I’m embarking on what I hope ends up to be a helpful, factual summary of some of the issues surrounding recent proposals in Congress to de-fund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which supports public television and radio stations.
I’m writing this to individuals like you who support WBEZ 91.5 FM, and our affiliated signals 90.7 FM and 89.5 FM, which many of you know as Vocalo.
As a dedicated listener, you have had the opportunity to enjoy the programs which, with your support, we produce and distribute nationally and globally such as This American Life, Sound Opinions and, in partnership with NPR, Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!
My role as director of this institution is to provide public service with a firm faith in the ability of an informed citizenry to shape policy. We recognize the inappropriateness of our institution—dedicated to fair and comprehensive journalism—to misuse our communication platforms to drive specific outcomes in national policy of any kind.
The public broadcasting defunding debate has generated a lot of misinformation, and my goal in writing to you is to provide a clear—and accurate—summary of what’s happening and why. I also hope to pinpoint who would be most affected if wholesale defunding of CPB were to occur.
I hasten to note that we are also conflicted here. Chicago Public Media, Incorporated (the community non-profit that owns and operates WBEZ 91.5 and Vocalo, 89.5 FM) receives money from the annual federal appropriation to CPB.
Despite this conflict, I am motivated to write because the funds from CPB help not just major market stations like us—but also hundreds of independent, locally based public radio and television stations all over the country. We consider you key investors in our mission, and as such, we think it’s appropriate to keep you informed of issues that could have a negative impact on that mission here, and by extension, across the country.
It seems that even the most fundamental of facts about this are presently lost in the national debate: the Federal appropriation is designed to support the operations of public broadcast stations, some 900 of which are public radio stations, along with nearly every public television station in the country.
What Federal funding does not do is provide any annual operating dollars for national production houses such as NPR or distributors like PRI or PBS, which own and operate no broadcast stations. While these production houses and distribution companies may occasionally receive one-time project-specific grants from CPB through a competitive process, the magnitude of these one-time grants is relatively immaterial in size to the other revenues generated by the national producers.
The hot rhetoric ricocheting around Washington and elsewhere—where some see defunding as a way to strike out against perceived failings of these national producing companies—fails to make this distinction: local stations receive the money, not NPR, not PBS. This is a crucial distinction.
Some commercial and cable media exaggerate the size of this federal support (CPB funding is actually under 500 million dollars in a proposed budget of 3.8 trillion dollars) while understating its benefit.
Hundreds of public service radio and television stations in small- and medium-sized cities, many serving rural and racially diverse American communities, depend on this annual funding for 20%-30% of their budgets every year.
Unlike the UK and other countries, public television and radio in the US has always been completely de-centralized. There is no real “network” in public radio or public television. PBS is a distribution company and NPR is a producer and a distributor of programming. PBS and NPR (and other big distributors) are owned and managed separately from all public television and radio stations that purchase their products. Furthermore, there is no requirement or directive to purchase nationally distributed program products. That’s why so many public television and radio stations have distinctive schedules, offering original and acquired programming specifically tailored to the character of the communities they serve.
As community institutions, public radio and television stations are devoted to providing an arena for civic discourse. For many cities, towns, and regions, the local public radio station, along with public television, are the most important source of non-commercial news and information in this country. More than ever at this point in our history, whether we are in times of crisis or calm, I hope we all can see the value of trusted, non-commercial programming. I would think none of us would see the country as better off were such services to go silent or fade to black.
If you wish to learn more, here is a link to some background on the federal appropriation to public radio and television stations through CPB. Ultimately it is your place as an active citizen to decide what, if anything, you might wish to do in voicing your position on this legislation to your representatives. To assist you, should you wish to express a view, we have provided links at the bottom of this letter for further reading and for contacting members of Congress, should you wish to do so.
Naturally, I am also available. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Thank you for giving this matter the serious consideration it deserves.
All the best,
President and CEO
Chicago Public Media