Friday, November 19, 2010
CBC and NPR: Preparing for the Worst; Hoping for the Best?
Even as NPR takes a few well-deserved brickbats for how it fired Juan Williams, there has never been such a flurry of accolades and encomiums in the media, all hailing public radio's service to America.
Roger Ebert, writing in the Chicago Sun-Times is only the latest of a series of surprising articles praising the value of public service journalism.
It is nice to see and NPR should be delighted at this display of rallying 'round.
At the same time, Republicans are gathering to try to de-fund public broadcasting. They failed today, but they will be back.
The tone is darkening as Fox News' Roger Ailes referring to NPR management as "Nazis." After a protest from Jewish groups, he apologized.
It remains a ominous time for public broadcasters in North America.
The question is whether public broadcasting should prepare for an eventually de-funding by a more ideologically-driven Congress or even by a Palin presidency (sic).
The last time this happened was in 1994. Speaker Newt Gingrich declared that government support for public broadcasting would end.
Public Television responded by a furious campaign to save PBS. It worked.
Public Radio took the threat equally seriously but responded by looking for ways to reduce its dependence on Congress. Back then, NPR received around 30% of its operating budget from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the funding arm of Congress.
The president of NPR in 1994 was Delano Lewis who came to NPR after a distinguished business career. He left NPR in 1998 to become the US ambassador to South Africa. Full disclosure: Del hired me as NPR's VP of News and Information.
Back in 1994, Del decided that Congress was not a reliable partner for NPR, so he slowly but consistently moved NPR away from dependence on Congressional funding. By the time Del left NPR, we had reduced our CPB budget from 30% to less than 2%. NPR still takes station fees and program dues from public radio stations who rely more heavily on CPB than NPR. But the principle was established that NPR, at least, could survive without a direct subsidy from CPB and Congress.
There were some in the public radio community who criticized Del for doing this. Some felt that a governmental subsidy was a necessary approach to public broadcasting. Why should public broadcasting let government off the hook? We were asked to be more like PBS and lobby for support.
Ultimately, when the next NPR president came along, Kevin Klose (1998-2008) deepened that shift from public to private support by effectively tapping into an enormous reservoir of pro-NPR sentiment throughout the United States.
The question for the latest NPR leader, Vivian Schiller is which direction to go? Back to Congress and CPB dependency? Or further into deeper public support? I think the answer is obvious, but how to insure the solvency of more than 900 public radio stations remains problematic.
The CBC is faced with a similar problem of political support. The CBC receives more than $1 billion annually from Parliament. But upper management must feel insecure about whether that amount will go on forever.
In Canada, the ruling Conservatives (much like previous Liberal governments) have never completely embraced the CBC, especially its news service and particularly on the French-language side. For the moment, the government does not control a majority of seats in the House of Commons. This has acted as a brake on the Tories' open animosity for the CBC.
A majority Tory government would be another matter. There seems to be a growing element in Canada who are committed CBC-haters. You have only to read the comments on the CBC website to get a taste of what could be in store for the public broadcaster if the political winds blow a little harder from the right.
Could the CBC survive a serious cut to its budget? I don't think it could. It simply could not continue in its present form. But it would force the CBC, like NPR before it, to make some hard choices about priorities.
Now would be a good time to think about a post-cut CBC and to identify Canadians who support the idea (if not the reality) of a strong public broadcaster and who are prepared to pound a bully pulpit for the CBC. In effect, the CBC needs its own Kevin Klose, because in public broadcasting, the best defense is a good offense.
Just ask Del Lewis.