If the federal government were to cut off funding for public broadcasting, the programs that so many of us cherish not only wouldn't disappear, they would have a better chance of surviving long into the future.
In 1967, President Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, establishing a system of government subsidies that hasn't changed that much in fifty years. The lion-share of federal money was allocated—not to pay directly for programming—but to go to independent public television and radio stations that were established in every corner of a vast nation. Their main purpose has always been to distribute national content to their local communities. About 70 percent of government funding went directly the local stations in 1967. Fifty years later, that formula hasn't changed much.
When the Public Broadcasting Act became law, maintaining a network of regional stations was the only way to insure that every American household had access to public television and radio content. Today, this decentralized system isn't necessary because it's possible to stream or download NPR or PBS content from anywhere in the world. As audiences moves online, the regional stations supported by the federal government are becoming unnecessary.
It's not just that these stations have become a waste of taxpayer money—they also present an obstacle to online distribution. The advent of podcasting, for example, was a singular opportunity for NPR to capitalize big on a new way of distributing its rich content. Today, NPR publishes several of the top podcasts, but in a concession to the stations, it forbids show hosts from promoting podcasts on the radio or from even mentioning NPR's popular smartphone app. Station opposition is also the reason that podcast listeners can't download episodes of NPR's two top programs, Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Recently, some of public radio's most talented show hosts and producers have gone to work for private podcasting ventures. One reason to leave, says former-NPR reporter Adam Davidson, is that podcasters "have a creative freedom that NPR's institutional frictions simply can't allow."
The fact is that without federal subsidies, the programs themselves could thrive. About 40 percent of funding for public television comes from private contributions (individuals, foundations, and businesses). For public radio, it's about 60 percent.
Without the massive overhead cost of 1,400 local public radio and television stations, that revenue would more than cover the cost of producing the programs and then distributing them for free online. And yet fans of PBS and NPR might ultimately be even better served if they were to privatize and charge a monthly subscription fee—moving in the same direction as the rest of the media. (In this scenario, the PBS stations that produce national content, such as WNET and WGBH, would become production companies.)
Either way, ending federal funding not only won't destroy the only thing that's worth saving about public broadcasting. It could very well be its salvation.
(Disclosure: I was a producer at WNET, the PBS flagship station in New York City, from 2002 to 2009.)
Produced by Jim Epstein; production assistance from Ian Keyser.