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Refresher Course: What does the Corporation for Public Broadcasting actually do?

The summit of Mount Kearsarge with its Fire Tower. Dan Tuohy photo / NHPR
Dan Tuohy
/
NHPR
The broadcast and communications equipment tower at the summit of Mount Sunapee in Newbury, New Hampshire.

Every other Tuesday, the team behind Civics 101 joins NHPR’s All Things Considered host Julia Furukawa to talk about how our democratic institutions actually work.

In the past few months, there’s been renewed interest in the government’s role in public media, particularly, efforts in Congress to defund the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Civics 101 Senior Producer Christina Phillips joins Julia to explain what the CPB is and how it works.

Transcript

Christina, as New Hampshire Public Radio, we do have a stake in what happens to the CPB. As a disclaimer, how does the CBP impact our station and our work?

The federal government gives taxpayer dollars for noncommercial, educational and informational programming like your local PBS station, public access station, or public radio station, like us. And the CPB is in charge of distributing that money. So as a public radio station, we get a grant every year from the CPB. In 2023, that grant was about $585,000, or about 6.3% of our revenue. And we basically use all of that money to purchase national and international news that we air alongside the local news you're hearing now that we make right here in Concord.

So the CPB doles out money to these public media institutions, but how does it actually work?

So the CPB was designed to be a firewall between Congress and public media organizations so that politicians can't use money to control our content. Now, Congress gives the CPB rules for how much money needs to go to certain things, like a percent of funding goes to broadcast infrastructure, for example. But the CPB decides how to distribute funds to best support accessible informational programs that reach as many people as possible. And the CPB does not make any content itself, nor is it allowed to have any editorial oversight, meaning it couldn't direct a station or a program to cover something or tell them to hire a certain person.

But if we at NHPR, for example, wanted to build another radio tower or start a new show, we could go to the CPB and say, ‘Here's why we think this is important. Will you help support it?’ And the CPB could decide, yeah, that's something that should get federal support.

Christina, you said that the CPB acts as a firewall, but has this firewall fallen before? Is public media actually independent from government interests?

Well, I'll say it's not perfect. In the 2000s, the CPB board chair, this guy Kenneth Tomlinson, went to PBS leadership and said, ‘hey, you need to create a show with these specific conservative columnists because I think your coverage is too liberal,’ among other things, like commissioning a conservative consultant to study bias on specific shows without permission. And he eventually resigned. And, you know, administration officials and politicians have been critical of public media since basically its inception. So the firewall has definitely been tested. The problem here was that Tomlinson was the person who was supposed to be upholding that firewall between political influence and public media.

So this isn't the first time there's been a push to defund public media. What could happen if that federal money disappears?

This latest call to defund CPB is the second one in a row, like the second year in a row that this has happened. It's happened over many budget cycles over the existence of CPB.

If that funding goes away, a lot of stations would struggle for sure. The biggest impact, immediately, would probably be on stations that rely more heavily on federal funding, like rural stations or stations on tribal land. It would also impact emergency service communications because the CPB plays a big role in emergency alerts and public safety communications. And for a station like us, the kind of programming that we could offer would be much more limited without those federal grants.

Michelle Liu is the All Things Considered producer at NHPR. She joined the station in 2022 after graduating from Northwestern University with a degree in journalism.
Julia Furukawa is the host of All Things Considered at NHPR. She joined the NHPR team in 2021 as a fellow producing ATC after working as a reporter and editor for The Paris News in Texas and a freelancer for KNKX Public Radio in Seattle.
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