “Marketplace and the BBC are okay for federal funding, but not Morning Edition and All Things Considered. That’s patently ridiculous, and we should call it what it is.”

To ensure that lawmakers hear from their constituents about pubcasting’s federal aid, APTS and NPR have taken over management of the 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting website, launched by American Public Media in December 2010 when congressional Republicans were sharpening their attacks on NPR and public broadcasting’s federal aid.

At the meeting, the CPB Board unanimously approved a resolution to “strongly affirm the important and irreplaceable role that federal funding plays in allowing public radio and television stations to help their communities thrive through the provision of a wide variety of high-quality content and essential community services.”

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