A Bigger Role for Public Broadcasting
For more than 50 years, the nation’s network of 1,300 taxpayer-funded television and radio stations has entertained, educated and informed Americans with programs ranging from “Masterpiece Theatre” and “Sesame Street” to the PBS “NewsHour” and NPR’s “Morning Edition.” Using information and data compiled by UNC researchers, Bill Arthur, former Washington correspondent at Knight Ridder and editor for Bloomberg News , explores the potential for public broadcasting to step in and provide news coverage for residents living in a news desert.
In August 2017, readers of more than 200 newspapers in Minnesota and North Dakota found themselves looking at blank front pages: no print, no photographs. Nothing.190 It was an effort by the Minnesota Newspaper Association to highlight newspapers’ vital role in building an informed citizenry, especially in an era when so many publications are cutting staff or going out of business entirely. The intentionally blank front pages raised a key question: What would replace local newspapers if they went away?
One alternative could be public broadcasting, with its proven record in the news business through mainstays like National Public Radio (NPR), American Public Media (APM) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). “Public media stations are locally controlled and operated, so they are in the best position to address growing news deserts,” Kathy Merritt, senior vice president of journalism and radio at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), told the PBS public editor in a March 2020 interview.191
Julie Drizin, executive director of Current,192 a nonprofit news service covering U.S. public media, says public broadcasting is “making a difference.” But, “Can public broadcasting fill the void left by the shrinking or the disappearance of newspapers? The answer is no, it can’t. But it’s doing the best that it can.”193
How and whether to build on the progress that public broadcasting has made are the options confronting both policymakers and American taxpayers in the years ahead. As the two comments suggest, public broadcasting is currently well positioned to provide local and state news coverage. Its stations are easily accessible over the air throughout much of the country, especially in areas that lack high-speed internet access. Because the stations are locally controlled and operated, the stations have the flexibility to meet the unique information needs of the communities where they are located. Yet the stations are constrained by a number of factors, including available funding and staffing, as well as decades-old federal mandates to entertain and educate, as well as inform.
In an effort to understand how and where public broadcasting might step in and provide local news coverage, UNC researchers collected data on more than 1,400 outlets, including some 1,100 radio stations and 350 television stations. The research focused specifically on identifying the public broadcasting stations that provided either national or locally produced news programming. Based on an assessment of the material on their websites, about half of those outlets – 608 – were producing original content, including news shows that focused on either state or local news. This included 406 NPR stations, 144 affiliated with PBS, five with Pacifica, and 50 affiliated with APM or jointly affiliated with APM and NPR.
Widely Available, Easily Accessible
NPR is a key radio news source for many Americans, typically reaching more than 37 million people every week, with national news programs such as “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.”194 Americans have long rated PBS and its member stations among the most trusted institutions in the country, ranking above the court system, as well as commercial broadcasting outlets and newspapers.195 Widely popular PBS news programs include “Frontline” and “NewsHour.”
More than 95 percent of Americans can get public broadcasting’s over-the-air signals, according to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.196 “There is no other system that covers the country like public media, evenly, fairly,” says Kerri Hoffman, chief executive officer of public broadcasting’s PRX, which provides programming for 200 public radio stations, including “This American Life.”197
The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 is the basis for the federal funding structure that exists today to support public broadcasting outlets – “valuable local community resources” that “address national concerns and solve local problems.” 198 The journalism that has evolved through these outlets serves as an antidote to information overload brought on by the rise of the internet. “The internet gives people access to information, but it’s a sea of information,” while public broadcasting “is a curated experience,” Hoffman says.199
The Federal Communications Commission’s200 “carve-out” of the left side of the FM radio dial years ago also created a special place for public radio, making it easily accessible for listeners. “You kind of know where to look for public radio,” says Hoffman. 201Many long-haul truckers listen to NPR because they can pick it up as they drive from state to state, says Finn Murphy, a trucker who wrote a book about his travels.202
While commercial television produces many high-quality news shows, commercial radio largely eschews news for music and entertainment. “Public media’s near monopoly on quality … is partly a function of economics,” wrote Adam Ragusea, then journalist-in-residence at Mercer University, in a 2017 paper. “There simply isn’t that much money in radio anymore, so the only broadcasters that can still afford quality are [public broadcasting stations], which generally have lower fixed costs and more diverse income streams than their commercial counterparts.”203
Paying for the Programs on Public Broadcasting
The public broadcasting system is led by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,204 a taxpayer-funded nonprofit organization that provides funding for public radio and television stations, but doesn’t own any of the stations and doesn’t produce programs. NPR and PBS are membership organizations, composed of separately licensed and operated public radio and TV stations, many owned by universities. Individual stations affiliated with NPR, APM and PBS get funding from CPB. Those stations then pay NPR and PBS membership dues and programming fees.
CPB distributed just over $400 million to public radio and television stations in fiscal 2019 out of its $445 million operating budget, mostly in the form of Community Service Grants.205 To qualify for grants, stations must be locally owned, achieve a specified level of local financial support and provide programming that meets their community’s needs and interests.206 The formula gives extra credit for minority-owned stations. But most money for public broadcasters comes from other sources. In fiscal 2017, listener donations accounted for 38 percent of NPR’s revenue, and CPB appropriations accounted for only 8 percent. The rest came from corporate donations, universities, investments, foundations and state and local governments.207
Overall, the U.S. “is a global outlier among democracies for how little it spends on public media,” writes Victor Pickard, associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, in the Harvard Business Review. “The U.S. federal government allocates around $1.35 per person per year for public broadcasting, while Japan spends over $40 per citizen, the UK about $100, and Norway over $176.”208
CPB grants are especially important for rural stations. Their donor base is smaller and often poorer than for urban stations. CPB grants represent 19 percent of an average rural station’s revenue, with the corporation providing at least 25 percent of revenue for 113 rural stations. Thirty stations, many on Native American reservations, get at least 50 percent of their revenue from CPB.209
State funding is also an option for some public broadcasters, but not everywhere. Fourteen states provide no funding for public broadcasters, while 27 provide funding at less than $2 per resident. Six states fund at $2 to $4 a person, while three – South Dakota, Nebraska and Utah – fund public broadcasting at more than $4 a person. Utah is the leader, funding at $8.70 a person.210
There are 1,136 public radio stations and 350 public TV stations in the UNC database. About 1,000 stations are affiliated with NPR, and more than 300 television stations are affiliated with PBS. APM owns some 50 public radio stations and has an affiliation with an equal number of stations. Through its major subsidiaries — Minnesota Public Radio and Southern California Public Radio – APM produces and acquires programming from the BBC World Service and produces programming of local interest.211 Pacifica Network owns five radio stations – in New York, Washington, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco – that produce original content, including podcasts, and has 200 affiliates. Mostly listener funded, it does not get CPB funding or accept corporate contributions, and is financially struggling.212
The Limits on Covering the News
While each state has multiple public broadcasting stations, many simply transmit programming produced by other stations. While 69 percent of NPR stations report that they offer local news, many of these stations don’t produce original reporting, but merely gather and read news reported by other outlets, according to Robert Papper, who is director of an annual survey of broadcast newsrooms conducted by the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA).213
Public television stations are even less likely than radio stations to produce local and state news programs. Only 13 PBS affiliate stations offer a daily local news broadcast, and most are in large cities, according to Papper. Maintaining a local television news staff is expensive, and local news shows do not typically have wide audience appeal. Therefore, the production costs cannot be recouped through syndication. “Doing production, even a small production at a public television station, requires space. It requires lighting and technical equipment and people,” says Lynda Clarke, vice president, content grants management, at CPB.214 Additionally, public radio and public television operate differently, says PRX’s Hoffman. “Public television is programmed nationally. ‘Downton Abbey’ is on at the same time across the whole nation,” she says. “Since most things are centrally programmed, the muscles to make local content aren’t there.”215
Radio stations have more flexible programming. However, staffing of local news operations is constrained by funding. Between 2011 and 2018, more than 400 NPR stations or those that carry some NPR programming added about 1,000 full-time and part-time jobs, bringing the total to about 3,000 journalists.216 But this hardly compensates for the 36,000 newspaper journalists lost between 2008 and 2018, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. So, NPR is trying to use reporters and editors more efficiently by creating regional hubs, such as the one formed in 2019 that pooled coverage among journalists in the Dallas, Houston, San Antonio and Austin stations.217 Public radio and television journalists in Colorado, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming have formed a Mountain West News Bureau,218 and in Kansas four stations formed a statewide news service focusing on agriculture, education, state politics, health and natural resources.
In February 2020, stations in Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi formed a Gulf Coast hub, led by WBHM in Birmingham, Alabama. Funded with a $1.3 million grant from CPB, the hub plans to hire additional reporters and editors to boost regional coverage.219 “Our region, sadly, has been dubbed a ‘news desert.’ The Gulf States need more journalism, and this collaborative effort gives us much-needed resources and the means to coordinate and leverage our coverage," said Chuck Holmes, executive director and general manager of WBHM.220 “Does it completely fix the problem? No, it doesn’t.” Veterans of the Birmingham News tell him that until recently, the paper had 70 more reporters and editors than it has now. “No way in hell I’m going to be able to raise enough money to hire 70 people,” he said. But the arrangement “gives us resources we haven’t had.”221
“The hubs are unlikely to replace the granular local community reporting that is being lost as small-town newspapers fold, but on the bigger local stories, they seemingly have great potential to fill holes that are now becoming vast news deserts in much of the country,” wrote Elizabeth Jensen, then NPR’s public editor in a March 2020 article on the NPR website.222
But if public broadcasters can’t replace the journalism lost when newspapers are closed, they do highlight the importance of merging legacy and online content. On their websites, public stations offer podcasts and multimedia content that never appeared on the air. “All media are now merging,” says Howard Husock, a former board member of the CPB. “Radio is video, video is audio, and they can be print, too.”223
“You’re seeing more collaboration between public broadcasters and other media,” and even some acquisitions, says Julie Drizin of Current. Several public radio stations have bought digital sites in their respective cities that offer local news and entertainment information. For example, WAMU224 in Washington acquired DCist, WNYC in New York bought the Gothamist, KPCC in Los Angeles acquired LAist, and Colorado Public Radio acquired the Denverite.225
“The future is around digital,” says PRX’s Hoffman. To her, the discussion shouldn’t just be about splitting resources between radio and television but “thinking about nonprofit news operations as partners in a broader ecosystem.”226 That’s one reason the Radio-Television News Directors Association changed its name a few years ago to the Radio Television Digital News Association227 and why some media experts, such as Steve Coll, dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, have suggested that the CPB be renamed the Corporation for Public Media.228
A Path to the Future
As concerned Americans sought information about the coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, audience figures for NPR rose sharply, with 67 million unique visitors to npr.org in early 2020, surpassing the previous high of 58 million in November 2016 during the election.229 However, the economic fallout from the coronavirus has also caused many corporate underwriters to curb their contributions, and listeners who suddenly lost their jobs are unlikely to be enthusiastic donors. Some of the stations that had planned fund drives in March 2020 held off. “How do you fundraise in the middle of a pandemic?” asks Mike Wall, general manager at KMXT-FM in Kodiak, Alaska. “I don’t want to be the guy going on the air in the middle of the virus saying, ‘Hey, by the way, now give us some dough.’”230
This leaves many public stations more reliant on federal funding. Calls to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting go almost as far back as the Public Broadcasting Act. More recently, Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney declared in 2012: “I’m going to stop the subsidy to PBS.” When Congress included $75 million for CPB in its coronavirus emergency stimulus measure in March 2020, Republican Rep. Jim Jordan of Ohio said the bill should focus on fighting the virus, not supporting “liberal projects.”231 The Trump administration has consistently proposed to defund CPB, but Congress has ignored the idea, appropriating $445 million annually for the ninth straight year in fiscal 2020. 232
“I think one of the most brilliant things that was ever done at CPB was to give the money to the stations instead of NPR and PBS,” says Laura Walker, former president and chief executive officer at WNYC233. “It’s brilliant because every single senator and Congress person has a local station in their market, and they know how much people rely on those stations because they appear on those stations,” which are often one of the few outlets for a politician to gain recognition.234
Former CBP board member Howard Husock thinks it’s important “to repurpose the funding rather than reduce the funding.” Stations spend large chunks of the CPB grant money paying dues to NPR and PBS and fees for programs such as NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered.” As a result, the stations end up retaining very little of the federal funds, and, “in effect, the money is recycled to Washington,” he says. Calling the 1967 broadcasting act “superannuated,” Husock suggests changing the formula to let stations keep more of the money for local programming and to get more money to small stations in lower-income regions. “You’re not spending it as wisely as you might if your goal is to encourage local journalism,” he says.235
But is more needed? What should be the role of public television, which has largely been focused on national news? Is there more that could be done by public television stations in providing statewide news? How is current and future funding best allocated between PBS and NPR? With more funding, what else could NPR stations be doing to reverse the loss of news at the state and regional level?
It is “clear that the market cannot provide for all of our communication and information needs,” wrote University of Pennsylvania professor Victor Pickard. “We must expand on and repurpose America’s public broadcasting system to serve as a core democratic infrastructure, one that provides news and information, as well as cultural and educational fare, to everyone across all platforms and media types.”236
The coronavirus crisis may provide an opportunity “to restructure public media to better address the needs of our public,” PRX’s Hoffman wrote in Medium, an online publishing platform. This could include greater collaboration among PBS, NPR and APM. “The public media system we have today in many ways reflects past realities better than current demands;” she wrote. “It’s almost become cliché to say that if we could start from scratch, it would look different.”237