Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Feeding Big Bird

This will come as a surprise many of you, but I don't disagree with Mitt Romney on the matter of government subsidies for public TV and radio.

It's not a new opinion; I've offered it a handful of times on public radio, particularly when Gov. Pataki was implicitly threatening WAMC, on which I appear and am a member of the board.

Government subsidies are worthwhile if the government is flush, which it currently is decidedly not. But true public broadcasting is best supported by viewers and listeners (as well as underwriters - or sponsors, as they call them on the commercial channels/stations).

Look at the aforementioned WAMC, which this week is completing another successful $1 million fund drive, one of three it conducts each year. That's $3 million in listener contributions, plus the underwriting money. Make no mistake, whatever money WAMC does receive from government is important and welcome. Without it, its fund-raising mission would be even more intense and difficult. But it would succeed if the thousands who listen and contribute were joined by the thousands more who listen and don't put a dime into the pot.

Moreover, no government money would eliminate the worry that some stations (fortunately, not WAMC) have about restricting political content for fear of alienating those who control the government treasury.

Now let me tell you what did surprise me about Mitt Romney's declaration about public broadcasting and Big Bird at last week's presidential debate.

Romney was asked to be specific about what he'd cut in the federal budget. Despite a menu of possibilities, most more financially meaningful than PBS, from which to choose, Romney made public TV and radio his first choice.


Understand the reported $280 million the government provides PBS isn't small potatoes. And, as noted, I can see it on a government hit list. But not at the top, given the significant government waste in a variety of other places.

Want to go after Bert and Ernie (and all the many other fine public TV and radio offerings)? Go ahead. They mostly will get along without the government dough.

But public broadcasting isn't Public Enemy No. 1.

(By the way, a compelling case for public broadcasting was written by Charles Blow in The New York Times.

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