Public Media’s Mission

Essays and admonitions on purposes and practices

What’s this “public media” about, anyway? It’s worth asking once in a while, when considering its mission: what the public needs and what public media are best equipped to do. From inside the field and outside, here are pertinent commentaries, many first published in Current, about the field’s missions and realities.

These are some of the many viewers and listeners who said what they think “public broadcasting is.” They responded in 2011 to a request from, a website set up to defend the field against cutbacks in public aid.

Shake it up

The challenge for public radio: Letting go of our expected future

Pubradio must hold on to enduring values while throwing open the door to diverse producers and audiences and the media platforms they use, writes CPB radio chief Bruce Theriault.

Next-gen believers in public media want it on next-gen platforms

As he leaves the broadcast side of public media, tech advocate Joaquin Alvarado warns that the millenial generation “will build their own parallel universe separate from the public broadcasting universe” if pubcasting doesn’t adopt a more interactive architecture.

If we can imagine it, why can’t we do it?

Jay Allison gives the benediction at the conference of pubradio programmers In an earlier essay, Allison reports suggestions of 30 pubradio people when he asked them what they’d do if they could start a pair of brand-new public radio stations, as he did at Cape Cod, Mass.

Commit to journalism

Pubradio stations are so deep into local news, you’d think they’d plant the news flag

A longtime news director, Michael Marcotte, asks pubradio managers to recognize their news-format stations as institutions of journalism and to evaluate their performance by its standards.

What distinguishes public radio news

It starts with an unapologetic seriousness of purpose, wrote Bill Buzenberg, when he was news chief at NPR. It’s not afraid to spend the time so that listeners can understand.

Public affairs: What the invisible hand of the news market leaves all too invisible

Duke University political scientist James T. Hamilton explains why commercial media are unlikely to put adequate resources into the serious public-affairs news coverage that a democracy requires.

If you work in public broadcasting, get used to the heat — it’s “kitchen work”

Public scrutiny and conflict are inevitable and appropriate, says Jim Lehrer in a 2005 speech.

‘Public trust is the rating that matters most to PBS’

In a May 2005 speech, in the midst of public TV’s conflict with CPB Chairman Ken Tomlinson, PBS President Pat Mitchell said the public continues to depend on public TV’s independence from political influence as well as commercial motivation.

Making programs for citizens, not consumers

As a venture capitalist, longtime station leader Marshall Turner knows what the marketplace is good at achieving, but public TV, driven differently, can give the public a shared basis for democratic decision-making.

To empower active citizens with knowledge, locally as well as nationally

“Public radio is a true catalyst,” writes Bill Kling, founder and now retired president of Minnesota Public Radio. “It may already be the ‘electronic town meeting place’ for the local leadership base of the country. And with a few changes it could do far more.”

Where public TV should concentrate more effort: near home

Jack Willis, then head of Twin Cities Public Television, explains why pubTV should put its faith in programming about local issues.

Serve society and the future

Public broadcasting offers a rare, moral transaction

People give it an hour of their time, writes Bill Moyers, and they get something in return that dignifies life rather than debasing it.

The community around public stations is part of social capital

It not only bonds together like-minded people but also forms bridges between them and the broader city and region, write David LeRoy and Judith LeRoy, audience researchers and social scientists.

Engagement with the public is what puts the ‘public’ in public broadcasting and other public media

Pat Aufderheide and Noelle McAfee of American University’s Center for Social Media say that approach lets the field leave behind the ongoing right-left “squirrel-cage” debates. Public media convert raw data into comprehensible narratives of real life, provide knowledge for political action, foster talk that leads to solutions, inspire and alert us with history, and remind Americans that they can have respectful give-and-take on issues.

Years earlier, Danny Schechter, former executive producer of South Africa Now and Rights & Wrongs, urged PBS to  recreate itself as a progressive citizens’ channel.

We need civility in media to rebuild the public’s trust and hope

In 1992, documentary producer Henry Hampton (Eyes on the Prize) warns that “the level of anger in much of our public discourse prevents effective communication” through the media at large.

Bring exuberant life to the country’s most important public space

Independent filmmaker Jill Godmilow wants people to have a clear media window that looks out at the world.

‘Serving diversity is what public broadcasting is all about’

So in pragmatic as well as mission terms, it makes sense for it to aim to serve and satisfy the diversity market, thus building its audience, writes attorney and former PBS exec Gary Poon.

Native radio: at the heart of public radio’s mission

Native American stations pick up roles of the traditional tribal callers, singing the news and preserving the culture, write Bruce Theriault and Felice Tilin.

The public media system needs to develop four kinds of openness

So says Reed Hundt, a former FCC chair who co-chaired the bipartisan Digital Media Future Initiative.

Giving voice to new talent, celebrating the great works

Having public TV air her play was a dream for a young playwright, recalls Wendy Wasserstein (it made her “a sucker for a three-figure deal”) but the greater pleasure is hearing how that broadcast changed someone’s life.

Serve as a catalyst in making our cities work

Robert F. Larson, former president of Detroit Public Television (WTVS).

. . . and especially the needs of the curious and the young

‘It would be fatal if we were to lose belief in ourselves’

Public television’s place is “to serve the actual young and the forever young, the open and curious, those who still want to learn,” said WGBH production chief Peter McGhee as he retired in 2002. In contrast, most TV enters people “not as food for thought, but as an embalming fluid.”

A corporate leader urges public TV to make spreading literacy its core major objective

Former Netscape exec James Barksdale, familiar with the work of Between the Lions, says only public TV has the trust, reach, contacts and experience to play a central role in the campaign to eliminate illiteracy in the country.

Fred Rogers testifies in Senate hearing

In a 1969 Senate hearing, Mister Rogers made the case for public TV with straightforward words about children’s needs.

‘I give an expression of care every day to each child’

In 1969, a young Fred Rogers contrasted his approach of speaking to kids’ everyday emotional needs rather than bombarding them with amped-up cartoon conflicts. His testimony during a U.S. Senate hearing gave the subcommittee chairman “goosebumps,” Sen. John Pastore replied.

What stories do we tell our children through TV?

Media scholar George Gerbner says in a medium that mass-produces fantasies of violence, Fred Rogers hand-crafts stories that heal.

Think how much more history there is to tell

Historian David McCullough, who was then host of American Experience, says PBS producers have just begun the necessary job of telling and retelling the past.

Aim higher

Public radio is hitting home runs, but it can do better

Producer and StoryCorps founder Dave Isay says public radio is entering its golden age.

‘Playing small does not serve the world,’ says Rick Madden, quoting Mandela

Rick Madden, the late  public radio v.p. at CPB, urged colleagues to think big in his speech accepting CPB’s Edward R. Murrow Award in 2001.

 The classic case

“Our Lyceum, our Chautauqua, our Minsky’s, and our Camelot”

When educational TV evolved into public TV in the 1970s, master writer E.B. White wrote a letter offering one of the most lyrical and concise descriptions of what public TV could become.

Making sure that listeners’ time with public radio is time well spent

In 1970, Bill Siemering, who became NPR’s first program director, sketched the organization’s purposes. The vision of the the new radio network was soon shaping All Things Considered. NPR would “encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness,” he wrote. It would transmit the cultural past and encourage the cultural present.

To “be a unifying force in American culture, a lens through which we can understand our diverse nation and the world”

Public TV’s purpose is to give all Americans access to television that will “educate, enlighten, engage and inform” them as citizens, the stations said in their 2004 mission statement.

When speaking to legislators

Show me a better deal for the tax dollar

David Brugger, then public TV’s chief lobbyist, argues that the system has plenty of reasons to be confident about the value of its services.

A conservative answer to America’s triple crisis

Ervin Duggan, president of PBS between 1994 and 1999, tells the Right that public broadcasting itself offers the genuinely conservative approach.

Congress endowed an earlier public education system with valuable land

Advocates of an endowment for public media point to the land grant colleges as a precedent.

To serve the public interest, rely on the broadcaster who is motivated to do so

Henry Geller, a longtime advocate for public-interest FCC policies, urges the commission to put a fee on commercial broadcasters and use it to assist public TV.

Robert McChesney, media historian and a founder of the Free Press media reform group, reminds us of the long struggle to create a kind of broadcasting not motivated primarily by profit.

Words from the fans

‘It just feels like hearts coming out of my head’ and other comments in the mailbox

The audience has its say.

. . . and from producers and programmers

Ken Burns chooses to work in ‘the only place you have a measure of creative control’

The star documentarian tells why he sticks with public TV in short 1992 remarks to TV critics and longer 1999 testimony in the House of Representatives.

Listeners and producers alike: members of a media congregation

Martin Goldsmith, former host of NPR’s Performance Today and now a host on Sirius XM Satellite Radio.

The best of jobs: to have and serve the public’s trust

Bill Moyers speaks to his quarrelsome public TV colleagues in 1996 about what they share in common, including the joys of working on important questions, sharing the wonders of human creativity, without the commercial pressure to exploit the lowest common denominator. In 2011, Moyers calls for a convention to update, broaden and revitalize the public media system.

Take note of what Jon Rice gave to viewers and to his friends

Nat Katzman, a colleague from Jon Rice’s celebrated days at San Francisco’s KQED-TV, recalls the programmer’s legacy.

Do you admire other useful and diverse speeches or essays on questions of purpose? We’d be interested in seeing them. Please send a note and the text to Current Interim Managing Editor Karen Everhart.