Public media’s “value” derived from service to local communities

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To the editors:

Amanda Hirsch asks if the “value proposition” for public media is different today from what it was in the 1960s, and if tax dollars are essential in support of noncommercial media (Current, Oct. 22). I was there in the 1960s, making the case along with a great number of others who believed in the “educational broadcasting” that was at that point the core of our movement. The notion of federal funding came only after all other options had been declared politically or financially impossible.

Many of us continue to worry that in our treasured democracy public money in support of any mass medium is precarious at best and downright dangerous at worst. When “public broadcasting” finally came into its own, it was the only system of broadcasting in the world that was developed with no visible means of support. Thus, we considered the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 to be a major victory — and so it was, at least at the time. There has been little change in funding patterns since then, so federal and state appropriations remain important in bringing noncommercial media services to the widest possible national audience. Whether that’s good or bad in a democracy is arguable, but only peripherally relevant.

More important is the matter of “value proposition,” which I conclude means, “What have you done for your communities lately?”

A good answer might be a series of additional questions, asked of individual public radio and television licensees, most of which have evolved into purveyors of “content” through a number of increasingly technical and exotic means.

  • Do you have operational partnerships with service agencies and educational institutions in your area?
  • What percentage of your effort goes into providing local service, rather than retransmitting national material?
  • How much of your budget comes automatically from public appropriations, how much from memberships and how much from payments for services you provide?
  • What is your role in producing “MOOCs” (massive, open, online courses), as major colleges and universities move energetically to build new educational paradigms?
  • Do you brand yourself as the local “PBS” service, or do you primarily promote the local services you provide?
  • Do your membership drives focus on national programs and series you broadcast, or have you shifted to attracting support from those who also benefit from your other services?

Historically, spirited dialogue has centered on the question of local identity and power versus the popularity and draw of national programming. At this point, the “value proposition” has less to do with arguing for the centralized agencies and more to do with the emergence of local instrumentalities of noncommercial telecommunications services. The public broadcasting we knew is not likely to thrive or die suddenly; it’s more likely to happen community by community. Some will do well and some will not, and the former will likely be those who work to become educationally indispensable in their local markets.

Rick Breitenfeld

Author of The Long-Range Funding of Educational Television Stations, published in 1965 under a grant from the U.S. Office of Education.
Founding c.e.o. of Maryland Public Television
Former president of Philadelphia’s WHYY-TV/FM

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