The CPB: Bull in the China Shop

Google alerts can turn up some interesting information. This one unearthed a PDF from 1997 that contains information relevant today. A Cato Institute paper entitled “With Friends Like These: Why Community Radio Does Not Need the Corporation for Public Broadcasting,” by Jesse Walker, contained the following nuggets:

Congress created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to fund alternatives to commercial television and radio. Such alternatives include “community radio” stations, stations defined by their devotion to local programming and programming outside the mainstream. Those outlets are usually located in the noncommercial band and funded by listener subscriptions.

But the availability of CPB subsidies has grossly distorted the stations’ goals. However well-intentioned, CPB rules pressure community radio stations to replace volunteers with paid staff and to abandon diverse, experimental local programming for more bland fare. If taxpayer funding for the CPB were eliminated, community radio would not only survive; it could thrive, returning to its traditional bases of support — volunteers and subscriber funding.

Economic barriers to new low-budget community radio stations, such as the price of low-power broadcasting equipment, are lower than ever. But regulatory barriers to entry remain, particularly the Federal Communications Commission’s refusal to license stations operating at less than 100 watts. Removing such restrictions would further facilitate a renaissance in alternative radio.

Obviously, there are many more pressing problems with the FCC and radio, most importantly its lapdog role in dealings with the HD radio consortium and its slavish attention to these 1800 stations while ignoring the other 8,000+. But note in particular the above reference to “community radio” stations, stations defined by their devotion to “local programming and programming outside the mainstream.” Sound familiar? The problem with the CPB now is that it’s throwing money around like a drunken sailor, bound and determined to install HD radio transmitters in all local public radio stations. Never mind that those low-powered community radio stations mentioned might be washed out by the IBOC trash on channels adjacent to public radio affiliates. Which is why the Prometheus Radio Project, for one, has filed with the FCC in support of those representing the 8,000 stations facing IBOC-ization.

Further on in the 1997 report, Jesse wrote:

The original community stations were free of federal subsidy, getting by on a shoestring and a loyal base of local volunteers and donors. Since the 1970s several of those stations have chosen to pursue CPB funds as well. But that money has come with strings attached. Though federal funds have undeniably assisted many stations, they have also encouraged many broadcasters to forget their traditional mission. The CPB has fostered a new professional class within the community radio movement, a group that has accumulated power at volunteers’ expense and promoted more streamlined, predictable programming. And while most community broadcasters continue to be grateful for any support their small stations can acquire, others are beginning to wonder if it is worth the price [emphasis added].

This “new professional class,” with its manifest-destiny model of empire building, is made up of bean counters with MBAs now making the decisions at places like WGBH and WUMB in Boston and KUT in Austin. But there’s more:

There are many good reasons to defund the CPB. It seems wrong to force any taxpayer to fund speech she disapproves of, be it NPR or the Voice of America. And it is not fair to force low-income taxpayers to underwrite news and entertainment for NPR’s generally affluent audience. But there is another problem, less often noted: federal funds inevitably eradicate local diversity and character.

Bingo. Such is what we see today at our local affiliates. But even beyond that is the problem seen at KUT in Austin, where more money is spent today raising money than was spent for the entire station ten years ago. As he notes:

Community stations that previously got by on listener pledges and local underwriting might be eligible for thousands more — if they hire more full-time staff, increase their broadcast hours, seek more funds, and, under the new rules, make their programming more mainstream in pursuit of higher Arbitrons. The result, as Democratic Communiqué editor Jon Bekken has noted, has been to encourage “ambitious expansion programs” that foster professionalization and centralization. In many cases, stations have received less money in government assistance than they spent making themselves eligible for that support.

So there is an innate tension here. The limited amount of money the state has to offer requires it to discriminate on some rational basis — if the CPB dispensed funds to every small community station in America, it would have to divide its budget so finely that no station would receive enough money to justify the corporation’s existence. So the CPB strives to direct its money to the stations with the most powerful signals and the largest measured audiences and shies away from financing more than one outlet in a single market. But the CPB requirements encourage stations to grow and adopt “professional” values, putting further pressure on the CPB’s budget and forcing it to further restrict the flow of money, refueling the cycle yet again.

So those that make the most money — the WGBHs and KUTs of the affiliate world — are given more money by the CPB, a self-perpetuating cycle. And now the lure for the “big money,” according to CPB enticements, is HD radio, up to three new channels to park canned programs on — even though there is still no discernible revenue stream attached to them. And likely won’t be, given the public’s disinterest in buying a new radio to hear something as bad or worse than what it’s hearing now in homogenized radio:

Their music would be more homogeneous, more “consistent.” Oddball shows that didn’t immediately fit the new format — the new “mission” — would be dropped, no matter how popular they might be…. But it is also true that variety can be a station’s selling point, its niche, especially if those varied shows are hosted by talented, knowledgeable DJs. Wipe out that variety and fire those hosts, and your station will be headed for trouble.

Sound familiar again? There’s much more in the report, and those interest in low-power FM (LPFM) would do well to read the history detailing the push by the CPB and NPR against low-power stations.


3 Responses

  1. […] organization. Newt Gingrich and Sarah Palin make very strange bedfellows, after all. As reported here, in a post called “The CPB: Bull in the China Shop,” and again here, in a post […]

  2. […] the same be said of our public radio stations? As the Cato Report posted here noted, the big non-comms like KUT and ‘GBH, in their pursuit of ever-more taxpayer dollars, […]

  3. “NPR’s war on Low Power FM”

    “NPR opposes proposals to strengthen rules allowing LPFMs to obtain channel interference waivers when an encroaching full power station arrives on the scene. And the broadcaster decidedly dislikes measures that would require new full power signals to offer technical and even financial help to an LPFM that they’ve suddenly squatted on (or squatted next to). This is a serious issue, because over the last decade the NPR service has expanded from 635 to 800 affiliated stations. Public radio’s stance on this puts it at odds with practically every media reform group in the country.”

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