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The Right Way to Fix Public Broadcasting

The Messenger

August 7, 2023

The kabuki theater of Washington budgeting has again featured the lightning-rod issue of public broadcasting. Last month, a House Commerce subcommittee voted to zero-out funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), whose funds go to NPR and PBS; just six days later, its Senate counterpart voted to maintain the funding. Both critics and defenders of the system will be able to claim victory.

But if change is truly going to come to public media (the preferred term), it will require a far less ham-handed approach than that of the House. The Trump administration tried to end CPB funding — and the system, still citing Big Bird (which has flown to HBO Max), rallied bipartisan support. Conservatives are not wrong to seek to correct the left-leaning and geographic biases of what purports to be a national system but disproportionately draws audiences in politically blue enclaves. The Pew Research Foundation reports that no less than 87% of the NPR audience identifies as Democratic or leaning-Democratic. But changing the content bias in a system with national reach and public funding will require revisiting — and rewriting — its original authorizing legislation, essentially unchanged since its original passage in 1967. If public media supporters were open-minded, they’d welcome such change.

When President Lyndon Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, there were still just three television networks in the United States — no Netflix, no Amazon Prime, no Apple TV. That was before streaming, podcasts, even Fox or HBO. Government, per the law, was needed to ensure “creative risk” would be taken in what was viewed as the vast wasteland of television and radio. It is understatement, indeed, to say that the need for such a provision has been overtaken by events. Public broadcasting today clings to its funding on the basis of such rationales as providing for civil defense warnings, along with that of ensuring, as per the law, over-the-air broadcasting access in an era of broadband. Yet it has developed a strong interest group network that blocks defunding. The House vote was nothing but symbolic. Those put off by the system must dig deeper.

As I’ve written in an  American Enterprise Institute paper, the single most important change would be that of letting the 1,500 public radio and TV stations keep funds the law now requires them to send to NPR or PBS — and instead, retain it for themselves, for such purposes as news coverage of their own communities. NPR boasts that it receives little direct federal funding — but the law requires local stations to devote 23% of their own federal funding “solely to be used for acquiring or producing programming that is to be distributed nationally and is designed to serve the needs of a national audience.” NPR’s federal funding is indirect, but it’s guaranteed.

Letting local stations retain their funds would allow them to gather  local news — and to cover the sorts of stories that NPR might overlook in favor of those also found on the front page of major newspapers such as the New York Times. Story selection — a disproportionate focus on progressive causes de jour — is the core reason why NPR alienates conservatives: police shootings rather than minority crime victims, or gender affirmation rather than the decline in marriage. Both have their place — but good journalism would not be either/or. It should find out what’s going on across the country and let listeners know, rather than reinforcing their interests and biases. NPR does carry locally-based stories but they are largely local angles on national stories: for example, how a heat wave reflects global warming, how any issue relates to race and gender.

To allow different types of stories to bubble up from regional stations, they should be made available without cost to NPR’s national news desks — and All Things Considered and Morning Edition should be free of charge to local stations, if they choose to run them. High levels of station financial dues should be dropped. Local journalism is endangered and a robust, truly local public radio system could help — especially because the stations themselves are endangered by the fact that listeners can now access national programming through their smartphones. Local license-holders will have to produce original content or have no reason to exist. They face a market test: To survive, they must raise funds from their communities to augment those from Washington. That contrasts with the CPB-funded PBS NewsHour — too often a dishwater-dull series of talking heads whose aged audience is probably less than a million. 

Successful public radio stations around the country — in New York, Boston, Los Angeles, Portland — have discovered that news and public affairs draw local support. But, according to Pew Research, the trend toward local journalism is downward. Per Pew: “Program and production expenses for the 129 news-oriented local public radio licensees was $480.2 million in 2021, compared with $539.4 million in 2020. … [A] decrease in these kinds of expenditures indicates that the stations are directing fewer dollars toward the creation of news content.” 

I know I’m proposing a policy bank-shot here. The hope is that local journalism will stay away from knee-jerk progressivism and, in turn, improve public radio news. But even just holding hearings on bringing the Public Broadcasting Act up-to-date would be useful. The law requires 70% of federal funds to go to television — while NPR, an afterthought in 1967, has proven to draw large audiences. Public media’s advocates, not just its opponents, should be open to change.  The fact that a “national” system has no major studios below the Mason-Dixon line should be an embarrassment. The fact that it has become a partisan lighting rod does not reflect a failure of conservatives to appreciate its virtues, but a failure of the system to serve a broad cross-section of America.