How a revamped Public Broadcasting Act would help public media fill news deserts

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By almost any measure, the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 has been among the most successful and impactful legislation of its era. As the readers of this publication know better than anyone, the Act created a new American institution — one bringing culture, journalism, history and more to anyone with a television or radio.

Even the most successful enterprises, however, must continue to innovate — or risk being overtaken by change. In the time since 1967, the telecommunications world has changed beyond recognition. The idea, as the Act puts it, that programming that takes “creative risks” needs government financial support has been overtaken by what many consider a golden age of privately-financed original content — through streaming services, podcasts, and other technologies that simply did not exist when the original Act or its amendments were enacted.

The Act’s goal of universal, free, over-the-air broadcasting seems far less relevant in an era of broadband and mobile devices, through which Americans can access media of all types directly — without television or radio stations. President Biden, in his State of the Union Address, committed to making broadband access universal.

The very role of a television or radio station — and whether the two forms are even distinct anymore — has come into question. Mobile devices enable viewers and listeners to access programming of any and all types “over the top” — that is, directly from a source, without having to tune in to a television or radio station. A vast public television, radio, landline, and satellite-distribution system is close to superfluous, except in the most rural areas. That will change quickly as broadband, with government support, becomes as widespread as electricity.

Broadly, then, the argument can be made — and this author has made it elsewhere — that public broadcasting’s time has passed, unless it can demonstrate a clear, ongoing need for what it produces.

The time is right, in other words, to revisit and revise the Public Broadcasting Act. A revised and reauthorized act would identify and direct resources to needs that contemporary telecom content providers are not meeting and adjust the allocation of federal appropriations.

Such changes would include greater support for locally focused content, particularly journalism, produced by public media licensees. This would acknowledge that consumers can now access national programming through a computer or mobile device rather than a terrestrial station. It would reflect that local license holders (the very term “station” is superannuated) will need to play a new role in a changed telecom world.

A key role lies in local newsgathering. The U.S. has seen a widespread reduction in the number of local newsgathering operations, such that the term “news desert” has been coined. Here lies both opportunity and mission for public media.

A June 2022 report published by the Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications at Northwestern University found that “an average of more than two [newspapers] a week are disappearing. Since 2005, the country has lost more than a fourth of its newspapers (2,500) and is on track to lose a third by 2025.

Although warnings about the decline of American democracy can seem partisan and overwrought, it is no stretch to say that the loss of an informed citizenry constitutes exactly that. To be sure, new outlets continue to distribute news, but much of it is tailored to specific interests, in contrast to historic platforms that provided general coverage of local government and schools.

Thus, the stage is set for public media to embrace a new role as oases in news deserts. The organizational structure is already there and includes more than 1,000 public radio license holders, all nonprofit entities that augment modest federal grants with local community support. These licensees, moreover, will increasingly need to justify their existence by providing original content, as viewers and listeners become universally able to access public media programming on their smartphones. The current fundraising formula for stations — based on “contributions from viewers like you,” which allow stations to purchase national programming and maintain a terrestrial broadcast signal — will imminently become passé.

Local stations must no longer be required to redirect a large percentage of Community Service Grant funds to NPR and PBS for programming that listeners can access independently. Indeed, local stations should be able to sell original programming to NPR and PBS to increase their own revenues.

A better future is already being charted. Indeed, through the public media system, radio newsrooms including KERA in Dallas, KPCC in Los Angeles, WBUR and WGBH in Boston, WNYC in New York, Oregon Public Broadcasting and many others — replete with podcasts and online videos that blur the lines among media — have established public media  as a serious news source.

The challenge lies, however, in extending the reach of public media local journalism to the many small cities and towns that find themselves in news deserts. CPB, to its credit, has recognized the problem and sought to address it through its Regional Journalism Collaborations, grant-based stations that produce and share original programming. The 1967 act limits CPB’s discretion to support individual stations beyond a formula dictated by its Community Service Grants, which comprise the bulk of its funding and are keyed to population. The Regional Journalism Collaborations, to adjust for that, focus on specific regional issues, such as immigration in the Southwest or agriculture in the Midwest.

As well-intentioned as such grant-making is, it overlooks that local journalism, at its best, identifies new and emerging issues, not those already well-known. Public radio, with its broad reach, should, for instance, have been the early warning system for the opioid overdose epidemic — and strong local reporting staffs could have served that role.

One cannot, of course, rule out the possibility that the private market will evolve to provide local journalism models. At present, however, the news-desert problem is serious and widespread enough to suggest a role for public media. That role, however, will require significant revisions to the 1967 Public Broadcasting Act, which was conceived in a far different era.

The act, for instance, requires CPB to devote 75% of its appropriations to television. In a new era when public “radio” stations produce online videos to accompany their journalism, the distinction between radio and television is outdated. Similarly, the Community Service Grant formula must be reexamined to favor smaller public media license holders without access to affluent, big-city listener bases and philanthropic foundations. Local stations — again, better to call them license holders — must no longer be required to redirect a large percentage of Community Service Grant funds to NPR and PBS for programming that listeners can access independently. Indeed, local stations should be able to sell original programming to NPR and PBS to increase their own revenues.

Ongoing CSGs could be linked to local content production — which, in turn, will encourage local revenue support. National programs such as PBS NewsHour should distinguish themselves by featuring locally produced journalism from across America. (It is notable that NPR has an extensive and impressive cast of foreign correspondents but no anchor studio in the South.) Frontline, American Experience and Nova — those PBS stalwarts still distinguishing themselves — might provide technical assistance to documentary production across the U.S. and then feature those films.

Public media itself should seek to take the lead in change, convening the equivalent of a new Carnegie Commission or encouraging Congress to examine the system through hearings or a Government Accountability Office inquiry.

Others will have their own good ideas about what a revised Public Media Act should include. For my own part, I think it’s worth considering whether those associated with public media license holders should continue to sit on the CPB board, where it can be argued they have an interest in status quo arrangements. (Of course, their interests should be considered).

More broadly, the board might return to its early roots, when thought leaders drawn from throughout American society were represented — such as Milton Eisenhower, brother of the president and longtime president of Johns Hopkins University. The board itself might be charged with discussing and approving individual programming grants, much as the boards of the National Endowments for the Arts and Humanities do. So, too, might the board report to Congress as to the demographic and geographic reach of public media programming, to incentivize engagement with the broad American public. Local programming would tend to do just that.

There should be broad agreement, however, that either Congress or private foundations, perhaps led by the Carnegie Corporation once again, find a way to suggest specific public media reforms that will address the emergent problem of news deserts and otherwise imagine a new role for an old system.

Howard Husock is a Senior Fellow in Domestic Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of the new report Updating the Public Broadcasting Act. From 2013–18, he served as a member of the CPB Board of Directors.

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