Bringing the ‘Public’ Back to Public Media

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[Commentary] In Nov it will be 50 years since the Public Broadcasting Act, steeped in the Great Society idealism of President Lyndon Johnson’s administration, became law. The act turned programming like “Sesame Street,” “Reading Rainbow” and “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood” into true public goods. Now, on the silver anniversary of the act, it’s completely plausible that the Trump Administration might celebrate by making good on their threats to defund as much of the public broadcasting apparatus as they can.

While it’s unlikely NPR and PBS want this to happen, they have been preparing for a future without government money for a long time. The biggest stations have figured out how to bring in money without sacrificing quality. Still, the shift away from public money in public broadcasting has caused significant collateral damage: Public media, maybe unintentionally, now strives to serve an elite audience instead of an expansive and inclusive vision of the “public.” The hope is that more affluent audiences can be counted on to add to their closet full of pledge drive tote bags when the time comes. This is the same audience commercial news organizations look for so they can buy things advertisers sell. These target consumers have more news than they need. Perversely, that means even the most thought-provoking public media is used more for entertainment that anything else.

I worry if we continue to ignore the information needs of news consumers representing a wide swath of economic and demographic realities, we will deserve any loss of relevance we experience.

[Sarah Alvarez is the founder of Outlier Media, a data journalism service delivering high value information to low income news consumers in Detroit via SMS.]

Bringing the ‘Public’ Back to Public Media