Few people expect critiques of public broadcasting to come from the left, and certainly not from a leftist who reveres the idea of noncommercial radio and television. But Jerold Starr, author of Air Wars: The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting (Beacon, 2000) and founder of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting (cipbonline.org), wants to replace the Corporation for Public Broadcasting with an independent body. That way, he argues, controversial and uncommercial material can be aired without political interference. How would the new system be financed? That's a matter of debate within Starr's group, with some favoring a semi-public system funded by a levy on commercial broadcasters and others backing a completely independent trust.
Starr, 59, divides his time between Washington, D.C.; Morgantown, West Virginia; and Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where Associate Editor Jesse Walker reached him by phone late last year.
Q: What's the purpose of your group?
A: It operates on two levels. We want to restructure public broadcasting as an independent public trust, so it has the financial security required for editorial integrity—we would in effect take the government and the corporations out of direct funding of programming. The trust would provide roughly $1 billion a year in program funds, which would be five times what it currently spends.
The second level is democratizing local stations, so they are more responsive to and reflective of the community.
Q: Where would the money come from?
A: That's the most contentious issue within the larger coalition we're trying to organize. There are some who say, look, we've got a $1-2 trillion budget surplus at the present time. Roughly $20 billion invested would create a billion dollars a year in perpetuity.
My preference is that the money would come from commercial broadcasters. I know you guys don't like taxes. I myself am basically an anarchist. But I view the commercial broadcasting industry as an enormous case of corporate welfare. It is the only industry that pays the government no use fee for a public resource.
Q: What isn't on public broadcasting now that you'd expect to see more of under your system?
A: Independent producers have an extremely difficult time getting their films on PBS. To add insult to injury, PBS has subcontracted two episodes of Frontline to Nightline. The Disney Corporation and their $7 million anchor is taking public money to produce a program!
Public affairs, civic education, news, documentaries—these are the things that public broadcasting can do that none of the cable channels can. Cable has ripped off the most popular genres of public broadcasting, whether it's history, nature, cooking, or whatever, and they do them as well, if not better. If public broadcasting wants to have a unique identity—to use their terminology, a brand—it should be the place where you can hear debate and discussion on controversial issues.