Saturday, February 5, 2011

The Future of Public Broadcasting

I’m not quite sure wherein the zoot lies in this blog entry, but I’ll go with it anyway. The topic: public broadcasting in these United States, what it was intended to be, where it is, and where it’s going.

I have to admit that this bloggy had its genesis in my hearing a portion of National Public Radio’s The Diane Rehm Show on January 20, 2011, around 11:00 a.m. EST, while returning from a court appearance. The guests: Vivian Schiller, President and CEO of NPR ; Patricia Harrison, President and CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) ; Paula Kerger, President and CEO of the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) ; and Kevin Brady U. S. House of Representatives (R-TX) , and the segment entitled “The Future of Public Broadcasting.” One has to recognize, of course, that these were the three most powerful persons in public broadcasting – the heads of NPR, CPB and PBS – all talking with one of NPR’s own very popular syndicated hosts, Diane Rehm…so, one might have rightfully presumed that the show would be nothing less than a public broadcasting love-fest. That, it turned out, it was decidedly not. You can access the show yourself at . As usual, Diane Rehm moderated her show with excellence and aplomb, not afraid to raise the issues and admit the comments of listeners who were none to pleased with how the public broadcasting leaders were acquitting themselves. Rep. Brady, unfortunately, did not get much airplay - but what the CEO's had to say generated a load of commentary on the show's own website that day.

First, a little background. Public Broadcasting received its initial big push as one of the last pieces of legislation President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law – in 1967 – as a part of his Great Society set of domestic programs. CPB – the government-funding arm of public broadcasting, otherwise known as our tax dollars at work – was created on November 7, 1967 when President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. The new organization initially collaborated with the pre-existing National Educational Television network – a private network founded in 1952 with a grant from the Ford Foundation – and through a series of public and private spats running through the turbulent 1960s, NET merged out of existence in 1970, on the exact day PBS came to life, when it became a part of the former Newark, New Jersey public station, WNDT-TV, which eventually became today’s familiar WNET . In 1969 CPB talked to private groups to start the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS). In 1970, CPB formed National Public Radio (NPR), a network of public radio stations.

CPB’s public charter charged it with a duty to operate with a "strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature." It also requires that the CPB regularly review national programming for objectivity and balance, as well as report to Congress on "its efforts to address concerns about objectivity and balance." The Congressional declaration in the preamble of the bill that created CPB states, in part, , that the bill was in the interest of the Nation, as “it furthers the general welfare to encourage public telecommunications services which will be responsive to the interests of people both in particular localities and throughout the United States, which will constitute an expression of diversity and excellence, and which will constitute a source of alternative telecommunications services for all the citizens of the Nation.” Some might rightfully question whether CPB, NPR and PBS are continuing to meet the lofty expectations and requirements Congress demands and the nation should expect.

What most folks don’t know is just how CPB is funded – in 2010, a line-item appropriation of some $424 million in the deficit-rich federal budget – and what it does with those funds. While CPB provides some funding for PBS and NPR, much more of its funding goes directly to public television and radio stations that are members of PBS or NPR, as well as to other broadcasters that are independent of those organizations. In more recent years, CPB has started funding some internet-based projects. So, nearly a half-billion of our federal tax dollars go directly to CPB to parse out to PBS, NPR, and directly to public television and radio stations and public broadcasters and producers of public media. A half-billion dollars…tax dollars…and that represents a bit more than a quarter of the close to $3 billion juggernaut that public broadcasting has become in the United States, as the remainder comes from state and local funding, private sponsors and donors…and big corporate advertisers, too. More on that later.

This is, of course, a far cry from CPB’s initial funding of just $5 million in 1967 – as recently as 1978, a decade after its founding, CPB’s line-item Congressional budget funding was limited to “an amount equal to 40 percent of the total amount of non-Federal financial support received by public broadcasting entities during the fiscal year second preceding each such fiscal year” but not more than $121 million for that year. In the three decades since, that tax funding has nearly quadrupled. To be sure, Congress mandated in the bill that the funding annually granted is to “be used by the Corporation, in a prudent and financially responsible manner, solely for its grants, contracts, and administrative costs…”, and that CPB is “to make grants for production of public television or radio programs by independent producers and production entities and public telecommunications entities, producers of national children's educational programming, and producers of programs addressing the needs and interests of minorities, and for acquisition of such programs by public telecommunications entities…” Prudent and financially responsible – prudent and financially responsible – you decide. By the way, CPB has already asked for some $604 million for line-item funding in 2013 – and that’s just its base request.

NPR CEO Schiller’s base salary in 2010 was $450,000 – in May, 2010, she received a bonus, after just 17 months on the job, of $112,000, pushing her base compensation to $564,000. Compare that to the President of the United States’ salary of $400,000 – and that’s just NPR’s CEO. PBS’ Paula Kerger? A cool $534,500 base in 2008. Good luck trying to find CPB CEO Harrison’s salary on the absurdly simple or annoyingly complex sections of its own website – but suffice to say that CPB took significant heat in 2005 when a Congressional inquiry found that it was finding a way to pay its prior CEO over $614,000 in base and deferred compensation. Heck, the line item in CPB’s 2010 Fiscal Budget for just the 9.5 “full-time equivalent positions” of CPB’s required Office of the Inspector General (CPB OIG) amounts to some $1.27 million, nearly $1 million of which is in salary alone – mandated, of course, in part due to the funny business discovered in 2005.  You do the math.

And….that’s not the end of it. As The Chronicle of Philanthropy noted in 2009, the non-profit world is apparently quite lucrative for its leaders and, in the case of public broadcasting, its star, or quasi-star, talent:

Former NPR C.E.O. Kenneth Stern, who departed in 2008, is atop the pubcasting list, receiving $1,319,541 as part of his four-year contract. Another former exec, PBS C.O.O. Wayne Godwin, who served from 2000 to 2008, was paid $398,063. Current PBS C.E.O. Paula Kerger, $534,500, up from $424,209 at end of fiscal 2007.

Rounding out the list, in descending order: Laura Walker, CEO of WNYC Radio, $474,808; Al Jerome, KCET president, $426,688; Jeff Clarke, CEO, Northern California Public Broadcasting, $406,501; Neal Shapiro, WNET president, $400,570; Sharon Percy Rockefeller, WETA president, $391,904; Thomas Conway, WNET V.P., $374,321; Daniel Schmidt, WTTW president, $347,491.

William Kling, Minnesota Public Radio/American Public Media president, $347,217; Jonathan Abbott, WGBH president, $337,870; Jon McTaggart, MPR/APR CEO, $313,967; Joseph Bruns, WETA executive v.p., $303,108; Linda O'Bryon, Northern California Public Broadcasting chief content officer, $282,360; Paula Apsell, senior exec producer at WGBH, $278,209; Dean Cappello, chief creative officer, WNYC Radio, $272,072; Deborah Hinton, KCET exec v.p., $251,446; Dennis Haarsager, NPR interim CEO, $219,369; and Reese Marcusson, WTTW CFO, $214,397.

And…it doesn’t end there. A few near-“star NPR” salaries from 2008:

Robert Siegel makes $350,288.
Renee Montagne's salary is $332,160.
Steve Inskeep makes $331,242.
Scott Simon makes $300,648.

Simply remarkable. And - don’t get me started on the multi-media multi-millionaires the CPB/NPR/PBS triumvirate has launched, from Garrison Keillor to Ira Glass, Michael Feldman to the Magliozzi brothers, Ken Burns to Gwen Ifill. All on….at least in part…your federal tax dimes…and your state tax dimes…and your local tax dimes…and your donations of your coffee money, and your lunch money, and your old cars and trucks…and those sponsorships from those advertisers…errr…corporate sponsors.

As the New York Times noted in a 2005 story, “Since the mid-1990's, the underwriter announcements that precede and follow many public television programs (and usually conclude with the narrator thanking ‘viewers like you’) have gradually adopted many trappings of regular advertising, despite appearing on ‘commercial-free’ television.” And, despite the clear Congressional mandate that put federal funds behind public broadcasting in 1967, as the article further notes, “the [Federal Communications C]ommission relaxed its policy in 1984 to allow company logos and ‘value-neutral’ descriptions of products or services, as long as they do not actually promote the products or services.”

This, of course, would seem to be directly at odds with the paramount legislation itself, which provides at Sec. 399b. [47 U.S.C. 399b]:

(a) “Advertisement” defined

For purposes of this section, the term “advertisement” means any message or other programming material which is broadcast or otherwise transmitted in exchange for any remuneration, and which is intended —

1. to promote any service, facility, or product offered by any person who is engaged in such offering for profit;

2. to express the views of any person with respect to any matter of public importance or interest; or

3. to support or oppose any candidate for political office.

(b) Offering of services, facilities, or products permitted; advertisements prohibited

1. Except as provided in paragraph (2), each public broadcast station shall be authorized to engage in the offering of services, facilities, or products in exchange for remuneration.

2. No public broadcast station may make its facilities available to any person for the broadcasting of any advertisement.

To be sure, the bill as currently amended does provide for the use of “business or institutional logograms” - Sec. 399a. [47 U.S.C 399a]:

(a) “Business or institutional logogram” defined

For purposes of this section, the term “business or institutional logogram” means any aural or visual letters or words, or any symbol or sign, which is used for the exclusive purpose of identifying any corporation, company, or other organization, and which is not used for the purpose of promoting the products, services, or facilities of such corporation, company, or other organization.

(b) Permitted uses

Each public television station and each public radio station shall be authorized to broadcast announcements which include the use of any business or institutional logogram and which include a reference to the location of the corporation, company, or other organization involved, except that such announcements may not interrupt regular programming.

(c) Authority of Commission not limited

The provisions of this section shall not be construed to limit the authority of the Commission to prescribe regulations relating to the manner in which logograms may be used to identify corporations, companies, or other organizations.

Seems to me, however, that what we’re all hearing on NPR and public radio stations across the county, and viewing through PBS and public television stations, from “sponsors” is nothing less than frank, rank commercial advertising – exactly that which Congress banned.

So, in the end, what was made public, for the public, by the public, and funded with $5 million in initial federal funding, with laudable goals and earnest thoughts by Johnson’s Great Society has turned into a nearly $3 billion enterprise generating fabulous personal and commercial wealth. This from the same folks who ask me, at least four times per year, to stop what I’m doing, put that coffee cup down or skip that tatty sandwich at lunch, and contribute to my local NPR and PBS stations my coffee money, my lunch funds, or my old car or truck.

Now, as dearly as I love NPR and PBS, learing about all this made me wonder if it just might be time to rethink that for myself – and for Congress to rethink CPB and how we’re all funding that noble, or once-more-noble, enterprise. For me, well – I’m going to pick up a latte at Starbucks® , drop by Panera®  for soup and a sandwich, then take a drive in my old, rusty, trusty truck – and think on that for a bit longer.

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Blogger Dwight said...

Interesting, but so what? where's the analysis of services provided, mention of the 170 million people per week who watch/listen, number of people who are able to get their GED or take college courses or overcome illiteracy, who learn parenting skills, high level of teacher professional development resources, sheer high quality scientific and historical general audience programs, unique concerts and opera not available on any commercial stations, and just so much more. It is worth my $1.35 per year, especially for the most remote and rural areas of the country having no wealth of cultural resources available. Juan Williams was simply one recent example of how comparable a talent's salary might be( $2 million per year) in the world of commercial enterprise. I prefer not having some inept mispronouncing amateur just because it has some public funding. I once saw a calculation that one inch of the front deck of an aircraft carrier would more than provide for years of public broadcasting or provide an endowment for same. Sounds like a great bargain to me, and probably to Dwight D Eisenhower of military-industrial complex fame. Your welcome.

February 6, 2011 at 12:07 PM  
Blogger zzoott said...

Dwight - excellent comments - heck, the point of this was to find out what other folks might be thinking, and not only to inform, but to enliven and engender discussion. I like the aircraft carrier analogy - so I checked both the USN and Jane's websites, and learned that the most current aircraft carrier measures out at a little over 1,000 feet long - so simply putting that into inches, then slicing that up over the $4.5 billion price per carrier, comes out to $343,000 per inch, slice by slice through the whole ship, stem to stern, tower to hull - ironically, about the same price per year for many of NPR's near-star reporters, hosts, and anchors, or about half of what the CEO's of NPR, PBS and CPB each earn annually.

While I love, mostly, what I hear and what I see through public broadcasting, this little bit of research unearthed much more than I anticipated - and all from listening to NPR.

February 6, 2011 at 8:12 PM  
Anonymous Kate said...

I am glad that people who work hard get paid. The salaries listed for for CEO and journalists are a lot of money and much more than I make, but then I am not a CEO.
NY Times has a listing of salaries in various categories, from 2005 mind you. Brian Williams makes $4 million a year, Anderson Cooper makes $2 million a year. Andrew Heyward, President of CBS News makes $1.5 million according to the same list.
So, according to that very brief comparison, public broadcasting folks make between a third and a tenth of people in the corporate sectors.
NY Times salary list

February 16, 2011 at 8:54 AM  
Blogger zzoott said...

Agreed, Kate - but certainly nothing holds back, or has held back, any number of former CPB, NPR or PBS talent, stars, and executives from moving on to even more lucrative positions in the private, commercial sector. I'm looking to be informed in this debate, and, really, good ol' zzoott had no idea there was a debate until Diane Rehm's show aired in January. With CPB already asking for $600 million plus for 2013, I'm thinking that must have struck a nerve somewhere....


February 16, 2011 at 9:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Touche. Sound arguments. Keep up the amazing work.

Here is my blog: seo ()

June 12, 2014 at 6:52 AM  
Blogger zzoott said...

Thanks, Anon - wrote that piece three years ago, and, wouldn't you know it, there's still controversy raging and yet another chief at the helm...I think that's three in four years.

June 12, 2014 at 8:59 AM  

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