What’s its purpose? Its worth asking once in a while, when considering what the public needs and what pubcasting is best equipped to do. From inside the field and outside, here are pertinent commentaries, many first published in Current newspaper, about the fields purposes and realities.

Here's an exit from the 'squirrel-cage discussions' of right-left harangues
Pat Aufderheide and Noelle McAfee of American University say engagement with the public is what puts the "public" in public broadcasting and other public media. They 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 demonstrate respectful give-and-take on issues.

Pubradio stations are so deep into local news, you'd think they'd plant the news flag
A prominent news director, Michael Marcotte, suggests that they see themselves as institutions of journalism and that they push their performance by its standards.

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.

'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, retiring in 2002. In contrast, most TV enters people "not as food for thought, but as an embalming fluid."

'Public trust is the rating that matters most to PBS'
In a May 2005 speech, in the midst of the 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.

Public broadcasting offers a rare, moral transaction
People give it an hour of their time, says Bill Moyers, and they get something in return that dignifies life rather than debasing it. [Similar 1996 speech.]

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.

Universally accessible television used "to educate, enlighten, engage and inform"
That's part of public television's boiled-down mission statement, adopted in 2004

"Serving diversity is what public broadcasting is all about"
So in pragmatic as well as mission terms, it makes sense for it to seize the diversity market, writes attorney and former PBS exec Gary Poon

To "be a unifying force in American culture, a lens through which we can understand our diverse nation and the world"
Public TV stations adopted this mission statement at a PBS meeting in February 2004.

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.

'Playing small does not serve the world,' he says, quoting Mandela
Rick Madden, a key public radio leader at CPB for many years, urged colleagues to think big in his speech accepting the Edward R. Murrow Award in 2001.

We need civility in media to rebuild the public's trust and hope
Henry Hampton, the late documentary producer, warned pubcasters in 1992 that "the level of anger in much of our public discourse prevents effective communication."

Making sure that listeners' time with public radio is time well spent
Bill Siemering, who became NPR's first program director, sketched National Public Radio Purposes in 1970. 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.

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.

A conservative answer to America's triple crisis
Ervin Duggan, president of PBS between 1994 and 1999, says public broadcasting itself offers the genuinely conservative approach.

What distinguishes public radio news
It starts with an unapologetic seriousness of purpose, writes Bill Buzenberg, then news chief at NPR. It's not afraid to spend the time so that listeners can understand.

He chooses to work in 'the only place you have a measure of creative control'
Ken Burns, documentary-maker, tells why he sticks with public TV in short 1992 remarks to TV critics and longer 1999 testimony in the House of Representatives.

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 retelling the past.

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.

To bring exuberant life to the country's most important public space
Jill Godmilow, independent filmmaker, wants a clear window that looks out at the world.

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.

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.

Making programs for citizens, not consumers
As a venture capitalist, 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
William H. Kling, president of Minnesota Public Radio.

Where public TV should concentrate more effort: near home
Jack Willis, then head of the public TV station in Twin Cities, explains why public TV should put its faith in programming about local issues.

To serve as a catalyst in making our cities work
Robert F. Larson, former president of WTVS, Detroit.

Opportunities for greater service in new media
Richard Somerset-Ward, producer and senior fellow of the Benton Foundation, suggests community alliances.
Jon Schwartz, Wyoming station manager and former NPR Board member, sees satellite and Internet delivery as public radio's opportunity to serve more Americans.

What would you do with two new radio stations?
Independent producer Jay Allison, a founder of new stations on Cape Cod and Nantucket, got this rewarding array of suggestions from some 30 public radio people.

Thanks (and complaints) in the mailbox
The audience has its say.

Listeners and producers alike: members of a media congregation
Martin Goldsmith, former host of NPR's Performance Today.

Indicted for operating outside the marketplace
Robert McChesney, media historian and later founder of the Free Press group, reminds us of the long struggle to create a kind of broadcasting not motivated primarily by profit.

Advice to a new PBS program chief, 1995
Current asked three program makers how PBS should change
Danny Schechter, former executive producer of South Africa Now and Rights & Wrongs
Catherine Allan, production exec at Twin Cities Public Television
John Lindsay, then a production exec at Oregon Public Broadcasting.

Testimonials posted on public broadcasting's self-defense website
Tellthempublicmatters.org, backed by PBS, NPR and APTS Action Inc., offers comments by notables

Do you admire other useful and diverse speeches or essays on questions of purpose? We'd be interested in seeing them. Please send to Current Editor Steve Behrens..

Web page revised March 6, 2009
Current: the newspaper about public TV and radio in the United States
Current LLC, Takoma Park, Md.


A website called "Tell Them Public Matters" collects testimonials from viewers and listeners.

E.B. White penned one of the most lyrical descriptions of what public TV could become.

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

In President Johnson's speech endorsing public broadcasting, he says he has asked his advisers " to begin to explore the possibility of a network for knowledge."


Essays & statements
on its purposes