Downton Abbey may be the best thing to happen to PBS and local stations in many years, but if public broadcasters are looking to use it to justify their ongoing taxpayer subsidy, good luck. So says one of the four Republicans currently serving on CPB’s board, which is bipartisan by law.
“Our time is often referred to as the ‘golden age’ for television drama, filled with compelling, well-produced offerings often focused on American social problems,” wrote Howard Husock, a v.p. with the Manhattan Institute and former WGBH-TV producer who was appointed to the CPB board by President Obama, in an op-ed for the journal National Affairs. “But to the extent that public broadcasting is playing a part in that golden age, it is by bringing British programming to an American audience.”
Husock thinks the role that public media should focus on — the one that is increasingly not being filled in the commercial marketplace — is local journalism. He discussed this idea on an episode of our weekly podcast, The Pub. This is an edited transcript.
Adam Ragusea, Current: Let me just cut straight to it. You’re a Republican and a lot of Republicans don’t like public broadcasting and want to see it stripped of its taxpayer subsidy. One of the arguments for doing so is that public broadcasting was initially created to fill gaps in the commercial marketplace that, to an extent, are no longer there. I wonder if your article in National Affairs is a response to that argument.
Howard Husock: Let me just say first that I see it as my role as member of the board to be constructive in what I’m doing and not to live in a world in which I’m not trying to make the best of the situation that I have. So that’s the way I’m thinking about it. But in terms of your question about gaps in the marketplace, I do think the world has changed dramatically since the advent of public broadcasting. Just the profusion, the golden age of American original drama which public television originally contemplated supporting — we’re seeing an incredible flowering of that in the commercial marketplace.
And in that context it’s appropriate for public media to think about what roles are not being filled. If the answer were that every role is being filled, then it’s plausible to think about whether public broadcasting should go on. I happen not to think that’s the case when it comes to a cause that’s near and dear to my heart — and I know that it’s very important to the corporation today — and that’s local journalism.
Current: How do you see public broadcasting stepping into the void increasingly being left as local newspapers, in particular, disappear?
Husock: What I envision is one thing, but I’m seeing it actually happening. Where I am in New York right now, WNYC has a predominantly original journalism and serious talk show format, and it has more listeners than the two commercial news stations in New York City combined*. So around the country, farsighted station managers are already seeing that local journalism is a niche that is being neglected by the commercial marketplace.
Current: Public radio in places like New York, Boston and San Francisco cover the news very intelligently, offer a lot of analysis and insight, and put human faces on issues. But breaking the news still falls to newspapers in these communities, and I don’t see even the very best public broadcasting institutions stepping into that space. Do you disagree?
Husock: I guess I’d have to do a pretty specific content analysis to find out the extent to which that’s accurate or not. But if the only thing that public broadcasting was doing in radio and television was to provide context and analysis, that would be a big thing because, I don’t know if you’ve watched local television news lately, but it’s providing a lot of context and analysis about celebrities and a lot of context and analysis about the weather and about sports. And so I think the expectation that the issues of the day in local communities are going to be covered is not fulfilled in too many places by broadcasting outlets.
Current: So you see a lot of good work being done in these markets. How do you see that work being made stronger and more pervasive even in less wealthy markets?
Husock: I happen to take the view that the spectrum auction could be a gift in this regard. I mean, if someone were to tell you — and I’ve said this in public sessions in the board — that hundreds of millions of dollars, and maybe more than a billion dollars, could flow to public broadcasting simply by virtue of selling underused spectrum, and that that could make for a more robust set of program offerings, why would you look askance at that?
I don’t think we should. We have to be very creative about how to take advantage of something that could be a one-off, an extremely unusual occurrence that could, in effect, endow public broadcasting in a very useful way. Now it may be that there’s got to be a way — and I don’t know what that would be — to ensure that there is some sharing of this new spectrum wealth so that less wealthy stations do get some of it.
But the thing that I love about the public television licensing situation is that federal funding is a small part of the budgets of most local stations. And they do face a market test. And that they are going to have to step up and find something that is of interest to their local audiences, because if their local audiences are going to be able to get national public media programs on their phones, they don’t need to go to their local stations. Those stations are going to have to figure out a way to compete with over-the-top so-called “distribution systems.”
One of the ways that they can do that is to come up with original content of their own. The obvious direction to turn in which to do that is local journalism, and spectrum revenues could be a way to help enable that. And spectrum revenues are not only going to big-city stations; we could see a tremendous wave of payments even in relatively small markets.
Current: You argue in your article that local stations should think about spending more of their CPB money on their own local programming instead of sending it back to Washington in the form of dues for the national programs that they distribute. That makes a lot of sense, but when you’re talking about market tests, what we know is that local public media audiences actually aren’t super-thrilled with our local journalism. Even though they say that they value local journalism in theory, in practice it tends to be All Things Considered and Nova and Antiques Roadshow that make people give. How do you see the way around that?
Husock: I do see in radio pledging around what is called “mission-driven programming.” I know that WNYC does that, I know that WBUR does that, and that mission-driven program is news and local journalism. And people are supporting that. Is it harder? Is there a formula that’s been working? Yes. I think that formula could wane, and we do notice that many stations turn to non–mission-driven programming during pledge period, which tells us something about what they think of the popularity of their core programming.
So they’re facing a market test. They would be prudent to think about what they can provide that can’t be provided elsewhere, because that’s the core mission of public media. And I should add that there are farsighted people working for [President] Pat Harrison at [CPB] and Bruce Theriault, who is the [senior v.p. of journalism and radio]. They’re the ones that got me going on this because they started these regional journalism centers, and it occurred to me, “Well, what’s going on with that?” They were farsighted enough to realize that the federal money could be used to support regional production. And, by the way, I think that that increases the chance for a wide range of views of the world to be reflected on public media.
Current: But, as you point out in your article, for all of the wonderful work that the regional centers have done, it’s not really local reporting. A local story in Cleveland is not going to be of interest to people in Chicago, even though they may be part of the same regional journalism center.
Husock: Well, as you know, the corporation is charged with supporting national programming, so it’s difficult to structure the regional journalism centers in any other way. But I think that simply supporting programming that reflects the many regions of the United States with the hope that some of that production will find its way into the national programming is a very, very good idea.
I actually don’t agree that, properly framed, quite local stories in Cleveland (where I happen to have been born) or Chicago or anywhere would not be of wide interest. Just take the mayor’s election in Chicago: that got a lot of national interest — not just because Rahm Emmanuel is kind of a political celebrity, but because the issues apply to cities all around the country in terms of the financial situation of Chicago. And so, properly framed, WTTW can be producing a segment that can air on the PBS Newshour or it can air on All Things Considered.
And the vision that I’m promoting here is a robust national network of producing stations so that public media can reflect the country as a whole, the issues that are bubbling up in the regions and the variety of voices, opinions, views of the world that we find in the United States. Public media ought to capture, reflect and distribute all of that and that local journalism. Sure, a lot of it is going to be, “You know, there’s a zoning board meeting here tonight.” That’s important too. That makes our democracy work. But I truly believe that, properly framed, local journalism can be made to be understood as of national importance. And when the NewsHour has two segments a night from a station in different regions of the country — I think particularly of the South, which I happen to think is underrepresented in public media — then I think we’ll be doing better.
Current: One observation that came to mind as I was reading your article is that for local public media stations to fill some of the void left in local reporting by the retreat of newspapers, public media stations are going to have to retreat a bit from broadcasting.
I started my career in radio, but with a notable exception of this show, now I’m primarily working in print or text products. And it’s marvelous. When you write a print piece, it’s a relatively straightforward process. Whereas, with broadcast, when you write your script, that’s just step one. Broadcast is incredibly laborious. A former colleague of mine, Sacha Pfeiffer who came to WBUR from The Boston Globe, was very, very frustrated when she began doing radio. She said it felt more like doing an arts and crafts project than doing a report.
In order to really focus on journalism, broadcasters are going to need do fewer broadcast products and more text products for the web. But the problem with that is that’s what people pledge to support, and I don’t know if they can make as much money from their web text products.
Husock: You’ve raised two points. Let me take the first one which is, Should broadcasting continue to be the main vehicle for original programming? We’re going to see a tremendous convergence of print, audio and video, and I think it’s already happening. Look at the New York Times website: Mini-documentaries are being posted there every day. That is happening, and public media ought to take advantage of that. And at the same time — [speaking] as somebody who once had the privilege of producing films at WGBH — there are things you can do with film, with all three media together: audio, video and the written word. I suppose it’s an arts and crafts project, but I always thought of it as writing in three dimensions. And you can do things that are powerful and poignant. They also fail to capture sometimes the nuances of substantive issues because those things don’t lend themselves to film and audio and video.
You have to choose the right medium for the right story. I agree that licensees ought to be looking at the three kinds of ways to communicate, if you will, audio, video, and print as a buffet of options they should choose from in order to produce content that is going to serve the mission that they’re signed on the serve.
And the second half of the question, about whether that takes us away from our core business of broadcast: We have to be cognizant of the fact that there’s an aging audience for that business model. Even businesses that are not purely part of the marketplace have to adapt. We’ve seen Clayton Christensen of the Harvard Business School famously talk about disruptive innovation.
We’re seeing some of the leading edge of that in public media with these local journalism efforts. Look at Portland, Ore., which is a relatively small market. They’re very robust in producing local journalism. Oregon Public Broadcasting isn’t a rich station, but they have a tremendously committed local audience.
So it can be done, and these are the leaders, and the others are going to be at risk of seeing the business model that you speak of erode. The time is upon us to think about, well, what’s the next generation of public media going to look like? Because unless public media can continue to prove its worth, then we’ll go back to where you started this whole discussion [asking] will it be under assault? That has happened and it could happen again.
Current: You conclude your article in National Affairs by raising concern about the role of government funding in supporting local journalism. There’s an obvious potential for conflict of interest, real or perceived, there. How do we get around that?
Husock: We have to look to members of those boards to do the right thing and keep a wall between journalism and government. The New Jersey Network being reinvented as a private nonprofit is a good way to go. It’s not clear to me why one wants state government as a licensee, but we have it. So we have to make it work, and we have to look to the honorable and good intentions of those people who are overseeing it.
One of the great values of public media generally is we have a whole system of local licensees with their own boards that are really tied to their communities and have to prove themselves to their communities. So, on balance, that’s a good thing. And citizens have to come forward and say, “We have to do more than replay national programs. We have to serve our communities, and we have to do it in new ways.”
Current: I realize this is a very fraught question for you, a member the CPB Board, but does the federal taxpayer money that public broadcasting gets — about 15 percent throughout the system — cause more trouble than it’s worth?
Husock: It’s what we have and we owe it to the Congress to follow its mandate. That’s really a question not for the board but for the Congress.
Editor’s note (added June 17, 2015): Husock’s statement about WNYC’s total audience is not borne out by recent Nielsen Audio data. WNYC’s AM and FM stations had a combined average share of 3.2 from February–May 2015, while New York City’s WINS-AM and WCBS-AM had a combined average share of 7.7.
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