We the People

Jeff Boudreau sent along this link to a scathing piece on the bostonmagazine.com site entitled “Dead Air: Why should taxpayers be asked to fund a union-busting, freeloading corporate behemoth . . . like WGBH?” In it, writer Eileen McNamara leads off swinging:

REMIND ME AGAIN why eliminating taxpayer subsidies for public broadcasting is a right-wing idea?

Liberals are incensed that Congressional Republicans want to strip PBS and NPR of federal funds, but when is the last time they took a hard look at how things are going with our biggest local public broadcasting affiliate? While Tea Party guerillas distract the gullible with theatrical sting operations and spurious debates about liberal bias, the increasingly corporate culture of public broadcasting goes unchallenged — especially in Boston.

WGBH is trying to bust its union. It has paid nothing to the city of Boston in lieu of taxes in four years. Even as it cut wages and staffers in 2009, it spent millions to acquire a second radio station in Boston and then did little more with it than duplicate programming already available from a competing station across town.

This is the crown jewel of the Public Broadcasting System that deserves uncritical allegiance?

On down the line, Eileen deals with some specifics, linking ‘GBH bean-counter machinations to what’s happening country-wide — a class war the public is losing:

Free-spending WGBH, in particular, has forfeited any claim to a public subsidy.

The behemoth in Brighton — its new 309,000-square-foot headquarters covers two city blocks — relies on the same municipal services as the small neighboring businesses along Market Street. But unlike them, as the Boston Herald has noted, WGBH has not paid the city a cent for fire and police protection or snow removal since 2007. Yes, it is tax exempt. But the station is supposed to pay Boston through the Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) program. The check WGBH cut in 2007 for $10,517, according to the Herald, was a tad less than the $245,000 the program calculated it should receive from the station…

Moreover, WGBH charges as much as $5,000 to host events in its 208-seat theater and atrium, and twice that much to rent its state-of-the-art television-production facilities. It boasts that it needed no public funding to build its new headquarters or to buy its new radio station. It relied instead on its loyal donor base to raise the $85 million required to construct its fancy building and the $14 million needed to purchase WCRB, the city’s beloved classical music station. If WGBH can privately fund those discretionary investments, it can forgo government handouts and scramble like the rest of journalism.

EVEN AS THE STATION refuses to negotiate with Local 1300 of the Communications Workers of America — the union representing 280 producers, writers, editors, and marketing employees — WGBH continues to pay handsome salaries to its top managers, more than a dozen of whom make north of $200,000 in total annual compensation.

Are only the poor, the middle class, and union members expected to adopt the currently popular mantra of doing more with less? Why should this purported liberal bastion get a pass from liberals when it refuses to negotiate in good faith with the people who produce the programs on which its considerable reputation rests? Why no outrage when the station unilaterally imposes a “last, best offer” that gives WGBH the right to outsource jobs and fire employees without cause?

Why should WGBH be rewarded for emulating the dubious labor practices of corporate media giants? The New York Times Company, for instance, broke the back of the unions at the Boston Globe in 2009 by threatening to shut down the newspaper if workers did not submit to draconian wage cuts, mandatory furloughs, reduced pension benefits, and reductions in retirement and health insurance benefits. The Times Company did that even as it paid CEO Janet L. Robinson $4.9 million, 26 percent more than the year before, and chairman Arthur Sulzberger Jr. $4.8 million. Not a bad payday for two managers who — shades of WGBH — had just built a gleaming new Times Square headquarters that their company and its suffering stockholders (many of them union employees) could ill afford.

Why should we endorse those same twisted priorities with our tax dollars? For all the talk of its inestimable communal value, it is not as if WGBH bought WCRB to expand the listening options available to its Boston audience. It bought the station so it could dump its own existing musical programming there (99.5 FM) and convert WGBH radio (89.7 FM) to a canned, all-news format. Most of that news is provided by National Public Radio and was already available in Boston on WBUR (90.9 FM).

A nice touch for Eileen’s ending:

It is worth noting that we are nearing the 100-year anniversary of the Bread and Roses strike in Lawrence. Next year there are sure to be centennial commemorations of the gutsy textile workers who protested the decision of greedy mill owners to lower wages in response to a government-mandated shorter workweek — just the sort of event WGBH likes to highlight. Maybe Ken Burns will produce a documentary.

WBGH’s own union, meanwhile, gets no such respect.

In this economy, no union expects an easy time at the negotiating table. But when the transparent aim is not compromise but the abandonment of the collective bargaining process, what distinguishes Jon Abbott, the president and CEO of WGBH, from Scott Walker, the union-busting governor of Wisconsin? The answer? Not much. Let’s let taxpayers decide for themselves whether they want to support either one of them.

This is a pretty good synopsis of some — but not all — of the problems we have with what’s become of “public” broadcasting. It doesn’t delve into the rightward drift of what passes for news nowadays, a kowtowing to the corporate powers that be (and fund). As well as knuckling under to the incessant clamor of ideologues braying about a fabulous “left-wing bias.”

As good as this piece is, it only touches on the local stations that hitch their star to the demigod Arbitron, blindly seeking financial acceptance at the public trough — while hypocritically proclaiming an avowed allegiance to the “under-served,” all the while in a headlong rush to the least common denominator.

And it doesn’t address the profligate squandering of $50 million in public funds dispensed to aid in the proliferation of the junk science HD radio, as mentioned here, and the attendant beggaring by bean counters of local budgets in blind obeisance. Then there’s the rank complicity of NPR Labs in this scam, as chronicled here in a post entitled “How NPR Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb” — fudging the data to ensure FCC approval for the attempted monopolization of radio, perverting the airwaves with static and more corporate sensibility.

There is little difference between the limousine liberals, assuming they know best what’s good for “public radio,” and the false prophets — the money-changers in the Tea Party temple — leading the truth-seekers down the primrose path to a monolithic corporate hegemony. In short, we believe in spirituality but have little faith in religion, of whatever denomination. Particularly when that denomination comes ultimately at the expense of the people (however unwittingly) footing the bill.


One Response

  1. Too right. There is no real PUBLIC in public radio.

    Which is an interesting comment since I think it’s the fund raising season (Isn’t it always?). People aren’t willing to pony up. They want the corporate funds that make US Public radio more a form of Commercial broadcasting.

    I wish I knew the solution short of the US having had established something along the lines of Government funded systems early on (e.g., CBC and BBC).

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