Kevin Singer: Transition or Downsizing
Reprinted from AIRSPACE,
Association of Independents in Radio, Winter, 1995
One of my favorite Public Radio Conference moments occurred several years ago when keynote speaker Nicolas Negroponte began his address by confessing that he didn't listen to radio. His remarks outraged many in the audience. From their point of view, the speech went downhill from there. Negroponte, director of the Media Lab at MIT and a guru of "new media", went on to deliver what I thought was one of the most candid, informative and prophetic speeches I have heard at one of these gatherings.
Unfortunately not all of the attendees heard all or even most of the speech. Many people left, offended both by the speaker's blustery, confrontational style and by his message. The message included the idea that radio -- and yes, even public radio -- would be facing increasing competition in the coming years from new media and therefore would have to struggle harder to stay relevant.
Another big change, one change that no guru prophesied, was the dramatic shift in the political landscape that took place with the 1994 elections. Public broadcasting and other federally- assisted enterprises soon began to realize that they were in for major changes in the way they do business. Because the political process is a slow one, we are only now beginning to be able to say where some of the major changes will be in the public broadcasting marketplace. The only certainty is that the rules are being extensively rewritten.
Many observers believe that the federal support for public broadcasting that now flows through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting will end in the next three to eight years. The National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities are predicted to have about the same lifespan. Also, a Congress in the hands of Republicans will continue to move toward further deregulation of broadcasting. Foremost among the predicted far-reaching regulatory changes is the proposal to eliminate the distinction between commercial and noncommercial licensees. Another idea is that licenses could be sold.
Let's take a look at some of the probable repercussions of these changes. If CPB, NEA and NEH continue to be downsized or eliminated, public broadcasting will become a shrinking system in terms of the number of stations. This means fewer program outlets. With less money going into these institutions, less money will be available for production. Less money for production means that fewer producers will be able to earn their living making programs for public broadcasting. Eventually, even those producers who don't rely on public broadcasting work for their entire income won't be able to justify the time and expense necessary to work in the field.
In the debate over the efforts to eliminate federal funding for public broadcasting, the focus has been on CPB. The impact of decreased funding for NEA and NEH has been overshadowed or lost entirely. Yet, NEA and even NEH have been major sources of support for public broadcasting. In fact after CPB, NEA and NEH may be the largest sources of money supporting the creation of new public broadcasting programs.
A recent Rockefeller Foundation study cites a tremendous growth in the arts sector in the last thirty years. Much of this growth has been supported by public-private partnerships that, to a considerable extent, depend on NEA and NEH and their analogous state organizations. The study attempted to determine whether the private sector was going to be able to absorb the costs now being borne by the public sector. The answer was no.
The proposed regulatory changes further muddy the waters. "Enhanced underwriting" has already blurred the fragile distinction between commercial and noncommercial broadcasting. Current proposals intend to permit even greater "flexibility" in underwriting announcements. Many public broadcasters welcome this as an opportunity to make up for lost federal support. At some point, when the commercial-non-commercial distinction has become a distinction without a difference, broadcasters and regulators alike will undoubtedly move to eliminate it.
A few days ago, I was listening to a program in which a now much-celebrated Nicolas Negroponte was declaring the implications of the digital revolution and the internet to be of greater import than the invention of the printing press. While there is certainly some degree of very calculated hyperbole in Mr. Negroponte's statement, there is also undoubtedly more than a grain of truth in its assertions.
Kevin Singer is Executive Director of AIR (Association of Independents in Radio ).