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Commentary & Opinion
Tue May 29, 2012
Stephen Gottlieb: Public Broadcasting
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.
Steve Gottlieb is Jay and Ruth Caplan Distinguished Professor of Law at Albany Law School and author of Morality Imposed: The Rehnquist Court and Liberty in America. He has served on the Board of the New York Civil Liberties Union, and in the US Peace Corps in Iran.
The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors, and do not reflect the views of this station or its management.