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Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
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Calling Big Bird: Public TV and Radio fight for taxpayer support

VivianSchiller It’s hard these days to persuade Republican deficit hawks in Congress to preserve taxpayer funding for just about any discretionary program. But try saving public money for your organization when one of your key executives has just popped off against those same congressional Republicans.

That’s the nasty bind public TV and radio leaders find themselves in these days—fighting on Capitol Hill  for their $430 million in annual funding just as National Public Radio’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller, was caught in a video sting trashing…conservative Republicans. Schiller also said in the video (filmed surreptiously by faux potential donors) that NPR would be “better off in the long run” without federal support.

Schiller soon resigned, followed shortly by NPR’s chief executive, Vivian Schiller. (The two are not related.) Insiders hoped the resignations would tamp down calls for defunding, but congressional Republicans said they would not back down until all taxpayer support has been stripped away.

Many public radio employees expressed alarm at the prospective loss of funding. But a chief lobbyist for public television stations sounded a much more confident note—saying there is a quiet but significant group of Republicans who would come to the support of public broadcasting.

Jennifer Ferro, general manager of Santa Monica-based KCRW 89.9 FM, was on The Hill pushing for continued public funding Wednesday. While members of the California Democratic delegation remain supportive, she said, Republicans “don’t even want to talk about the issue and what we do. They are competing with each other to cut more and more.”

Ferro argues that the $1 million to $1.2 million KCRW receives each year is a modest investment that helps the station leverage a total budget of more than $13 million, most of it from listeners, corporate sponsors and foundations. “It’s seed money that we make go a long way,” she said.

If the station loses that government support and can’t raise the money elsewhere, it would likely have to cut its most costly operations—local news and information gathering, Ferro said. A couple of producers hired in November to create more local news stories would have to go, she said, as might some staffers who help create talk shows like “To the Point” and “Which Way, L.A.?” both popular mainstays, hosted by veteran newsman Warren Olney.

Ferro would like to see other public radio stations pushing harder to defend their work, which even many conservatives have conceded is more even-handed than critics contend. I wrote recently how San Gabriel Valley Rep. David Dreier shared his love of NPR and and said he considered public radio mostly fair-minded. Dreier, however, is for eventually pushing NPR off the public dole.

While Ferro expressed alarm, the man who represents public television affiliates before Congress told “The Hill” newspaper this week that he is confident.  “I do think if there ever comes an up-or-down vote on public broadcasting itself, we'll wind up with a bipartisan majority in favor of continuing our funding," said Patrick Butler, chief executive of the Association of Public Television Stations.

While Butler’s organization insists supportive Republicans are out there, they sure aren't making a lot of noise about it. In most of heir recent mid-term election triumphs, conservatives promised to slash federal spending of all kinds.  House Republicans unanimously approved a measure that would “zero out” broadcasting dollars, though most Democrats and President Obama have left the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (which supports both TV and radio) in their budget plans.

Perhaps it’s time for public broadcasting advocates—and I’m one of them—to consider alternatives. While the corporate bosses have taken on considerable baggage after the Schiller video (and the earlier controversial ousting of commentator Juan Williams from NPR) local public stations maintain tremendous followings.

If it comes to a final vote on funding, supporters should at least move to bifurcate the question and have lawmakers vote separately on public support of the troubled mother ship and on public support for local affiliates. I suspect it would be much harder for even budget hard-liners to vote against their local public radio and TV stations.

Members of Congress shoule recall a lesson from their own political careers: Polls constantly show the public loathes Congress in general, but the same voters keep sending their local lawmakers back to Washington, time after time.

Most voters might not love sending their tax dollars to the East Coast powers that run public broadcasting, but they’d hate to lose the local outlet that’s often their best hope of receiving quality news.

RELATED:

Vivian Schiller, NPR chief, resigns amid 'tea party' video fallout

NPR 'appalled' by its executive's 'tea party' remarks in video

 

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: National Public Radio CEO and president Vivian Schiller resigned March 9 after a furor set off by a sting against another NPR executive, who was shown on video disparaging conservatives. Schiller had previously worked at CNN and the New York Times. Credit: NPR

 
Comments () | Archives (5)

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PBS is a biased, liberal media outlet. That's fine, but public funds shouldn't be supporting it. If they want to present an unbalanced point of view, they can get the funds by themselves, like Fox and MSNBC have to do.

Public media has been cowed for years by the right. Shows like the 51st State at WNET are ancient history. It is truly the Petroleum Broadcasting Newwork.
I am surprised that any
conservative thinks it is worth the time to gut. Cars, gardening, self-help,
ballroom dancing, music nostalgia programs, nature shows are not edgy.
The children's education programs are not a threat and generally considered to have a great impact. However, most of this could be picked up by cable networks, if public media went black.
If public media wants to have an identity that has a spine, it should drop public funding, change its business model ( be a producer for the net, and take advantage of the reduction of cost of the new tools of filmmaking and audio production}, the station model, big or small, that broadcasts is a very expensive proposition and is very hard to sustain. It could survive losing the large signature,buildings and studios and bureaucracies and go small and net agile and funded directly by the public without government funding. That would be true public media, not the imperial structure of the CPB.

Advances in all aspects of the internet have given a new opportunity for those who care about public media.

In the outback, I have yet to find a local station that has "quality, independent news service." Most of those stations are college based and are inherently gutless when it comes to reporting. They do the usual inventory of less than provocative social service shows. Very useful, socially constructive yes, but not news. They undoubtedly would be picked up in one form or another by the quality cable networks or digital radio networks.

Even the national weekly news shows are bland, perpetually centrist productions.
FRONTLINE is the only show that comes to mind in the all of public media, radio or tv, as hard, solid investigative work. It possibly could exist on a cable network, possibly not, it is an expensive show.
Even Tina Fey's acceptance of the Mark Twain award was bowdlerized out of fear by public tv.

"If it comes to a final vote on funding, supporters should at least move to bifurcate the question and have lawmakers vote separately on public support of the troubled mother ship and on public support for local affiliates. I suspect it would be much harder for even budget hard-liners to vote against their local public radio and TV stations.

"Members of Congress shoule recall a lesson from their own political careers: Polls constantly show the public loathes Congress in general, but the same voters keep sending their local lawmakers back to Washington, time after time.

"Most voters might not love sending their tax dollars to the East Coast powers that run public broadcasting, but they’d hate to lose the local outlet that’s often their best hope of receiving quality news."
________________________

A good point. I would go even further and allocate public broadcasting funding by state population, with the requirement that PBS and NPR's national programming must reflect this proportional formula -- no more dominance by WGBH, WNET and the coastal elites. Although the Ivy League establishment would be aghast, I sense many of the stations in "flyover" country could supply intriguing, fascinating programming. (And this isn't a matter of liberal vs. conservative, but elite vs. non-elite. In some ways, public radio and television need this in order to rescue them from themselves and falling into a upper-middle-class, latte-sipping prison.)

So if the ax is swinging why hasn't pubic radio and TV worked to become financially independent? Because they, like so many Americans, have come to expect and demand a free handout. One of the biggest arguements that they dodge is that they are no longer relevent. Yes Ken Burns makes some darn good series but they could easly be on the History Channel and making a profit instead of PBS. Also where are the minorities on these channels?

Why aren't more people reporting about the real story for NPR and Ron Schiller:

http://newsblogs.chicagotribune.com/pagespage/2011/03/questions-about-npr-sting-video.html

The raw footage tells a very different story. James O'Keefe has done it again!


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