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Now the Details

Media, ethics, and journalism. What works. What doesn't.

Jeffrey Dvorkin

Friday, April 15, 2011

Public Broadcasting is Saved! Now What?

Once again, public broadcasting's near death experience has come and gone.

The budget has been passed by Congress and is expected to be signed by President Obama. For nervous pubcasters, the relief is palpable: the proposed cuts to NPR and the phasing out of support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting by 2013 have vanished.

For now.

This version of a pre-Easter resurrection should give all supporters of NPR and PBS some relief. But it might also be an opportunity to think about how best to approach the next inevitable crisis. Public broadcasting's opponents may have lost this round. But they will be back. It's too soon for pubcasters to return to normal programming and usual attitudes.

It's useful to examine who are the friends of public broadcasting and who aren't.

In the former category are the people who have public broadcasting hardwired into their cultural makeup. Especially at NPR, they are the ones who listen to, pay for and define themselves as "NPR listeners." They will be there for public radio, come what may.

In the latter category are the ideologues for whom all forms of public financing are anathema. There is not much that can change them or their attitudes.

In between are some interesting expressions of the "could-be" supporters category.

I have heard from a number of people (many in journalism) who might fall into the first group. They know public radio and they admire it, but not uncritically. But they often find it slightly off-putting. Not in content, but in tone. That criticism surprised me, but perhaps I am so connected to public radio, that I no longer hear it with fresh ears.

When pressed to explain further, they say public broadcasting sounds "elitist," "I'm smart and you're not," "hectoring." One senior executive at a commercial network told me that NPR's slow delivery and "o-v-e-r  e-n-u-n-c-i-a-t-i-o-n" sounds patronizing to her - as if the listeners were slightly retarded...Professional jealousy? Perhaps, but perhaps not.

If these remarks had come from the usual public broadcasting haters, they might be more easily dismissed. But coming from people who should fit the audience profile, it was surprising. And a little disconcerting.

It would be helpful to determine what is it about the public broadcasting tone and delivery that evokes this. My first guess is that the conversational quality of great radio is being lost in the drive to create perfect scripts. Hence the lecturing quality. But more on that in another posting.

And while the budget has brought relief and allowed public broadcasting back from the edge, this is an opportunity for serious self-examination. In that spirit, some suggestions:

  • Should public broadcasting change? 
  • If so, how? If not, why not? 
  • Would any change validate the criticisms of the haters? 
  • Can an evaluation be done without sullying the great accomplishments of American public service journalism? 
  • Or is the goal of being all things to all audiences simply unobtainable in an world of multi-platform media? 
  • And does public broadcasting need a better champion who can articulate the values of public broadcasting in a more forceful and effective way?

A fellow pub radio denizen at NPR once remarked about the culture of public broadcasters: "The unexamined life is just "jake" with them." Unfair.

But if the public broadcasting system doesn't take this time to give itself a hard look, there may just be more than an element of truth to that jibe.


  1. Interesting post, but are you really talking about "public broadcasting" or "public radio." The two terms seem conflated here.

  2. In general, both. But specifically, public radio. Many of the same issues apply.

  3. I am particularly interested in your question: "Or is the goal of being all things to all audiences simply unobtainable in an world of multi-platform media?"

    The CBC understands that the world of multi-platform media will actually help them attain the goal of being all things to all people (according to their two past annual general meetings, press releases on the 2009 news renewal, the 2015 strategic plan). But you are saying the opposite. Can you elaborate? I have some ideas of what you mean: fragmentation of audiences, customizing content, etc. But if you could provide a few sentences that would be helpful, thanks.