As development director for a non-commercial radio station, I have found that public broadcasting seems misunderstood by the general public. I say this based upon the recent public discourse regarding its funding. The media, especially the conservative media, called for the US Congress to stop funding National Public Radio (NPR) after NPR was caught in a few missteps: a conservative commentator was hastily fired after public comments he made were initially misunderstood, and an NPR official was caught on tape, in a planned sting, encouraging support from a questionable source.
Throughout the controversy, the relationship of NPR and all of public broadcasting became blurred. NPR does not represent all public broadcasting and many public broadcasters have no relationship with NPR at all. Public television seems to have become synonymous with PBS (Public Broadcasting Service) although many stations don’t broadcast PBS programming. Likewise, public radio includes many stations not affiliated with NPR – stations that continue to provide public service and still rely upon public funding. Without public funding, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), many rural, ethnic and under-served communities would lose an important conduit for information, publicity and community news.
This current round of the funding issue begs us to examine the role of public broadcasting, public radio in particular, and its evolving funding model, while it struggles to find a niche in an ever changing media landscape.
Paid advertising to support radio was not immediately popular. J.C McQuiston, a Westinghouse employee, wrote in 1922:Has advertising been tried by radio? In our own case, at the beginning of our broadcasting work we mentioned, for a short time, heating appliances and those things made by us that generally appeal to the public. We very soon found out that the people revolted at this sort of thing. They felt that we were cheapening something that was well worth while. This came to us so forcibly that we quickly dropped it and we have not been advertising anything, not even our radio apparatus, in connection with our broadcasting work. (McQuiston, 1922)
Radio’s growth throughout the 20th century in America was fed by its commercialization. As J. Charles Sterin writes in Mass Media Revolution, “But advertiser-sponsored radio programming quickly took off, as did the profits of the radio networks, even against public opinion and in the face of inadequate attempts by the federal government to curtail radio advertising through regulation.” (Sterin, 2012) This “market model” allows for media and broadcasting to be supported by advertising and/or subscription fees.
Non-commercial radio, however, did not come about because of a revolt against commercialism. In 1938 the Federal Communications Commission established a new class of noncommercial radio station, licensed to universities, predominately as an experiment in education. Pacifica began broadcasting KPFA in 1949, in Berkeley, claiming to be the first listener-supported station. (Current, 2006)
So, what then, became the mission of public broadcasting? That’s a tough question to answer due to the fact that many different public stations serve many different communities for many different reasons. Best summarized by the World Radio and Television Council in “Public Broadcasting: Why? How?”, public broadcasting exists because private interest and governments fail the public service test:The public-service model, then, was based on the idea that neither the market nor the State could adequately meet the public-service objectives of broadcasting and act in the public interest; indeed, it was felt that the public interest does not coincide either with private interests or the interests of the political powers that be. (Laval University, 2000)
Public broadcasting and public radio in particular exists to serve under-served communities, where commercial broadcasters find no, or not enough, profitability.
Contrary to public perception, public broadcasters don’t receive funding directly from the government. Instead, as a way to remove direct government influence over content, the CPB was established by Congress in 1968 to make grants to public broadcasters. CPB grants make up only a portion of a public stations’ funding. For the most part, individual gifts or memberships account for a majority of revenue. Other sources of income for public stations can include:
• arts councils, corporate and non-profit philanthropic grants
• state or local government grants
• corporate underwriting (different than advertising)
• bequeaths from estates
• subsidies from a college or university which holds the broadcast license
• miscellaneous revenue from such things as rental fees from tower space, group travel and event sponsorships
As the threat of less federal funding looms, many stations turn to these other areas for income growth, especially support from corporate underwriting. Public broadcasting managers face a conundrum: more corporate underwriting threatens the ‘non-commercial’ sound of public radio and increased on-air fund raising alienates substantial segments of the audience.
As a result, some stations have abandoned their mission in search of higher ratings and more private sources of support. In Washington, DC, the nation’s ninth largest market, WETA-FM abandoned classical music to broadcast NPR programming. At times, two public stations in the market broadcast identical programming. This was done in an effort to exchange an older, albeit affluent, niche music audience for a larger and younger news/talk audience, convinced the latter would provide more financial support. NPR, which owns no stations, offers their product to anyone who will pay, without regard to market exclusivity. Although WETA soon returned to its mission to serve a community which enjoys classical music and opera (no longer served by commercial broadcasters in the market), this event exposed public broadcasters as concerned more about ratings and revenue than previously thought.
Ratings and Research
There has been a contentious debate among public broadcasters concerning the publishing of Arbitron quantitative ratings. Bigger stations, in the bigger markets, lobbied Arbitron to include non-commercial station ratings in ‘the book’, seen by advertisers and the media. The larger public stations tend to compete in a more ‘cut-throat’, media savvy, advertising agency-driven market. They require more readily available research to attract underwriting support. The smaller stations tend to approach more locally-owned businesses for support. Ratings aren’t as important when telling their story. This back-and-forth debate would often highlight a station’s need for revenue other than CPB grants and the steps they would take, beyond the traditional methods associated with public broadcasting, to find more money.
Arbitron’s move towards the portable people meter (PPM) and away from the diary method of gathering radio listening data has squashed the debate. Larger market stations have been changed to the PPM methodology and public broadcasters are treated just like commercial stations when publishing results. Smaller market stations still rely upon the diary method and public stations remain excluded from the ‘ratings book’.
Ratings were never meant to be important to public broadcasters. That was never to be part of their decisions regarding programming. Instead, public broadcasting has always relied upon qualitative research to tell their story to the business community. Qualitative research shows public broadcasting attracts a highly prized audience, affluent, involved in the community, and mostly unreachable through mainstream media. But, with federal funding in danger, many public broadcasters need ratings to secure other funding. Facing higher employee costs, more expensive technology (digital) and less funding by the CPB and their ownership (universities for the most part), public station managers are in need of increasing audience size to stay afloat.
A Personal Judgment About Commercial Broadcasting
Public broadcasting is important to me, not only because I make a living in the medium, but because commercial broadcasting has left me questioning its motives. I have seen how advertising influences programming, and even news. I now find suspect the actual wording in commercials. How many restaurants can serve “the best crabcake in town”? Exactly how does a car dealership ‘guarantee’ the lowest price in town?
Radio advertising seems to ring hollow to me at the same time its programming seems homogenized and boring. When the federal government gave its blessing for the consolidation of broadcast ownership and allowed the creation of giant companies such as Clear Channel, commercial radio programming began to sound the same throughout the entire country. In a research-savvy business, ratings, and the enormous advertising dollars a single ratings point represents, became more important than serving a community (with news and localized information). The prices of stations and the value of their FCC issued licenses skyrocketed in the late 20th century and early 21st century. Commercial stations could no longer afford to just ‘fill a niche’ in the market – they need to reach mass audiences to satisfy stakeholders.
This leads to a greater need for diverse public broadcasting. Commercial classical music stations, as an example, have all but disappeared, leaving some major cities without any classical music programming. Ethnic communities, such as Native Americans and those from the
Caribbean or other foreign lands, need a healthy public broadcasting system to keep alive their sense of self-worth and cultural identity.
In Public Radio Today, Arbitron’s 2011 peek into the status of public radio broadcasting, all formats, news/talk, classical, jazz and AAA, showed remarkable increases in audience:Between Fall 2009 and Fall 2010, public radio’s Cume among both men and women rose in virtually every age group. (This may be partially attributable to additional markets being measured with PPM methodology.) Despite having more media alternatives than ever before, teens 12-17 and adults 18-24 delivered the largest gains, followed by adults 25-34. These demographic segments have continued to show significant increases in each of the past three reports, and in Fall 2010 teens were virtually tied with adults 18-24 in weekly reach. Among older adults, there was also a notable gain in weekly tune-in among men 45-64. Year-to-year, Cume ratings were up or steady in most dayparts for teens and adult men and women in nearly every age group except women 55+, who registered modest decreases in weekday daytime hours. (Arbitron, 2011)
Arbitron also notes that stations programming news/talk has grown from 203 to 396. The report doesn’t tell us what other formats these stations abandoned, but I’m guessing they dropped formats which were designed to serve a more specialized and smaller niche audience. As an employee of a classical music public station, I know my audience is much older than mainstream stations. Arbitron’s report discloses: “Public radio was responsible for a majority of Classical radio listening. About half (51%) was by persons 65 years old or above, up from 47% in Fall 2005.” The research leads many to question the future viability of broadcasting classical music. An audience that is older is undesirable to advertisers. Commercial broadcasters abandoned the format and, with a future of questionable ‘public’ funding, non-commercial broadcasters just might follow their commercial brethren into more lucrative formats.
Your membership support or corporate support of classical music on the radio can be a vote to keep the music alive for generations to come.
Arbitron. (2011). Public Radio Today, 2011, How America Listens to Radio. Columbia: Arbitron.
Current. (2006, June 9). History of public broadcasting. Retrieved October 9, 2011, from Current-dot-org: http://www.current.org/history/timeline/timeline-through1940s.shtml
Laval University. (2000). Public Broadcasting: Why? How? Sainte-Foy: Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.
McQuiston, J. (1922). Advertising by Radio. Can It and Should It Be Done? Radio News , 232, 332-334.
Sterin, J. (2012). Mass Media Revolution. Boston: Pearson Education, Inc.
funding, support, underwriting