Seattle — Ever since Romney brought up Big Bird in the first presidential debate on Oct. 3, 2012, feathers have been flying. Liberal commentators condemned his desire to cut funding for public broadcasting, arguing that the .0014 percent of the federal budget it takes up is a small price to pay for public broadcasting’s educational returns, while conservatives countered by saying that even this small portion is unnecessary fat, and should be trimmed off the nation’s unbalanced budget.
Ultimately, however, the question is whether young people value public programming enough to make this partisan tiff relevant after the election.
Keith Seinfeld is the assistant news director for KPLU. This Seattle-based radio station received $513,392 in 2011 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which distributes funding on behalf of the U.S. government to public TV and radio stations. He said that 45- to 65-year-olds make up the largest proportion of their audience, and that the station often discusses how to connect with millennials during big-picture planning.
“We don’t just want to ride off into the sunset with this baby boom audience,” he said.
KPLU’s aging demographic is typical across the nation. According to an analysis of NPR’s demographic nation-wide, by Arbitron, the average age of the 26.4 million weekly NPR listeners is 49, descending to 40 for NPR.org, and 36 for their podcasts.
It makes you wonder whether the millennial generation (18-35-year-olds) are seriously invested in the programming. In this age of increasingly decentralized independent content, is the centralized, publically-funded broadcast model the bedrock of American media culture, or a fossil?
Some argue that it’s the latter. Trent England, the vice president of policy at the Evergreen Freedom Foundation said that young voters are “highly diverse” and as such don’t need “some particular kind of election programming,” but instead benefit from a variety of perspectives. Given how easy it is to publish in today’s media climate, he argued that federal funding for broadcasting is no longer necessary.
“I think that new media makes the idea of public broadcasting even less appealing, because we have so many more voices, and the barriers to entry have dropped so low that the ideas that we need taxpayers subsidizing media is becoming more and more absurd,” he said.
On the other hand, Hanson Hosein, the director of the UW Dept. of Communication’s masters-degree program in digital media, said NPR’s dramatically increasing popularity is because “journalism in this country generally sucks.” He sees public broadcasting as much-need quality control.
“The complete hollowing out of our journalistic institutions and poor quality of reporting that goes with that, means especially when you have big stories like 9/11 and the war in Iraq and the economic downturn, people want clarity, and they want insight, and NPR is providing that,” he said.
Audience increases aside, Hosein’s comments suggest mass appeal may not be the point. When deciding whether public broadcasting is wasteful or worth it, is there a pedagogical argument that this content should exist regardless its popularity with young people?
“There’s nothing worse than seeing institutions change their methods in order to court some imagined new audience of the young folks,” said Robert Horton, a regular guest for KUOW Seattle in an email.
“Young people, middle-aged people, old people — it’s up to them to get to the level of really good public broadcasting, not the other way around. KUOW and KPLU already have programs that ought to appeal to smart people of any age, and some programs that might not. That ought to be enough.”
Horton is near the median age of an NPR listener. His statements suggest this debate should focus on whether a publically-funded news outlet has the right to say their programming “ought to appeal” to people. In other words, do we want our government to help a small group of professionally-trained reporters guiding our conversations on a national level?
My co-worker at The Daily of the University of Washington and fellow millennial Alison Atwell compared the utility of public broadcasting to the national-park system. These parks are gorgeous, a crown jewel of our country, she said. They would also fall to pieces if an organ of government didn’t take care of them. Sometimes, she argued, the private interest of many individuals isn’t enough.
“The free market is not good for education and certain public goods that need to be accessible to the public,” she said. “[Education] needs to be a public, not a private concern.”
Horton mentioned a recent trip to Germany, where public access programming is “far more widely watched” and citizens are charged a monthly tax to support institutional journalism.
He asked a reporter whether the debate over public access programming is a “political football” like it is in the US, and the reporter said it never happens.
“There’s a general agreement that public TV is a good thing and worth supporting,” Horton said. “Go figure.”
When asked why public broadcasting is so politicized in the United States, Horton said it comes down to the issue of taxation — that pesky .0014 percent of the national budget. He said that the word “tax” has become “demonized by various political factions.” This stigma, when coupled with the liberal label often slapped on public-access programming, is often interpreted as the government subsidizing a certain agenda.
“At least since the Nixon years, there’s been a focused effort to characterize media as ‘liberal,’ I guess because the media sometimes questions people in power,” Horton said. “Public media is the easiest to pillory, because it’s ‘our tax dollars’ at work supporting these ‘gay communist’ institutions.”
England said younger voters would benefit from a media revolution that reduced the influence of public broadcasting, because “the idea that we need government to support one subset of programming doesn’t actually make sense” if we value diversity of opinion.
“There’s no question that all human beings respond to incentives, so if the reason you’re on the air is that government has given you money, then it is likely to affect the way that you talk about government,” he said.
But Hosein questioned the legitimacy of such arguments, saying “the animosity toward government in this country goes to insane proportions.” To him, the utility of public broadcasting is more about educating young people.
“Let’s look at it from a cost-benefit analysis, rather than a philosophical point of view, and say ‘just like we still invest in public education, this is still a worthwhile investment,’” he said.
The task for young Americans then, after this election, is to decide for themselves whether public funding is about education, or agenda-setting.