News & Politics

Putting the Public Back in Public Broadcasting

Dan Kennedy speaks with Jerold Starr, public broadcasting advocate, about Starr's campaign to save his local public television foundation, the resulting lessons and their national implications.
Jerold Starr first took up the cause of public broadcasting in the early 1990s, when the public-television foundation in his hometown of Pittsburgh, some $14 million in debt, proposed selling one of its two stations. Starr, a sociology professor at West Virginia University, mobilized grassroots support to save the station, registering some 40,000 calls, letters, and petition signatures.

The effort nearly failed, and it may fail yet. Last year the FCC -- prodded by Senator John McCain, whose friend and financial contributor Lowell Paxson would have benefited -- approved a complicated three-way deal to put the station in the clutches of a right-wing religious broadcaster. The deal fell apart only because the broadcaster backed out, worried about FCC rules against religious proselytizing on public stations. Congress is now considering legislation to overturn the ban, which Starr warns would "completely open the door to terrible abuse."

Starr's experience led him to form Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting -- and to write a just-released book, Air Wars: The Fight To Reclaim Public Broadcasting (Beacon). He spoke with us by phone from his organization's Washington office.

Q: How do the lessons of Pittsburgh apply nationally?

A: The deeper I got into analysis of its financial problems and structural problems, the more I came to realize that they were endemic to the service as a whole. Structurally, PBS member stations suffer from insufficient federal funding, from over-reliance on contributions from affluent subscribers, and from over-reliance on corporate underwriting. Consequently, their programming is driven primarily by the need to please these sponsors. There clearly has been a significant retreat into more and more commercialism and programming designed not to offend anybody -- certainly not to engage people as citizens.

Q: McCain's intervention in Pittsburgh, which would have resulted in his friend Bud Paxson's winding up with a lucrative spot on the dial, was briefly controversial during the presidential campaign. What's your take on McCain?

A: We're the ones who broke that story, as you recall. And my take on McCain, as was revealed in the New York Times and Boston Globe reports and other venues, is that by his own admission he does favors for wealthy contributors. He calls himself a victim, but let's just say he's a participant in the same system of patronage and privilege that has so alienated citizens from the federal government. He is certainly not a friend of public broadcasting, as he has made clear on many occasions. Obviously it was quite permissible to John McCain and his people to open the door to the religious right taking over public broadcasting.

Q: What would you identify as the single biggest problem in public broadcasting today?

A: The lack of independent public funding, which we would solve by creating a Public Broadcasting Trust. The Public Broadcasting Trust would replace the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Public Broadcasting System. It would be sufficiently endowed and supported to provide $1 billion a year in programming support for noncommercial educational broadcasting. Moreover, it would remove public broadcasting from the federal dole, where it's constantly subject to political harassment. It would remove public broadcasting from corporate underwriting, which drives programming toward subject matter that is in the interests of the corporations. And it would provide the financial security that it needs for editorial independence.

Our proposal also includes a number of measures that would ensure public openness and accountability. We don't believe in simply throwing a lot of money at the present system. We are interested in making the stations much more responsive to the local community than they currently are.

Q: Your work in Pittsburgh led you to help found Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. What is your organization's mission?

A: To put the public back in public broadcasting. We work on three fronts. One is to promote the idea of a Public Broadcasting Trust. Two is to found local chapters and to guide and support these chapters in improving their community public-broadcasting service. And the third thing we do is we take an active role in FCC and congressional deliberations concerning noncommercial educational broadcasting.

Q: Your book should inspire outrage. How can ordinary citizens get involved?

A: The first thing they should do is contact Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, because we are a clearinghouse for citizens who are interested in improving their service, both locally and nationally. They'll find a ton of material on our Web site [www.cipbonline.org]. And for people who don't Web surf, they can call us at 202-638-6880. We offer various materials, such as training manuals, videos, and the like.

We're collecting the names of people all over the country who are interested in starting local chapters. We're also partnering with national organizations as diverse as the National Library Association, the AFL-CIO, and NOW. And they put out the word to their members that there is this organization whose mission is to broaden the public dialogue on social issues through broadcasting.
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