Pledge Drive and Public Radio

February 7, 2017

I wrote this commentary assuming it would be extra incentive to contribute. Instead it is a time for celebration and appreciation. A one-day fund drive – WOW. So let me say a bit about some of the things that your contributions accomplished.

We’ve helped protect WAMC from efforts of Blowhards in Washington to cut the budget for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. That would eliminate several hundred thousand dollars for WAMC, like other public radio stations, and which help pay for the subscription costs for the national public radio programming we buy. In other words, the intended hit is against both the local stations and the public radio networks.

The public radio system combines the benefits of local stations and national networks. Local stations provide excellent coverage of regional news, events and opinion. Network economies of scale make possible other excellent programming we have become accustomed to. Efficiencies of scale make possible the specialists in multiple fields, and staffs of reporters throughout the country and the world ready at a moment’s notice to provide information about developments in far flung places. We do both, creating excellent programming at WAMC and buying programs like All Things Considered and Morning Edition, among others, from national networks.

The architecture of the public radio system has placed support of the national networks on the patronage of the local stations. That way no network or program gets automatic support. The only thing that has been relatively automatic has been support through the local stations, and our job, along with other public radio stations has been to pick the best collectively. When our budget is attacked, that has national implications.

So each station does its part. We support Alan, Joe, Ian, Ray, Brian, David, Jim, Wanda, Sarah and all of the people we love here in Albany and the New York-New England region we serve and broadcast from. And we support the best from all the national networks to which our WAMC/Northeast Public Radio has been subscribing.

There was a time, in the 1920s, when we could have had a truly independent public non-profit system, but Herbert Hoover, then Secretary of Commerce, distributed broadcast licenses in such a way that it became impossible. When what was then called educational broadcasting was finally allowed a foothold in the broadcasting spectrum alongside the commercial stations, it was as a struggling step-child. But Republicans in Washington have opposed and tried to unravel it ever since.

So I hope our representatives in Washington get the message that their constituents support public broadcasting. But if Washington doesn’t get it, there will be a silver lining as long as we and other public radio listeners support the local stations and through them the national public radio system. Then it won’t tempt anyone in the system to worry about what the Administration might do to the networks or the stations. Public radio will depend on you, the listeners, as we should, not on people with their so-called alternative facts and rampant self-interest and selfishness.

We celebrate our role and our leadership in protecting both WAMC and the public radio system of which it is a part. United we stand for truth, justice and honest news.— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, February 7, 2017.


Public Broadcasting

May 29, 2012

The station is about to conduct a fund drive next week. So it seems an appropriate time to talk a bit about public broadcasting. I used to teach Mass Communications Law, read deeply into the history of broadcasting, and remember many of the changes. When I was growing up, New York City was the only place in the country where you could receive seven television stations and many radio stations on both AM and FM dials. We even had competing classical music stations! The contrast was stunning when one drove outside the New York metropolitan area. Often there was a single accessible station. So I think it’s a good time to stop and take note of what has happened.

In most countries, government stations have been used for pure PR on behalf of whichever politicians controlled it. The BBC, organized by the grandfather of a good friend of ours, was the rare exception. It too was quite political – except that Lord Reith didn’t like the incumbent government and fought it – giving the BBC the reputation for independence it has to this day. Elsewhere, government funded trash.

The American airwaves had been organized for political purposes here as well. University broadcasters who had dominated the airwaves in the 1920s were systematically driven off the air in favor of private broadcasters, first by Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, then by the Federal Radio Commission and finally by the FCC or Federal Communications Commission. Many Americans kept pushing for educational broadcasting. Eventually, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and National Public Radio were the response to that pressure.

When national public broadcasting was first proposed I was leery of it. And I was not alone. Public broadcasting was organized, here, however, with a system of checks and balances. Participants had to be not-for-profit organizations, whether or not affiliated with a university. A large share of the control was placed in the local broadcasters through their ability to buy and air what programs they chose. And advertising was severely limited to what we have come to call underwriting so that broadcasting would be relatively free of commercial influence as well. Even so there have been efforts to control the public broadcasting system for political ends rather than maintain its independence.

I have been delightfully surprised at the result – professional, balanced, penetrating, fair and accurate reporting told in ways we can all understand. Of course I could get the news elsewhere. But not while multitasking – driving, eating, or getting dressed. I’d have to stop, look and read. I couldn’t get the news as easily or as pleasantly. I enjoy and admire the people who bring us the news and interviews, both on national programs and those which originate right here in Albany.

I do not have a crystal ball. I do not know how all the new forms of communication will affect public radio and who will come out on top. But I know from working in many cities that we have a jewel in this one, a station that has the admiration of people who run public radio stations in much larger places, and it shows in the programming we have. Indeed it shows in the programming that WAMC has maintained in spite of budget cuts. Public radio in general and WAMC in particular are jewels, well worth supporting and protecting.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, May 29, 2012.


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