Our public media system has achieved this extraordinary result despite being starved for public funds, in comparison to other industrialized countries. The U. S. spends about $1.43 per capita, or $420 million a year, on public media. Great Britain spends about $87 per capita. Canada, one of the most miserly among industrialized countries, spends about $27 per capita. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting’s budget has increased less than 5 percent in real terms since 1982.
The U.S. has always taken less government-driven approaches to media policy than other rich countries, and in these fiscally challenged times it is unrealistic to consider increases in funding from the general tax base. But it should be possible to pursue reforms and add funding to public media without making any significant call on general revenues.
The FCC regularly auctions and allocates valuable broadcast spectrum. There should be opportunities to raise considerable funds from spectrum purchasers and users, and to redirect to more productive use the funds they already expend under regulatory mandates such as the P.I.O. system. This search for revenue should also expand beyond FCC licensees to include cable franchisees and satellite broadcasters, among others. Satellite broadcasters, for example, are required to set aside expensive bandwidth for public interest uses, but the impact of these investments is negligible; the equivalent revenue would serve the public better if it were directed to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
What can we achieve with this revenue? For a number of reasons, including political practicality, we should construct reform within the system we already have, rather than invent a new one. That means we should direct all or nearly all of the increased funds we get from public property users and other special interests to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, in return for systemic reforms within the CPB-funded system.
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 created the CPB. The system was founded to promote the public interest amid pervasive commercial media—precisely the mission we need to revive now. The Corporation has contributed to the success of PBS and NPR. Some of its recent experiments, such as Argo, which is intended to fund multimedia local reporting in response to the loss of newspaper jobs, may be promising.
CPB has a record of accountability to Congress and to the public about questions of political bias. Congress has already implemented special funding and governance rules to protect the corporation from politicization—rules that have been reviewed, revised, and argued about for years, but which nonetheless require strengthening. Funding should be removed from the appropriations process to an even greater degree, perhaps by setting up semi-automated flows into an independent trust fund. Governance and appointments to the cpb board must be further depoliticized.
The current CPB is also biased toward mainstream television and radio, particularly television, which receives, by law, three-quarters of its funds. I’ve heard suggestions that new funding should be linked to more pluralistic formulas, including a restructuring of CPB to encompass new digital entrants, such as ProPublica, for example, or local sites like the nonprofit Voice of San Diego—a change that might be signaled by renaming the entity as the Corporation for Public Media. That may be ambitious politically, but it is certainly the right strategic direction. Any new funding regime should be measured by whether or not it will produce more serious, independent, diverse, public-minded reporting.
Any new funds routed through a reformed corporation should come with conditions. One should be that that PBS, NPR, and their member stations have incentives to work across digital media, and to embrace local reporting to a much greater degree than they do now (which is not much, overall; only 478 of the 901 stations airing NPR programming have staff of any kind, and only a fraction of those have a local news staff). The stations should also be given incentives to connect their audiences to other non-profit and commercial media outlets through open systems, just as web aggregators do, in order to strengthen innovators and new entrants.
As Bill Kling, the retiring president of American Public Media, has forcefully pointed out, the current CPB-funded radio and television station system is also hobbled by internal problems. Stations are often badly governed. Colleges and universities control many public stations, and their administrations sometimes milk them for cash while neglecting original news and public affairs. Any new funding routed to this system should be linked to a reforms and incentives that will address public media’s governance failures.