SOLOMON: Buyout Threat Looms for Public Broadcasting
It could happen to you.This month, thousands of people tuned into their favorite public radio station -- and heard that it's about to disappear.The terse announcement aired on WDCU Radio, the only full- time jazz station in the city of Washington. Just three public radio outlets in the country have a larger black audience. But WDCU's owner, the University of the District of Columbia, is dumping it for $13 million.While the college trustees balance their budget, Salem Communications is celebrating its triumph. The firm already has a chain of 42 religious stations -- and operates a syndicate that provides several hundred affiliates with radio fare such as Oliver North's talk show.With their industry bloated by mergers and buyouts, commercial broadcasters are now drooling over frequencies long reserved as "noncommercial." And they've got plenty of cash to raid the larder.As the public-broadcasting newspaper Current reported, the sale of WDCU "raises concerns that religious broadcasters will approach university licensees ... with offers more tempting than they've seen before." Those colleges "are often cash-strapped and ambivalent about being in the public radio business."Now a protective wall has shattered. Tom Thomas, a consultant for public radio's Station Resource Group, sounded grim when I asked about the WDCU purchase. He called it "the opening of a pathway between the commercial broadcasting sector and the noncommercial band."Public TV stations aren't safe either.A battle is raging in Pittsburgh over the proposed sale of a PBS channel to Cornerstone TeleVision -- which blends Christian fundamentalism with very conservative political messages. On July 7, a Pittsburgh community alliance filed a petition with the Federal Communications Commission to block the deal.How can evangelical broadcasters and for-profit firms get away with grabbing frequencies that have been reserved for public broadcasting? The schemes vary.In Washington, where Salem Communications already owns a major commercial station, Salem's nonprofit arm is buying WDCU Radio. (The nation's airwaves are saturated with religious broadcasters, who now claim 1,648 radio stations -- a third of them noncommercial.)In Pittsburgh, officials at a pair of public TV stations plan to swap one of their channels for a commercial frequency now held by Cornerstone TeleVision. That frequency would then be sold to a company best known for airing infomercials. Bottom line: One of Pittsburgh's two public TV stations would vanish.Across the country, such scenarios are possible because few public stations are really answerable to the "members" who make donations.At pledge time, we're told that these stations belong to us. They don't.If a station's hierarchy opts to sell out, the loyal listeners or viewers who've been sending in contributions have no legal say in the matter.National Public Radio and PBS television are not happy about the specter of some of their affiliates disappearing. But NPR and PBS have been doing a lot themselves to push the public out of public broadcasting.In recent years, on NPR and PBS, brief mentions of big-money patrons have turned into "enhanced underwriter credits" -- in other words, commercials.Meanwhile, a "positive veto" process allows underwriters like Archer Daniels Midland and General Electric to ante up large sums for national shows. Without corporate backing, it's tough for a program to survive.Even broadcasters that have held the line against corporate encroachment are at risk. A case in point is the Pacifica Foundation, which owns listener-supported radio stations heard in New York, Washington, Houston, Los Angeles and San Francisco.While airing progressive views that are scarce on the radio dial, Pacifica is running five stations without a democratic role for the listener-members who send in checks. Pacifica's top officials have vowed not to sell any of its extremely valuable frequencies. But the fact is, there's nothing in the law, or in Pacifica bylaws, to stop them from doing so.Around the nation, hundreds of public radio and TV outlets are licensed to budget-crunched colleges or nonprofit organizations with no real accountability to members who support the stations."Trust us," the public broadcasters say. "And don't forget to pay your pledge."But the lack of democracy in public broadcasting is ominous.Norman Solomon is a syndicated columnist. His book Wizards of Media Oz: Behind the Curtain of Mainstream News (co-authored with Jeff Cohen) has just been published by Common Courage Press.