While many think only of National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) when they think of public media, it actually consists of “a system of independently owned and operated local public radio and television stations” that air a combination of commercial-free original programming and programming licensed from other stations through organizations like NPR and PBS. This programming includes broadcasts on local issues, children’s education, the arts, and public affairs.
The stations derive funding from multiple sources, but that funding is often contingent on the federal grants CPB provides to more than 1,041 radio stations and 365 television stations.
The George W. Bush administration tried to use its authority to swing public programming to the right. Kenneth Y. Tomlinson, Bush’s appointee to chair CPB, used federal funds to examine alleged liberal bias on the PBS program NOW, formerly hosted by Bill Moyers. He also helped raise $5 million to produce a PBS show hosted by The Wall Street Journal’s right-wing editorial board.
But under Obama, congressional Republicans pushed to eliminate funding for public broadcasting altogether. The found a ready cheering section from right-wing media, which frequently lashed out at “liberal” PBS and NPR. Critics typically say that public media should be able to easily make up the loss of the federal dollars.
That’s not the case. According to CPB’s statement, “The federal investment in public media is vital seed money – especially for stations located in rural America, and those serving underserved populations where the appropriation counts for 40-50% of their budget. The loss of this seed money would have a devastating effect.”
Indeed, “the loss of federal support would mean the end of public broadcasting,” according to a 2012 report commissioned by CPB from Booz & Company.
The study reviewed alternative funding mechanisms but determined that none could adequately replace federal funding without compromising the mission of public broadcasting. “A reduction or elimination of CPB funding will put 63% (251) of radio stations and 67% (114) of television stations in the public broadcasting system at risk,” according to the report. Many of the stations at greatest risk for shuttering altogether are in rural areas that have more limited programming options – some are the only broadcast stations available to their audience.
Booz’s report could not have been more explicit about the “inevitable consequences” of cutting off public funding: