Closer look at challenges ahead

CPB will seek unified case for reauthorization

Published in Current, Nov. 23, 2009
By Karen Everhart

Since Congress last reviewed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1992, public media have had little hope they’d see improvements from a new reauthorization.

Now CPB is considering a high-stakes push for a funding mandate to match its ambitions for new digital public services.

During a Nov. 18 meeting in St. Paul, Minn., the CPB Board weighed the risks and work ahead if the field is to pursue a reauthorization, and authorized staff to continue fleshing out a consensus on how to restructure public broadcasting.

The day before, a few blocks away at Minnesota Public Radio headquarters, pubcasting leaders and stakeholders discussed proposals for stepping up public radio’s news service and called on CPB to take a more aggressive stance in pursuing the funding and collaborations that would make this broader vision possible.

“We need way, way, more money from Congress,” said Tom Thomas, co-chief executive officer of public radio’s Station Resource Group, who urged CPB to “be bold” in making the case to legislators. “Be clear in what we are committing to.”

MPR President Bill Kling called for pubcasting’s legislative reps to be more strategic as they prepare to make the case to lawmakers. “Getting the right people to talk to the right people,” is one way to be more effective, Kling said. Then there is the problem of “too many organizations going up to the Hill one at a time or in a series, making a pitch to the same thing or specialized requests.”

Before any legislative proposal sees the light of day, the biggest task will be negotiating “peace in the valley” among pubcasting’s subgroups, CPB’s legislative staff told the CPB Board Nov. 18. Although the Obama administration is “very much interested in public-service media,” a member of the Obama transition team has counseled the corporation that public broadcasters must be prepared to sing from the same hymnal if the White House is to support the reauthorization request, said Michael Levy, executive v.p. of corporate and public affairs, in an interview.

Members of the Obama administration who have experience with the field’s internal political dynamics have indicated that television, radio and the diverse community of stations must unify behind the legislative effort. “You’ve all got to come together with a vision, a common mission; you’ve got to resolve all of your issues along these lines,” Levy said, relating the advisor’s message. Levy declined to identify the transition team member. 

CPB has been consulting with system leaders since summer 2008 on the shape of  “public media 2.0,” but the October release of the Knight Commission and Columbia j-school reports have accelerated public talks about what can and should be done to expand local news coverage as newspapers totter.

Public TV wasn’t the focus of the St. Paul meetings, but its leaders outlined their plan to make education the centerpiece of their service strategy under any new restructuring proposal.

The objectives of expanding both public radio’s journalism and public TV’s educational work align with the policy recommendations of the Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy, which called for pubcasting to “move quickly to a broader vision of public service media.” In a study examining how to replace the watchdog reporting traditionally done by newspapers, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism later criticized public broadcasting for not directing enough of its resources to news and information.

It is the Knight Commission study, which took a broader view of the digital media landscape and called for policies promoting universal broadband access, that’s been most influential in pubcasters’ strategic thinking to date.

“I was surprised by the Knight Commission,” said CPB President Patricia Harrison. “We can’t wait for these products to come from think tanks. We have to define our destiny or we are not going to have one.”

Public broadcasters have adopted a great sense of urgency about ramping up their news operations as the commission recommended, said Beth Courtney, CPB vice chair and president of Louisiana Public Broadcasting. “An equally important opportunity is the dire need in education in this country.” Pubcasters must also develop plans to help build the broadband infrastructure envisioned by the commission and address educational needs of underserved populations.

Education can’t be a secondary concern as pubcasters’ develop a new service strategy, Courtney said. “It helps us make the case to Congress.”

Who should make the case?

During the CPB Board’s meeting the next day, legislative staff laid out the work to be done if public broadcasting is to get out in front of the policy discussion around reauthorization.

Pubcasters aren’t the only groups seeking action on media issues. Free Press, the media reform advocate that has participated in roundtable talks on public media’s future, has asked the White House to convene a “Knight Commission 2.0,” making a case for pubcasting reform.

The field needs to draft its own vision statement and guiding principles, defining what kinds of entities qualify for aid as public service media, before tackling the work of drafting reauthorization language, according to the CPB staff presentation.

“The vision statement—we don’t have that in public broadcasting as a whole, right now,” said Tim Isgitt, v.p. of government affairs. “If we come up with a vision statement, then we can talk about changes to the Public Broadcasting Act,” he said.

“Just to do this will probably take a year or two,” said CPB Board Chair Ernest Wilson. “Whether we get to reauthorization or not, we still have to go through these things. If we go forward and frame it as reauthorization, we will all play more cooperatively, because we have something that feels like a deadline.”

But David Pryor, a former Democratic senator and governor from Arkansas who has served on the board since 2006, urged the CPB staff to proceed with “a lot of caution.”

 “Why not identify 10 advocates in the House and Senate and talk to them? Say, ‘We need some advice before we come up to the hill with these ideas. We want to know what you think,’” Pryor said. “This could be a suicide mission if we’re not careful.”

During the previous day’s meeting in St. Paul, Kling questioned whether a vision statement is step No. 1. “I don’t think that’s the thing,” he said. If the field can clearly state that “public TV is headed into the classroom and public radio is headed to local news,” it should be enough if the right people step forward to make the case.

The field needs a civic leader on the order of Ralph Rogers, Kling said, referring to the late Dallas businessman who led the effort to save public television from a political takeover during the Nixon administration. “We’ve got hundreds of Ralph Rogers in our audience if we can organize them,” Kling said.                                                           

Web page posted Nov. 24, revised Dec. 2, 2009
Copyright 2009 by Current LLC

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Kling: To play arrow >>a bigger role, stronger stations required


Knight Commision's vision of public media: "More local, more inclusive, more interactive," October 2009.

Columbia j-school report recommends aid for pubmedia if it’s reconstructed. Says local and watchdog news roles are most vital, October 2009.

Josh Silver of Free Press describes the group's proposal for a "Knight Commission 2.0," recently floated at the White House.


CPB reports on its strategic planning for public broadcasting's transition to "public media 2.0."

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