Citizens’ group organizes to back full CPB funding

A professional campaign firm has begun setting up a Citizens’ Committee for Public Broadcasting to coordinate grassroots support for “full funding” of CPB.

Proposed and organized by a New York consumer rights lawyer, Donald Ross, the committee has startup funding from about five major public TV stations, Ross says.

The initiative is the latest in a long line of citizen interventions to support or protect public broadcasting. Separate plans for a big-name commission of prominent citizens to resolve “serious issues” in the field’s future were announced by CPB Chairman Henry Cauthen two weeks ago, but have been delayed, according to CPB.

The citizen’s committee’s handful of staffers, meanwhile, is starting to recruit field activists and organizers out of the downtown Washington branch office of Ross’s firm, M&R Strategic Services.

“My instinct is that the consumer is being hurt in this,” says Ross, a former associate of Ralph Nader. “I asked the question, ‘Is there some mechanism by which consumers of public broadcasting services are being heard?’ The answer I got back is that there is no organized vehicle.”

“The problem is the debate has taken place between congressional members and employees of public broadcasting, and there is, at this time, no organized voice for the consumers of public broadcasting.”

“We want to provide an amplification system for the average viewer to be heard more clearly.”

Refrain: “Full funding!”

Andrew Kennedy, Washington-based codirector of the citizen’s committee with Ross, says the group will provide a chorus of support for CPB funding and stay away from complex issues such as budgetary pie-slicing.

“Our message is fairly basic: that nobody escapes without understanding that there is tremendous support for full funding of public broadcasting,” says Kennedy.

He hopes the message will be so simple that the committee won’t find itself in conflict with public broadcasting leaders or any faction in the field. But the group will be autonomous, Kennedy insists, and won’t take orders from the stations.

The citizens’ committee “didn’t spring from their minds,” Kennedy explains. “It sprang from ours.”

Ross began work on the ad hoc committee in December by approaching WGBH, Boston, through a longtime friend, producer Steve Atlas, and then meeting with Jeanne Hopkins, the station’s v.p. of corporate communications. WGBH was receptive.

Hopkins says the group will fill a need: “We’ve gotten countless calls, ‘Gee, I’d like to do something, what do I do?’ The citizen’s committee is a place we can send them.”

At WGBH’s invitation, four other stations–KCET in Los Angeles, KTCA in Twin Cities, WHYY in Philadelphia, and WNET in New York–joined it in chipping in seed money, none more than $5,000, according to Ross. Five more stations expressed interest. The committee made its first contacts with public TV stations, but will meet soon with NPR to coordinate efforts with radio, Kennedy says.

Ross’s firm, M&R Strategic Services, a New York City offshoot of his Albany law firm, Malkin & Ross, took on the job of setting up the committee as it has handled campaigns for other clients. In New York, the firms have run such drives as Parks 2000, which campaigned for continued funding of the state’s extensive park system.

The citizen’s committee has no separate legal identity so far, but it will be “separate and distinct” from M&R, funded by citizens’ donations, and governed by its own board, which the organizers are recruiting now, according to Kennedy.

The dynamic of the organization will shift from “top-down” to “bottom-up,” says Ross.

An issue for ’96 elections

By demonstrating voter support for CPB funding, the committee aims to show the political risks of opposing it. Kennedy, a former staffer for Rep. George Hockbrueckner (D-N.Y.), says pubcasting can become “a lightning-rod issue.”

“Come campaign season, it’s surprising what issues drift to the top.”

Kennedy could imagine candidates accusing their opponents of helping “kill Sesame Street.

“I wouldn’t want to be a campaign manager having to defend that issue.”

To put across its message, the committee plans to use a range of techniques, including organizing by phone, petition drives and probably “friendly public demonstrations.”

Kennedy expects the group will put its greatest effort into areas whose members of Congress are “swing votes” or sit on influential committees. “Fertile ground” will be the many House districts where Republicans won seats from moderate Democrats and won’t want to appear too right-wing.

By late last week the group had organizers in 20 states and was recruiting among activists already working in arts, education and senior citizen groups. Kennedy hopes to get stations’ help in identifying volunteers who already work on behalf of public broadcasting. He wants to build the central staff to five or six, and the volunteer field corps to 200 or 300.

But Ross says he does not intend to ask for stations’ mailing lists to find financial backers. He expects to rely more on larger donors identified locally by field organizers.

Public broadcasting’s donors have been “homogenous,” Kennedy says, and he wants to bring out the diversity of people who benefit from pubcasting, including disabled people and rural people.

He aims to affect congressional committee votes on 1998 funding that are expected to come up in the next two months and the floor votes this summer. “There is no way to have real impact on the rescissions” that are already on the way, he says.

“We began this process somewhat later than we would have liked.”

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