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Culture & Society
Rick Steves: Save the Marching Bands, but Kill Public Broadcasting?
The host and producer of "Rick Steves' Europe" on public television and "Travel with Rick Steves" on public radio, chimes in on the potential cuts in public broadcasting:
Our government spends $430 million a year on public broadcasting...less than the $500 million that (according to the Washington Post) it spends each year for marching bands in our military. With our current frenzy to cut the fat out of government, nothing is sacred — except, apparently, non-essential expenses for the military. This puts marching bands on solid financial footing, while public broadcasting is facing the budget ax.
I'm certainly not anti-band. I actually transferred universities in order to play in a top-notch marching band. (In fact, every thirty years or so, I get out the old sousaphone to channel John Phillip Sousa.) But I believe non-commercial media that respects the electorate's intelligence, assumes an attention span, and can produce content with no regard to advertiser interests is important to the fabric of our society and to the strength of our democracy.
Of course, I am part of public broadcasting. I produce radio and television shows that air across the nation on public broadcasting stations. While I could charge stations to air the shows I produce, I'd rather offer my TV and radio programs to the system for free (though, of course, my business benefits from the exposure I get). Therefore, I fund my own shows, then try to get underwriting from corporations (such as American Airlines, to whom I am grateful). My underwriters support my work, but do not dictate content. This allows me to introduce my viewers and listeners to the world I actually experience, rather than a version of the world shaped by the need to sell something. On TV, I can take viewers inside Iran to talk with everyday people, or to the Swiss Alps to celebrate Christmas, without wondering, “Will this offend advertisers?” On the radio, I can talk to the drug czar of Portugal about innovative drug policies, or to a gay activist in Lebanon, without sheltering our audience from thoughts that might get them out of their comfort zone.
But the value of public broadcasting in our society is much more important than being able to enjoy travel shows that aren't shills for the mainstream tourism industry. Public broadcasting subsidizes news that is less exciting, but more insightful — produced by journalists rather than entertainers...pursuing the truth, rather than advertising. Public television makes possible non-commercial children's programming that is not shaped by people who sell our kids toys. And public broadcasting keeps culture alive even when it is not a commercial hit. Rather than lowering our society's intellectual bar, it challenges us to be engaged. Public broadcasting inspires America to be smart. Of course, some will say, “Leave it to the marketplace.” But that's just the point: Government-subsidized broadcasting makes possible media outside the marketplace and our society needs that for its own good.
Our society spends one-2,000th of a trillion dollars on providing the seed funds to make non-commercial broadcasting possible in our otherwise very commercial world. Public broadcasting requires much more money than that, which it gets from its audience through contributions and from corporate citizens through underwriting. Government funding is only about a tenth of what it takes to run public broadcasting in our country, but it enables this slice of our culture to exist. Does the American public — which generates $13 trillion of wealth each year — understand the cost to our society of sacrificing public broadcasting (to save less than $2 per citizen) in the name of fiscal restraint? (To learn more, visit www.170millionamericans.org. To make a difference, contact your member of Congress.)
I believe cutting government funding for public broadcasting would result in huge costs to our society — even to people who find PBS or NPR threatening and annoying. You can make a very good case that, considering the complex and unprecedented challenges facing our nation today, programming like Sesame Street, All Things Considered, and public broadcasting's trademark brand of quality independent journalism are actually important to our national security interests. Yes, marching bands can stir our troops to valor. But shouldn't we find the resources, even in challenging economic times, to stir our minds to action as well?