As a perfect storm rolls through Washington, DC, I think it is wise to consider what the public radio system will look like after the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) is gone. I hope I am wrong about this, but all of the elements are present for zeroing out CPB. Maybe the best we can hope for is a gentle phase out of CPB support.
Some folks say there is hope for CPB’s survival because VP Mike Pence once got an award from a public television organization. The truth is that Pence won’t make saving public broadcasting his “hill to die on.”
Trump and Ryan are setting up a Sophie’s Choice situation. They say they want to defund Meals on Wheels, but this notion is a “fog,” meant to divert attention. Assertions like zapping Meals on Wheels set up a false choice: Which cuts are the most important, Meals on Wheels or defunding CPB, NEA, NEH, NIH, etc? The goal is make people choose between one or the other.In this dynamic CPB runs the risk of being traded away as part of larger compromise.
In the 1990s and 2000s congressional moves to cut funding for CPB were “free standing,” not part of a big bundle, as they are today. With so many worthy programs in a bundle, it is harder to rally public attention on any single cut.
I want to maintain CPB’s funding but I am also a realist. To me the best way to move forward is to hope for the best regarding CPB funding while we prepare for the worst. It is time for public radio to change gears and build a sustainable, entrepreneurial future.
FIVE WAYS PUBLIC RADIO CAN SURVIVE WITHOUT CPB
1. FOCUS ON WHAT IS WORKING NOW
NPR News Stations continue to see record high listening, even as radio usage slides a bit each year. Classical, Triple A and Jazz stations continue to serve significant size audiences. Keep the content as strong as possible and continue to leverage its value.
Public radio already is radio industry leader in growing companion digital platforms. Our podcasts dominate the top podcast charts. NPR One keeps building momentum. Streaming video services such as VuHaus are adding extra value. At most stations, listener-sensitive income continues to grow.
2. NEW LEADERSHIP NEEDS TO EMERGE
It is time for a new generation of nonprofit entrepreneurs to emerge as leaders of the public radio system. In recent years public radio has seen a growing number of business people in its ranks. I call on folks such as Jarl Mohn (NPR), John McTaggart (APM), Wende Persons (SRG/CMR), Roger LaMay (WXPN), JJ Yore (WAMU), Jennifer Ferro (KCRW), Mike Savage (WBAA), consultants Fred Jacobs and Mike Henry are examples. Organizations like Public Media Capital and the Station Resource Group need to step forward to build a new national infrastructure that will move public radio forward into a world without CPB.
Once there was a time when CPB provided this national “convening” role. Once CPB leaders like the late Rick Madden could bring the system together and build a sense of common purpose. But CPB can’t do this now because they live in a political fish bowl where every move may be second guessed.
3. KEEP PUBLIC RADIO A NATIONAL SYSTEM
Public radio is well established in all 50 states and in communities of sizes. CPB provides a “backbone” by providing basic support for stations in markets where there is not local revenue to sustain them. This helps create a national presence. Without CPB funding, ways need to be found to keep public radio stations afloat in Fargo, Wilmington and Marfa, Texas.
4. SPLIT PUBLIC RADIO FROM PUBLIC TV
Public radio has been joined at the wallet with public television for way too long. In most situations, public radio stations support co-licensed public TV stations. Public radio and TV exist in increasingly different media marketplaces. Public radio is strong but public TV continues to languish.
5. STEAMLINE THE GOVERNANCE OF NPR
NPR is public radio’s leading organization because it has become more entrepreneurial. NPR’s governing Board is too often stuck in the 1970s and 1980s. We need to move beyond subsidized educational radio to compete in the multi-platform universe.