A few weeks ago, the Republican-led House of Representatives voted to defund NPR. The good news is that the Democrat-led Senate is not expected to pass the measure. For the time being, it seems, NPR has survived this latest ideological assault.
Nevertheless, this episode raises important questions about the future of US public media. For instance, could public radio survive without federal funding? The short answer to that question is yes: NPR could survive without public financial support. However, it would be a greatly diminished service -- one that caters to relatively affluent audiences and without the national reach, let alone the relevance, that it can and should have.
A comparison with public service media in other countries is instructive. In most industrialized democracies -- UK, Canada, Australia, France, among many others -- non-commercial, public service broadcasting has been the norm since the 1920s. The rationale for non-commercial broadcasting was self-evident for policy makers and citizens alike. Privately owned, profit- oriented broadcasting was far too susceptible to market pressures. The public interest was best served by non-commercial, publicly funded systems that are insulated from both commercial and state interference.
"If these efforts to defund CPB are successful, public and community-oriented stations, especially those serving rural populations, would suffer first and foremost."
Today, even as these countries have "deregulated" the media sector, public media continues to receive significant funding -- funding that dwarfs the pittance the United States allocates to public service media. The result is a mixed system of community, public and private media that provides healthy competition and nurtures a robust and inclusive public sphere.
In contrast, the American system of privately owned, advertiser-supported broadcasting was the exception. As media historians remind us, this commercial system was neither natural nor inevitable. In the 1920s and 1930s a broad coalition of labor, educators, radio enthusiasts and consumer activists were vehemently opposed to a commercial system. This coalition lobbied for a public service model not unlike the BBC. However, powerful commercial interests, such as Westinghouse and RCA, prevailed, and commercial broadcasting quickly dominated the nation’s airwaves.
Decades later, in the 1960s, U.S. public broadcasting was established, pretty much as an afterthought. Despite widespread support of its public service mission, public radio and television have since been chronically underfunded and subject to the political machinations of American conservatives.
Recall that Richard Nixon led an assault on public broadcasting during his shameful presidency. Ever since, political opportunists like Newt Gingrich and, more recently, Doug Lamborn, have continued the ideological attack on public media. The latest “sting” of NPR executives is just one more ugly episode in a broader campaign to dismantle essential public services -- including public radio and television.
If these efforts to defund CPB are successful, public and community-oriented stations, especially those serving rural populations, would suffer first and foremost. Even in the era of internet communication, radio is a vital communication infrastructure, especially in rural areas.
But the implications of all of this are more far reaching. American journalism is in a rapid state of decline -- as evidenced by the press corps’ willingness to run discredited conservative activist James O’Keefe’s NPR “sting video” in the first place. Defunding public media would take its toll on one of the last bastions of high-caliber journalism in this country.
In short, despite all of the budget-cutting fervor, we need to re-evaluate some of our national priorities. One of those priorities should be a well-funded, independent, public, community media sector.
Kevin Howley is associate professor of media studies at DePauw University. He is editor of Understanding Community Media (Sage, 2010). He writes regularly on media, culture and politics at e-chreia.