Usually my posts on TheAudioPenguin.com are related to technical issues about sound equipment and production techniques, but in this post I want to deviate and talk about the differences in the structure of public radio and public television in the United States with some references also to the British services offered by the BBC. I have worked in both public radio and public TV and want to see what model is, in my humble opinion, the most democratic and diverse.
Before I discuss the current structures of US public TV and Radio I want to reflect how these stations were organized and funded in the 1960s and before. This may be somewhat over-simplified but it reflects my recollections of the ways I experienced this starting with my university days and beyond and may contain errors and, certainly, omissions. Please forgive me for that.
When I was a student, what we now call “public” radio and television was then called “educational” broadcasting. There was even a professional organization that held yearly national conventions – many of which I attended – called the National Association of Educational Broadcasters. Those conferences were later subsumed by the larger National Association of Broadcasters (NAB) that initially focused on commercial broadcasting.
I attended a university, Michigan State University, that got into educational broadcasting very early and owned two radio stations, one AM and one FM, and a television station. The stations were founded in 1922, 1948 and 1954 respectively, making MSU among the pioneers of educational broadcasting. They also created a college major in Radio-TV-Film early on which, when I was a student there in the 1960s, was ranked the number one school for broadcast education by the National Association of Broadcasters. I did not go there for that reason, however, I went there because I lived in Lansing, Michigan, and could go there inexpensively. They used a quarter system at the time, rather than a semester system, and my first year cost me $300 in tuition, $100 per quarter. (Do I hear millennials weeping?)
At that time the University paid for all of the stations. There were no pledge drives, fund-raising auctions, or anything. The University considered educational broadcasting part of its educational mission and there was even a Dean of Broadcasting Services to oversee everything.
Money was tight. Radio was fairly cheap to produce so that was not too bad. Television budgets were low. Mostly locally produced programming was done in the studio though educational stations often shared programming by shipping around tape (or earlier, film) as there was no physical wired network. I worked in fine arts production at the MSU TV station (first called WKAR-TV, then WMSB, then WKAR-TV again – a story too long for this post). Though we produced programs that were shared by other educational stations the rules of Michigan State University prevented the station from charging those other stations for the programs. When we did major programs, they were often paid for by grants. I worked in a division that specialized in classical music production, with a few visual art documentaries thrown in, and by the time I finished my graduate work and left MSU it had produced more classical music programs than any other television station in the United States.
None of us made much “big” money but even as a 20-something graduate student I got to work with some of the finest classical musicians in the world including Eugene Ormandy, Thomas Schippers, Wolfgang Sawallisch, Benita Valente, Radu Lupu, Paul Zukofsky, Richard Goode, Barbara Nissman, Joan Freeman, and countless others. I got my job working in classical music production because I could read music. All of our productions were shot “live on tape” and I followed a marked score and cued the camera shots. Later, I even planned the camera shots myself when the senior producer learned that I understood music by reading the score.
By the time I left Michigan in the summer of 1968, there had never been any on-air fund raising on MSU public (“educational”) radio or TV stations. We heard that KQED in San Franciso was holding a fund raising auction each year, but we did not do anything like that at the time.
There was little money but lots of freedom. At the time ratings were not a serious consideration for educational broadcasting. We believed we were serving the needs of a specialty audience that were not being as well served on commercial media.
But even commercial radio and television at that time was more diverse, intellectually, than it is today. I got interested in classical music after watching a broadcast of the NBC Opera Workshop. In 8th grade I was home sick with the flu and my parents put a small, old, TV in my room that only got one channel (with a rabbit ears antenna). The networks had not yet discovered sports for Sunday afternoon and often ran cultural programs such as Wide Wide World and the NBC Opera Workshop. I watched Offenbach’s La Périchole and was so taken with it I was hooked on opera and classical music. Also, the famed Leonard Bernstein young people’s concerts were on CBS television, another commercial network.
But the program that made me decide definitively that I wanted to produce fine arts television was The Louvre, A Golden Prison, narrated by Charles Boyer which ran, if memory serves me right, on Friday night at 8PM on NBC in 1964. Can one imagine NBC doing such a cultural program today in prime time? I was definitely enjoying the “golden age” of American television. (There were also live TV dramas, often written by famous playwrights.) The producer of The Louvre, A Golden Prison, incidentally, was Lucy Jarvis who still is alive in NYC and is 102 years old as of this writing.
Thus public or “educational” broadcasting ran along side commercial networks who felt they need some “highbrow” content to balance their offerings. The commercial networks did the expensive shows while educational television did lower budget productions since their sources of funding were limited.
Educational radio continued on its own at that time. It was cheaper to produce but, at that time, there was little program sharing since each station could produce radio “on the cheap.”
But all of this was about to change.
Early in the 1950s the Ford Foundation founded the Educational Television and Radio Center. It did not produce programs but facilitated the distribution of programs between other educational stations. In 1954 it moved to Ann Arbor, Michigan and did distribute some programming by mail (there was not a wired network at that time) to other public “educational” stations. Much of the content was academic and was produced to serve an intellectual community that was, for the most part, not being served by commercial broadcasting. Later, the operations moved to NYC. In 1963 it was named National Educational Television (NET) and spun off its radio services.
It was at this time that I produced fine art programs, mostly classical music, in connection with the Michigan State University educational television station. Some programs, featuring work by the faculty of the University, were mostly aired locally. Some were distributed nationally but I am unclear how many were distributed under the unbrella of NET and how many were just shared by the station to other stations who wanted more classical music performances and art documentaries. Again, this post is not a complete history but more a recollection from the past so there may be inaccuraces.
In the late 1960s President Lyndon Johnson signed into law the Public Broadcasting Act to provide some government money for public television. I think the goal was to try and keep it separate from politics, much like the BBC services in the UK. The result of all this was the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) which began in 1969 and gradually took over the functions of NET. At some point a wired network was used so stations did not have to mail tapes and films to each other. Starting in the 1970s NET stopped operating as a separate network. PBS was always surrounded in controversy by some right leaning politicians who thought the programming too liberal. That continues to this day.
Television, especially, is expensive to produce and many institutions, such as universities and other non-profit organizations, did not or could not continue to support their services, even with some money from PBS. Thus was born on-air fund raising.
In my humble opinion, this was the undoing of public broadcasting. In order to get lots of pledges programming had to be “popular.” For while the number one program on PBS was, I think, This Old House where old houses were rehabilitated on air. Other programs, like Upstairs Downstairs were simply licensed from the BBC saving what would have been huge production costs. Some British comedies such as Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Are You Being Served were very funny, but were hardly “educational” or “cultural” though they were popular and attracted people to the on-air fund drives.
Although PBS has produced some effective documentary programming, such as the Ken Burns films, most of the more academic stuff has disappeared. I remember, back in the NET days watching a hour-long interview with the famed philosopher-longshoreman Eric Hoffer and another one-hour interview with Dr. Edward Teller, the “father” of the H-bomb. These interview programs were cheap to produce but they were considered to specialized for the large general audience public television needed for its online fund raising. Some people criticized these programs as mere “talking head” show that they found boring. But boring is a function of how interested one is in a person. I remind people that Oprah and The Tonight Show are also “talking head” programs.
This is not to say that public television has not, and does not, produce some really effective programming. But my biggest “beef” is that is not as geographically diverse as it was during the shared tape era. Back then the Denver public station produced a program with Ragtime historian and pianist, Max Morath. Other programs I watched then came from public stations in Pittsburgh, Chicago, and San Francisco, while we, at Michigan State University in East Lansing, Michigan, recorded and distributed a great many classical music programs to stations around the country.
Today PBS operates as a major network with most input coming from New York, Boston or Los Angeles. Smaller public stations and many independent producers find it hard to get their work aired, though there are a few opportunities such as the program POV (Point of View) produced in NYC. I am sure some readers will note other opportunities also, but people I know in the field, even ones who continue to win awards at film festivals for their documentary work, find much of PBS a “closed shop” that favors a small number of “mainstay” producers and stations.
I read an article some years ago in a major publication (I think it might have been the New York Times magazine, but certainly something of that caliber) by someone who was complaining that public TV was a closed shop and it was hard to get a project approved by them. I first though it must have been written by some young producer who was finding it hard to “break in” to PBS. But then I noticed that the author was a celebrated film maker whose PBS programs were highly regarded. Even he was finding it hard to get new ideas into the “closed shop.”
Radio is a lot cheaper to produce than television, even documentaries can be reasonably recorded especially now with digital workstations and small recorders. But back in the day, as universities and other non-profit organizations were lessening their sponsorship of non-commercial radio, even those stations had to resort to over-the-air pledge drives (which continue to this day).
This has resulted in some of the negatives I have noted about public television, especially the jettisoning of extremely intellectual programs in favor of “popular” shows. At one time the most popular show on NPR was, I think, Car Talk. There certainly was some valuable car information, but many jokes and silliness on the part of the two hosts.
Although public radio is still considered “cultural” or “informational” the need to attract pledges has kept most highly intellectual programs off the air. This contrasts strongly with BBC Radio 4, BBC Radio 4 Extra, and even the BBC World Service radio. Yes, they sometimes have silly game shows and the like, but they also run serious discussion shows that are not found as much on American public radio: programs like The Inquiry, In Our Time, Witness History and Hard Talk to name four of many. Yes, NPR does have some very good informational and cultural programs and podcasts, such as Aria Code produced in NYC by WQXR, but most US shows are less in-depth and hard hitting. Almost no US radio or TV stations has the biting interviews of Hard Talk. I fear they think if they are too hard hitting to guests, or too obscurely intellectual, they will lose pledges. The BBC is supported by the British government and does not have to worry about that – very similar to the public TV environment I found in the early 1960s when my university owned, and ran, public radio and TV stations free from on-air fund raising.
The BBC runs many radio stations and they are all free in the US via the Internet. One can purchase a special WiFi radio to tune radio from around the world, but the easiest way to get world wide radio is with a smart speaker like Amazon Echo. One can just say “Alexa play BBC Radio 4” and it will start streaming. Most BBC television, however, is not available in the U.S, except a specialty service called “BBC America” carried by some cable TV services and which is much more limited than the full range of BBC television stations. In the UK one can also tune in the BBC television via the Internet, but that service is blocked outside of the UK. In the UK one has to buy a TV license to watch BBC TV (but not radio) but I think it only cost about $120 per year. I would gladly pay that if I could then get the full range of BBC over the internet.
But NPR operates much more like early “educational” television. Stations from all over the country can contribute programs. Even the Albany, NY, station has a “national division” to produce network radio shows though I don’t think the Albany public TV stations produce regular shows for PBS. NPR is less of a “closed shop” than PBS. When I was still in graduate school an undergraduate student employed by the public radio station had an idea for a program about new theatre called “On the Aisle.” It was picked up nationally. I think that kind of thing can still happen today, on public radio, but less so on public TV.
Sorry if some people find my personal views and rant either boring or disgusting. But I favor diversity and also services that cater to small minorities, whether ethnic, cultural, or intellectual. Some of this is being alleviated by the rise of podcasts. That is a good trend though finding the right podcast can be difficult. Still, I am much more a radio/podcast person than a television person as radio is cheap to produce and is usually much more diverse. Thus my view is that in the US NPR is a much better model for public broadcasting than PBS. But again my views are biased and BBC radio is still, for me, the finest radio service. It was set up in a way that politicians pretty much have to keep their hand off the programming and funding. I don’t think this could ever happen in the U.S. as politicians keep threatening to defund public broadcasting when they don’t agree with the viewpoints of some of the programming.
P.S. the Alexa thing works also for most any radio station that streams over the internet (and most do). I especially love some of the programming from WYSO in Yellow Springs, OH and WPRB in Princeton, NJ so I listen to them from time to time. Before I went to Paris for Christmas a few years ago I listened, via the internet, to French radio stations so I could practice “hearing” the French language while trying to recall my weak high school French.