The Gross Commercialization of National Public Radio
San Diego CA
26 May 1999David Branaccio
Los Angeles CA 90089
Your reports on the economics of public radio are a bit off-base --- sort of like looking for rats in the attic when they are actually stalking the basement.
The villain is not corporate sponsorship, nor even the commercialization of public stations. No --- it's the income-outgo, stupid.
When we put our first public station on the air (KRAB, Seattle) we ran it for $25,000 a year, in 1962 dollars. And it was damn good radio. Our model was the BBC and the CBC, with three exceptions: low overhead, local programming, and a bevy of volunteers.
When PBS came on the scene in 1968, instead of following this model --- they chose the model of commercial radio. Fancy programming, high-paid executives, and separation from the community --- to the point that for many stations much of the programming came from 3,000 miles away.
In other words, early on, public radio stations became very private --- until those times, twice a year, when they begged money from their listeners. Then it suddenly got transmogrified into Public Radio.
Most large market public radio stations have budgets that run in the millions, budgets so large that even the most broad-minded of us know that it's a scandal. For instance, whenever our local station sends me one of their thrice-yearly we-need-you-money letters, I write back and say that I will be delighted to fund them once they send me a complete annual income-outgo statement (including salaries for their executives). I'm still awaiting a reply. This is a public corporation, with tax-exempt status, required to have a public file. Guess what are they hiding?
To deplore the "commercialization of public radio" is an oxymoron. This kind of broadcasting has always been commercial. The boards of most public stations are made up not of home folk --- including the poor and the disenfranchised who could give a certain veracity to the station's programming --- but those people who own the cities of license.
For instance, our local station, KPBS, sports on its board captains of industry, a local newspaper monopoly magnate, and very very docile educators. To say this is public is like saying that stock in Amazon.com is an undervalued bargain.
Public radio is a product of the establishment. Your own program is an excellent example. Less than 20% of the people in this country are direct investors in the stock market. Yet you are there, on PBS, five days a week, at prime time, for a half-hour, talking a talk that is nothing but cruel gibberish to the occasional poor black or Latino who chances across your signal.
Is it going to change? Probably not. The public stations with get richer, their budgets will spiral, they'll plead more and more poverty to extract money from their listeners, corporations, and the government --- and the hopes and aspirations for the disenfranchised for their own voice will, as usual, be ignored. What a pity.--- Lorenzo W. Milam
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While I have you on the line, since you are running an elitist program for elitists like me, why don't you consider expanding your scope. I'm talking about getting a few more voices on the air.
There are --- at least in the brokerage houses I have visited --- some wonderfully witty, astute, and well-spoken gentlemen. That stockbroker from Dallas you've dug up is a man with a paucity of imagination, little verve, and a serious lack of classical economic perception.
Why don't you spread the wealth? Let your contacts find you a few wry brokers in San Francisco, Boston or New York who love to talk, have a sense of economic history, and who know a little bit about the more cynical and amusing parts of the stock market.
Cut back on Dallas --- to maybe once a year. Give others a few minutes on the air each week.
Those of us who think beyond weekly moves in the Dow-Jones would be most appreciative.