Friday, February 11, 2011

Why Congress Shouldn't Abandon Public Broadcasting, and Why You Should Care

President John F. Kennedy said, "I am certain that after the dust of centuries has passed over our cities, we, too, will be remembered not for our victories or defeats in battle or in politics, but for our contribution to the human spirit."

I love that sentiment. I hope it is true, because I hope that future generations will look at history with an eye pointed to the things that truly made a difference to the quality of the lives of individual people.

So how do we contribute to the human spirit? There are many ways, in my opinion. And they all start with education-- Education in reading, culture, history, science, music, theater, politics... the list goes on. Education then opens the door to creativity, the combining of seemingly unrelated bits of knowledge to form something that wasn't thought of before. Every major advance in our society has started with an idea. In other words, creativity. It's essential. At the risk of overgeneralizing, I would venture to say that the freedom to create and access to the resources and education that fosters creativity are what have made America the world leader it is.

Which leads me to my point.

In the next few days Congress will vote on a bill that would cut 100% of funding to public broadcasting - the television, radio, and online resources which, for many Americans, are some of the few - if not only - means they have to access information through which they can practice creativity. Did you know that every public broadcasting outlet has to comply with strict FCC regulations that ensure their service is accessible to as much of their constituency as reasonably possible? That means that the underprivileged child whose parents can't afford cable or satellite needs nothing but a TV and an antennae to watch PBS programs that will help him or her learn to read and do math. That child needs only a radio to listen to the Metropolitan Opera broadcast every Saturday afternoon and foster a love for beautiful music and culture (like Eve Queller, for example, who recently received NEA Opera Honors for the innovative way she broadened the accessibility of opera to the people of New York City). Lets not fail to mention that public broadcasting is possibly the only place left in our society where one can find unbiased, clear news reporting. The American people - you and me - have access to knowledge and culture of limitless variety through public broadcasting.

The idea behind this congressional vote is to cut the deficit for the benefit of future generations, and that is a good thing. But, completely cutting off funding to public broadcasting is too extreme. Cut back a little, sure. But it would be an absolute tragedy (and sad irony) if, in an effort to leave dollars behind for our children, we take away a vital resource for building spirit and creativity, and thus deprive them of the advances and luxuries we ourselves enjoy.

To provide a little insight into how funding works in public broadcasting, here's some info. Some stations, like Maryland Public Television (MPT), are state-owned. That means they get a large amount of funding from the state government. However, they are the exception not the rule. Most stations receive only a small percentage of their operating budget from the government. Federal and state funding combined account for well less than 10% of the budget of WETA, Washington DC's station. The majority of funding - more than half - comes from individual contributions. Second in dollars is corporate underwriting. That's the sponsor spots you see between programs on PBS. Think "funding for this program is being provided by X company." There are strict rules about what kind of content can be included in an underwriting spot, so that it never comes off as trying to sway the opinion of the audience. The point is, federal funding is already small in comparison to other forms of funding. PBS isn't busting Capitol Hill's wallet. But, that little bit of funding is vitally important to stations' ability to produce and air the quality programs you know and love.

If you know me much at all you know that I'm never one to push a political agenda on anyone, so please don't take this that way. I would just ask you to give this some thought. It took some thought for me. If you, like me, conclude that federal support of public broadcasting should continue, please call or email your congressman NOW. They are voting in the next few days. It is a matter of urgency.

More information:

I work at WETA, but these thoughts and comments are entirely my own. Please do not mistake them for anything official.