170 Million Americans logo

Drive begins to defend federal aid

On average every month, 170 million Americans go to television, radio, online services and in-person events offered by public media. That crowd amounts to more than half of the country’s population.

Surprised? That’s just what the slogan writers are hoping for.

The line “170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting” debuts this week on a new website — 170MillionAmericans.org — intended to help defend public broadcasting from potentially dire funding cuts looming in the new year.

The site is sponsored by nine national public TV and radio organizations and co-managed by two of them, the Association for Public Television Stations and Minnesota-based American Public Media.

The big audience statistic reveals for the first time a comprehensive estimate of public media users across all platforms. Public radio’s Station Resource Group spent months – long before this campaign was devised — gathering the data and subtracting people in overlapping audiences who could be counted more than once.

The number is what gives the plan its wallop. It’s much more powerful than the last concerted effort to lobby Congress on funding cuts, launched in April 2006. “Tell Them Public Matters” simply said, “Public broadcasting matters to millions of Americans.”

In a press release last week to stations, APTS and APM said the    170 Million Americans campaign will be “a collaboration of public radio and television stations, national organizations, producers, viewers and listeners throughout the country in favor of a strong public media in the United States.” They expect to mobilize “a grassroots network of hundreds of thousands of Americans ready to act on behalf of public broadcasting.”

The campaign specifically does not mention what sparked House Republicans’ determination to kill off pubcasting money: NPR’s October firing of news analyst Juan Williams after he acknowledged that people in Muslim attire on an airliner make him nervous (Current, Nov. 1).

The controversial dismissal was “absolutely set aside” in developing the campaign, said Bill Gray, APM spokesperson. “This is not about Juan Williams at all.”

“I think it’s a natural to go broad with the campaign,” Gray said. “It’s the concept of public media that’s under attack.”

Calling all grassroots

In addition to APTS and APM, the ad hoc committee of pubcasting groups working on the campaign — the Station Research Group, National Federation of Community Broadcasters, PBS, PRI, Association of Independents in Radio, NPR and Public Radio Exchange — is counting on some of those 170 million Americans to share stories about how public media affect their lives. As always, campaign planners point out that grassroots advocates will be most effective in moving Congress. While lawmakers may bluster in Washington about cutting aid to pubcasting they’re usually fans of their local stations — because their constituents are, particularly in small and remote communities.

“It’s all very simple,” Gray said. Site visitors obviously feel that funding to public media is important. “They will say to their members of Congress, ‘Here’s why I think that’s true.’ They’ll talk about how public media has impacted them individually.” Resources on the site will explain how to contact congressional representatives, and suggest talking points. There’ll also be a mechanism to capture testimonials — not necessarily videos, at least at first, but short first-person essays or statements. The site is a work in progress, Gray said.

The site will also inform users of up-to-the-minute Capitol Hill developments. “We’ll give both stations and individuals information on what is happening when so they can weigh in,” Gray said.

The tasks are similar to those handled by “Tell Them Media Matters,” a website created to counter House Republicans’ 2005 attempt to reduce funding of the system. That site also highlighted individual stories. But, a few years later, pubcasters can reach out much farther and deeper through social media such as Facebook and Twitter.

Stations that opt to participate in the campaign will be asked to place links from their sites to the campaign site. Their names will be listed on a “partners” page. The station signup page says: “You are not committing to any other action, however we will be in touch with suggested tactics that will help engage your audience, members and other stakeholders. All of these activities are optional.”

Gray said participating stations also will have no obligation to pay for the campaign.

Also, the campaign says it’s not using federal money in any way.

That’s important: Section 509(B) of the 1993 Labor-HHS appropriations bill forbids using any part of public broadcasting’s federal subsidy to influence legislation.

The site is an “opt in” service; no station e-mail lists will be used to solicit supporters.

Science to the rescue

The campaign, like penicillin, grew out of an unrelated experiment. SRG wanted to see if it could determine with some precision how many Americans interact with all sorts of public media each month.

Tom Thomas, co-c.e.o. of SRG, said the need for the figure became obvious during research for pubradio’s Grow the Audience Project, which delivered its report last winter (Current, Jan. 11, 2010). 

“We’ve been exploring at SRG for months how might to get at a cross-platform, multimedia audience figure,” Thomas said. “That’s the way we’re talking about what public media is these days: a service that connects with America on multiple platforms. So this is not a new topic.”

Tracking and reporting online usage has significantly improved in recent years, Thomas said. “Now we can get at some sense of the intersection between the online and broadcast audience from site to site,” he said. “There are lots of data points.” With numbers from PBS, NPR, CPB, Arbitron, Nielsen and online reporting agencies, SRG was able to compile a fairly accurate number, he said.

The real challenge was to sift out people counted more than once. “In each potential area of overlap, we find the best reporting and do a ton of calculations” to estimate the folks who, say, watch Frontline, listen to Morning Edition and visit PBS.org. Those formulas included matching PBS’s monthly audience numbers to NPR’s weekly. Nielsen also tracks some multiplatform use.

In all calculations, Thomas said, “we erred on the side of caution,” especially to prevent pubcasting foes from attacking the 170 million figure. In the end, he said, 170 million “feels pretty tight at the moment.” An explanation of how the number was figured is posted on the site and reproduced below.

After House members began their attack on CPB appropriations in November, APM approached SRG and asked whether the unrelated audience calculation could help pubcasting make its case to legislators and the public. “Our sense was, that’s exactly the right way,” Thomas said.

Gray is not sure how long the system will leave the new website up. Congressional action on CPB funding is expected to continue well into the spring.

“170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting” positions the campaign perfectly, Thomas said. “This is about the incredible reach and impact our resources have on tens of millions of people per month — more than half of all Americans,” he said. “That number is just astounding.”

The Public Media Audience

Here's how the 170MillionAmericans.org site presents the size of public broadcasting's audience.

Every month over 170 million Americans use public media — through 368 public television stations, 934 public radio stations,  hundreds of online services, education services, and in-person events and activities.

Every month over half of all Americans use public media.


Monthly audience (millions)

Public television broadcasts


Public radio broadcasts


Less people in both public television and  public radio audience (eliminate overlap)


Network website visitors


Less site visitors who are also in broadcast   audiences (eliminate overlap)


Less visitors of more than one network site (eliminate overlap)


Station websites, other digital media, educational technologies and services, and in-person connections (insufficient data for non-duplicated audience)

- n/a -

Total public media audience


U.S.population, November 2010 (US Census)


Public media audience as percent of all Americans



170 million comments? Tips?

Web page posted Dec. 20, 2010
Copyright 2010 by Current LLC


Though the October firing of NPR news analyst Juan Williams provided ammunition to opponents of federal aid to pubcasting, the field's "170 Million Americans" campaign focuses on other arguments. “absolutely set aside” in the development of the 170 Million Americans campaign, said Bill Gray, APM spokesperson. “This is not about Juan Williams at all, said Bill Gray, American Public Media spokesperson.

House opponents of federal aid to the field focused their wrath on NPR, avoiding a head-on collision with the "Big Bird defense" that mobilizes admirers of PBS children's programs.

In the 1995 version of the present fight, some opponents argued that stations, because they receive federal funds, can't lobby for assistance. Stations argued that they are within their rights as long as they don't use federal money to lobby.

In 2005, rallies, petitions, public service announcements and individual outreach persuaded the House of Representatives to restore CPB’s endangered $400 million appropriation for 2006, by a 2-to-1 margin.


The campaign website “170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting” is run by the Association for Public Television Stations and Minnesota-based American Public Media. Their partners are public radio's Station Resources Group, the National Federation of Community Broadcasters, PBS, Public Radio International, the Association of Independents in Radio, NPR and Public Radio Exchange.

The campaign's Facebook page has nearly 3,000 Facebook fans as of Dec. 17:

For a similar funding fight in the mid-1990s, NPR, PBS and APTS put together a “Tell Them Public Matters” site, which was online from April 2006 to August ‘08. You can still see the home page in the portfolio of its designer, Rachel Carpenter.

The big
cross-platform number came out of SRG's separate audience-growth research.

Selections from the newspaper about
public TV and radio in the United States