Why public media?

To empower active citizens with knowledge, locally as well as nationally

Commentary by William H. Kling

When President Clinton had just taken office in 1993, Current asked an assortment of outside-the-Beltway people connected with public broadcasting to write open letters to him about the field’s public-service potential. One was Bill Kling, president of Minnesota Public Radio in St. Paul and founder of American Public Radio.

Dear President Clinton:

I know that as a listener to public radio around the country, you know its national programming well. At a time when the spirit of a new national agenda is high, the mission of public radio fits well into the public understanding and assimilation of that agenda just as it has for every administration since Lyndon Johnson’s.

Bill KlingPublic radio reaches opinion leaders. Our listeners sit on school boards, they volunteer, they are legislators, heads of companies, policymakers, social workers and activists. They vote. In short, they have a considerably higher degree of influence, as catalysts for change, than average. Much of their knowledge base and understanding of national and international issues is fed by the programming they hear on public radio. And that’s where we make the difference.

Government cannot afford to solve all the problems of our society, nor can it effectively react to all of the opportunities that will move us forward. But once they understand the background behind current issues and hear the experience of others who have successfully addressed them, the opinion leaders who listen to public radio can and do act independently–in ways we know and in many ways we will never know–to multiply the efforts of government.

Public radio is already an effective “multiplier” of the understanding and solutions required to advance the national agenda. Public radio stations could be equally effective for the local agenda. But in the 25 years since the formation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting began to bring out the potential of public radio, CPB has not been able to afford to develop the local stations to the extent that it has helped develop public radio’s national programming. In the few cases where significant local strength has developed, the results are just as effective as public radio’s national programming has been. Rural communities are learning about economic solutions that similar communities have developed. Community leaders are learning about educational opportunities, the effectiveness of social policies and programs, new concepts in health care and an endless list of items that appear to address much of your national agenda.

Public radio may be one of the most inexpensive solutions that your administration could find to empower capable people on the local level with the knowledge, ideas and examples they need to pursue local solutions of local, regional and national issues. If properly designed and implemented by the FCC during your administration, the new digital audio broadcasting systems will multiply our ability to give our audiences useful, actionable information, in even greater depth and greater variety of forms.

Public radio is a true catalyst. It may already be the “electronic town meeting place” for the local leadership base of the country. And with a few changes it could do far more.

Your encouragement and your support for funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to strengthen local public radio production capability to mirror the national programming strength, might be one of the most effective and important early investment areas of your administration. Further, your encouragement of CPB to provide public broadcasting stations with financial “incentives” that encourage them to increase efforts to use their physical and intellectual properties to earn revenue, could result in significant additional resources to strengthen the local public radio system.

I hope your staff will look carefully at the potential return for America. My instinct is that it is considerably greater than any administration has yet recognized.

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