The Case for Independent Funding of Public Broadcasting
Remarks of
Nicholas Johnson, Board Member
Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting
on the occasion of the
CIPB Kick-Off News Conference
Washington, D.C.
November 16, 1999

Noncommercial television.”

Noncommercial. That’s the word the Carnegie Commission used in 1967 to describe its dream of a public broadcasting system.

As E.B. White put it at the time, “Noncommercial television should address itself to the ideal of excellence, not the idea of acceptability – which is what keeps commercial television from climbing the staircase.”

From my perspective, noncommercial television is an essential ingredient of what I would call “genuine diversity” in broadcast programming.

As I sit here in my law school office in Iowa City, Iowa, I’m looking at a framed photograph with President Johnson that contains one of the pens used to sign the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.

It brings back to mind the reasons why it was a good idea 32 years ago, and remains a goal worthy of a great nation today. Indeed, that is why all of us here today have come together in support of the Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting.

Because without independent funding public broadcasting will continue to follow the path followed by commercial broadcasting in the 1920s and 1930s. It will continue to sink deeper and deeper into the tar pit of commercialism, until finally its reason for being entirely disappears beneath the surface.

Many have argued for the deregulation of broadcasting, indeed the virtual non-regulation of commercial broadcasting. They say that scarcity of frequencies, a once-valid rational for FCC jurisdiction, no longer exists. They point out that we have about five times as many radio and television stations as we have daily newspapers.

But such corporate apologists miss the mark.

So long as a broadcasting outlet is driven by a commercial need to maximize audience, it is the audience that becomes the product and the advertiser who becomes the consumer. The programming is secondary.

As Tom Smothers once observed, “The programming on television is like the styrofoam packing around a new computer. The programming is there to keep the commercials from rattling around and getting broken.”

Tune up and down your AM or FM radio dial. There may be 10,000 stations out there, but you darn sure don’t have 10,000 choices. The formula is the same. The goal line is the bottom line.

The truly meaningful choice only comes if you have access to a station with a different objective, a different system of funding. Perhaps it’s a station affiliated with National Public Radio or Public Radio International. Pacifica, or some other community station. Maybe a college or micro-power station. An educational station with religious affiliation. That’s what makes diversity possible. That’s choice.

When we speak of the reasons for the First Amendment, its purposes, the consequences of having it or not, they can be grouped into five. It contributes to our ability to have self-government. Our search for truth. Our self-expression as individuals. The check it can provide on institutional abuses, whether governmental or corporate. The safety valve it offers to the seething despair of the discouraged that might otherwise bubble over into violence.

But the “marketplace of ideas” envisioned by the First Amendment cannot be provided by commercial broadcasters alone.

For the simple fact is that the ideas of the marketplace do not make for a marketplace of ideas.

No one can deny that much of our nation’s greatness comes from the values of its entrepreneurs, the employment they provide, and the markets they create through advertising.

But neither should we and our children be denied the diversity provided by other values we hold dear as well. The values represented in our public schools, and voluntary associations. Religious organizations, and national parks. Public libraries, and trade unions.

Corporate commercialism is a part of our lives. Our struggle is to prevent its becoming the dominant force in our lives.

With the independent funding that can return public broadcasting to its original noncommercial purpose, it can help provide each of us the steady support we need to maintain that sense of balance.