From Sesame Street to long stretches of highway, millions of Americans have grown up with sights and sounds of public broadcasting. Since 1967, when Congress created the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, outfits such as PBS and NPR have been entertaining, informing and, at times, irritating the public. But in doing so, public broadcasting has been a national thread that has connected American lives through music, Bert and Ernie, and issues domestic and foreign.
But maybe not for long.
The $60 billion in cuts to the 2011 budget recently approved by the conservative House of Representatives (235-189) included the elimination of funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides funding for operations like PBS, NPR and some local area stations throughout the country, such as KCLU out of Thousand Oaks. The California Lutheran University radio station and NPR affiliate receives about 17 percent of its budget from federal funding, the rest coming from listener support and private donors. The fate of public broadcasting funding now rests in the hands of the more liberal Senate. Many newly elected senators and House members, however, have undertaken the defunding of public broadcasting as a priority in 2012.
The VCReporter spoke with KCLU’s General Manager Mary Olson about the state of public broadcasting.
VCReporter: What is happening with public broadcasting? From your position, what do you see?
Mary Olson: (According to) the Roper Poll, for seven straight years in a row, Americans say their most trusted source of news and information comes from public broadcasting, and they think it’s the best use of federal funding after national defense. That is pretty stunning. Not everyone understands how many people are listening to and watching public broadcasting. More than half of Americans use public media. . . . You’re talking about 170 million people. . . .
Do you know how much of your tax dollars go to support public radio and television? $1.35 (per person, per year). I say that because, if people realize that, it would be easy to be supportive of it. Tell me where you can get a cup of coffee for $1.35? You get all the public television and public radio you want for that price. To bring it closer to home, KCLU is very lucky. We’re in Ventura and Santa Barbara counties. We’re in a wonderful area, clearly affluent. It’s not enough just to worry about us. In public broadcasting, we’re all in it together. . . . Will KCLU be OK? We’re going to find a way to be OK. But most stations are not like KCLU. There are a lot of rural areas across the country, a lot of very small radio and television stations. I don’t think they are going to survive this if all federal funding is eliminated.
I really believe there will be stations that will certainly fire people and assuredly cancel and cut programming. . ..
When world news is changing, where are you turning? Do you want 30-second snippets? Or long-form journalism, in-depth news and public affairs programming? Where are you going for that? I think public broadcasting is the best deal out there. Ken Burns said something interesting, and I’m paraphrasing, but he said, in the midst of the Great Depression, government funded some of the most enduring and memorable documentaries ever made, some of the best art and best plays. What his point was, our need for culture isn’t less urgent and less desirable now. They did it in the Great Depression, and they found a way to do it. Is now the time to say we don’t need that? This threat to federal funding is real. It’s never been more real.
What’s the main argument behind defunding public broadcasting?
I think the main argument is that the times are tight, times are tough. It’s time to get a handle on the budget and unemployment. Well, yes, times are tough. But cutting public broadcasting, $1.35 from taxpayers, is not going to change unemployment. It’s not going to change the economy. … You will ensure that programming will be cut and that stations will suffer. When stations suffer, it’s the public and the consumer that are cheated. Having said that, I want to say KCLU is really lucky. We are in a wonderful community. It’s always been very supportive. If our funding is lost, our listeners, I believe, will understand the situation and will give more and rally to support us. But we are the exception and definitely not the rule.
It is. And unfortunately, it sounds like it’s somebody else’s problem until you tune in and the show you love is not on.
It’s true. It’s time for people to take five minutes and dial your senators. What’s really dynamic and neat about this is, I’ve heard from Democrats, Republicans and fierce independents, from all kinds of people, saying, ‘Hey I don’t want this to happen.’ It’s really dynamic. It is not really political. It’s personal. It’s a personal choice and personal statement saying, ‘I am going to do my fair share and make sure this remains intact.’ That is why I remain so passionate about it . . .. This is not the time for people to be complacent or we are going to have a serious problem.
What is the reason people have become so attached to public broadcasting?
Public broadcasting has proven itself, year after year, to be trustworthy. You don’t get seven years in a row in the Roper Poll saying it’s the most trusted source of news and information and the best use of federal funding after national defense for no reason. I think people trust it. I think they say see it as agenda-less, as it should be, unbiased, as it should be. I think it’s the last bastion for long-form journalism anywhere. Turn on the television or turn on the radio, and tell me the last time you heard a 12-minute story. Our business model is, we’re going to take as much time as it needs to tell the story. I think people appreciate that. They understand that and revere that. They’ve come to rely on that. But don’t get complacent about this, because this could all really go away. . . . It’s very important that our elected officials understand that their constituents care about this. Those that respect it, trust it, use the service and want it to continue, to let their voices be heard.
KCLU’s membership drive is in April. To support KCLU, call 493-3900 or visit http://kclu.callutheran.edu/support.