A Conversation on the Role of Public Broadcasting, Part 2

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Necessity of Public Broadcasting

In light of the issues of politics and funding around the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, commentators Bill Schubart and Ken Squier discuss the topic in a two-part conversation. Schubart is a member of the VPR Board of Directors and CEO of the media services company, Resolution. Squier is president of Radio Ver- mont, a group of commercial radio stations in Vermont.

In Part Two, “Necessity of Public Broadcasting”, Ken Squier and Bill Schubart discuss the public broadcasting mission, the ques- tion of competition and whether there’s clarity in the government commitment.

(To hear the commentary, click on the “Listen” icon.)

Ken Squier: The folks over at public television made a terrible mistake a couple of years ago. “If we won’t do it, who will?” Remember that one? Well, let me enumerate some of those that will, which include: CSPAN1, CSPAN2, CNN when Bobby Wexler ran it, CNBC, MSNBC, the History Channel, the Biography Chan- nel, the Family Channel, the Food Channel. We have all of those now, and we must add Fox in there – fair and balanced – and so the issue does become “is it still truly useful?”

Bill Schubart: I think that the future of public broadcasting, Ken, is to satisfy curious and inquiring minds. The great value and the great benefit of public broadcasting, as long it adheres to its principals, is to educate culturally, to educate scientifically, to educate in every way it can and to bring balanced and diverse opinions to the marketplace. And, I do not mean having a very conservative show and a very liberal news show. I’m talking about news as news. Nobody ever gets it perfectly right. I know that BBC in England has been through very similar situations, and yet they are revered as a public broadcaster worldwide…Antenne II, Australian broadcasting – they all weather these political storms, but the reason I think they weather them successfully is because they stay very focused on their mission to educate.

Ken Squier: Bill, we get down to what the end result of all of this is, and public broadcasting has to decide whether it’s fish or fowl. Three times a year, you ask for money. All through the year, your commercial rates – and I really call them commercial rates – are higher than mine, and I have four or five stations. I think that public radio has to decide if it is a competitor with commercial radio or if it’s on the other side where it began as a public source of infor- mation. I don’t mind if you’re my competitor and we’re on an even ground here, but what bothers me is that I have to work like the dickens to pay for my news department, and I don’t have invest- ment money to support me when things go wrong, and you do. Now, which side do you want to be on?

Bill Schubart: The issue of fish or fowl I’m going to agree with you on, because the reality is public broadcasting in the United States gets the lowest percent of public support of virtually any public broadcasting system in the world. There has never been real clar- ity at the government funding level as to what the commitment for educational public broadcasting is, and we get nothing from the state of Vermont. We get about 10 to 11 percent of our money from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and much of that – in fact, more of that – we pay back for the news services that we get from NPR, so it’s a net outflow. The amount of money that comes in from Vermonters is completely voluntary. But, you know what? Vermonters turn out. They value this. They don’t have to pay for this. They’re not taxed for this. They want the service. And, I’ve got to tell you, one of the reasons we have some reserves is exactly because we know there are these political cycles, and we know that the funds from Corporation for Public Broadcasting are really in jeopardy. It would be a very significant piece if those went away.

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