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Viewpoints: Keep funding public broadcasting; stations play a vital role in education, cultural diversity

By Richard Paton

Special to The News

Public broadcasting is a perennial punching bag for Republicans who presumably feel that the educational and children’s programming and the cultural, news and entertainment offerings on public radio and television would be infinitely more edifying if broken up by interminable advertisements for pharmaceuticals and SUVs.

Or off the air altogether.

So far, public broadcasting has survived. But this year, the threat from the antediluvian Republicans, who evidently feel that programming that doesn’t insult one’s intelligence is somehow subversive, is more worrisome.

Patricia Harrison, CEO of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which channels federal funding to National Public Radio, PBS and other outlets, said in a statement earlier this year: “There is no viable substitute for federal funding that ensures Americans have universal access to public media’s educational and informational programming and services.

“The elimination of federal funding to CPB would initially devastate and ultimately destroy public media’s role in early childhood education, public safety, connecting citizens to our history and promoting civil discussions – for Americans in both rural and urban communities.”

As anyone who has listened to public radio or watched public television well understands, the public broadcasting system also receives funding from corporations, foundations and other organizations, as well from members who pledge their financial support.

But it’s not enough to make up for the potential draconian and utterly philistine cut in federal funds.

That means many public radio and television stations will go off the air.

Yes, the big stations in the big cities, and likely many stations that are affiliated with universities – as WBNY is here with SUNY Buffalo State, or, for example, Michigan Radio is with the University of Michigan – will survive.

But smaller stations, in smaller markets, are at risk. I know that the small network of Ohio stations led by WGTE in Toledo, for which I have been a volunteer radio and television host for more than 20 years, is.

And let’s get that bias right out in the open. When I was a newspaper editorial writer I also was a co-host of a politics/currents events show on WGTE-TV for several years. I also have for 17 years been the (unpaid/volunteer) host of a radio show on WGTE-FM91. But it’s not my job for which I am arguing – although, of course, I want to keep it.

I am arguing for television and radio programming that doesn’t aim for the lowest common denominator. That doesn’t put ratings above creativity. That doesn’t shy away from hard topics or insightful investigation. That is willing to cater to audiences and demographics shunned by the networks and commercial broadcasters – and to some extent shunned by the new wave of online content providers.

Also overlooked in the Republican scramble to trash public broadcasting is the educational and outreach programming stations commit to. The stations have a role to play in education, in cultural diversity – and it is a vital one.

And yes, I accept that some readers may think I am indulging in special pleading. Asking for funding to continue so that I can continue.

Well, of course I hope to keep on keeping on.

And while we’re on the subject, let me tell you what my radio show is all about – electronic dance music. That’s right – club music. House music. Trance. Drum and bass. The music of Ibiza, laser lights and smoke machines.

On public radio. On Friday nights. On a network of Midwest stations that in addition to the expected news and panel shows, on the weekend also broadcasts classical music, jazz, swing, big band, opera and folk. Many of the shows are locally curated and hosted.

Some public radio stations really are the keepers of the flame for the ideas of the FM of old, where eclectic wasn’t a dirty word; where offering listeners real choice meant more than targeted marketing and playlists handed down from corporate media HQ.

Public television just aired a significant Ken Burns documentary series on the Vietnam War. Where else but PBS? It airs period dramas and gritty police procedurals a million miles from the airbrushed nonsense of the networks.

There are travel shows that are actually informative, not just global eye candy. And, yes, it offers some of the best of British television – it was “Prime Suspect,” after all, that in my view moved PBS out of the 19th century. We owe a lot to Dame Helen Mirren.

Look to PBS for kids’ TV that tries to educate rather than act as a babysitter. Listen to public radio for news and cultural programs that don’t insult our intelligence.

Now, I admit that sometimes public broadcasting can be its own worst enemy.

Many public television stations continue to air decades-old comedy shows such as “Are You Being Served?” which dates back to 1972, or “As Time Goes By,” a relative newcomer going back only to 1992 – not once, but in seemingly heavy rotation. Likewise, “The Lawrence Welk Show,” which debuted more than 60 years ago.

The issue isn’t that these shows are aired – there is a demographic ignored by the commercial networks that appreciates Welk, and those British comedies, which is reason enough to continue airing them. It is that stations have for too long been pandering to their existing, and aging, audiences, keen to keep the viewer numbers up and their purses and wallets open (I am of that demographic, so I’m not knocking seniors) at the expense of adding progressive programming.

This failure of will to move forward, to attract a new and younger demographic is never more evident than at pledge time when a host of specials seem to veer between self-help for the need-some-help generation, and musical programming that assumes an audience that remembers doo-wop like it was yesterday.

I sometimes feel that if I see one more pledge special filled with mediocre ’60s musical retreads, I’ll just give up on PBS altogether.

And radio isn’t much better. Programming for traditional, niche markets – whether by ethnicity (see Cleveland’s public radio schedule) or musical taste (interminable hours of blues over two – yes, two – nights on WBFO) is fine. I’m not knocking the blues. I spent many a happy night in London’s Marquee Club more years ago than I care to remember listening to Chicken Shack and Fleetwood Mac, and still pull out their CDs on occasion.

But its inclusion on the schedule at the expense of more contemporary programming speaks to the lack of vision, the fear of the new, the aversion to change, the terror at potentially losing a pledge or offending a listener.

In light of the need for full transparency – I did pitch my show to WBFO, which unceremoniously turned it down. I was disappointed, but hardly surprised. It now airs on WBNY.

There seems to be a mindset that is afraid of the new, that wants to keep the existing audience at the expense of reaching out on TV and radio through programming that could bring in new viewers and listeners who might see the cultural importance of this broadcasting alternative, who might want programming that appeals to a diversity of ages and musical and cultural tastes.

After all, with many of the cable networks that used to provide such programming now plumbing the depths of ludicrous reality TV, or airing hour after hour of shows long grown moldy – yes, BBC America, I’m talking about you – there is surely a market for what public broadcasting could offer.

Yet public radio and television too often are their own worst enemy, continuing to act as though they are still the genteel home of bodice rippers and Jane Austen adaptations, that steady-as-she-goes is the mantra for radio musical programming and for talk shows whose hosts are no longer alive on repeat broadcast.

For all those faults, however, the educational and cultural life of this country – its political and cultural discourse – would undoubtedly be significantly poorer without public radio and public television, their programs, their outreach into the community and their potential.

And to those who say that the government shouldn’t be funding public radio and television, I would argue that using tax dollars to support the arts, to support quality and often educational television and radio, to support news and current events programs untainted by commercial directives or political bias, and programming that helps kids grow up with a wider perspective is a noble use of the money.

Yes, public radio and television should get their act together and look forward, instead of too often looking back; take more risks, look for new audiences.

Yes, public broadcasting could be better.

But without it, we would all be worse.

Richard Paton, of Buffalo, produces and hosts “Electronic Currents” for WGTE-FM91 in Toledo, Ohio.

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