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Zero Hour for Public Broadcasting

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of Townhall.com.

I am an American and a male, so you can easily guess the first thing I do when I arrive in a hotel room: pick up the TV remote and turn on ESPN. The second thing may not be so universal: tune the clock radio to the local public radio station.

I have been happily addicted to the medium since 1979, when National Public Radio launched its "Morning Edition" news show. I wake up to NPR every day. I listen to it in the shower.

It's the first button on my car radio. I've set up automatic monthly contributions to my public radio station, so I'll be supporting it till the day I die, and maybe after.

In short, I think congressional Republicans are badly mistaken in denouncing public radio as a contemptible source of liberal propaganda and snooty elitism that the nation would be better off without. It's a national treasure, in my view.

And their proposal to eliminate all federal funding for public broadcasting? I'm all for it.

Federal support for public radio and TV goes back to 1967. President Lyndon Johnson, in the salad days of the Great Society, signed a measure creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

"While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth," he declared with his usual grandiosity, "we want most of all to enrich man's spirit." For that, he assumed, government funding was indispensable.

That attitude may have made sense in a universe of three TV networks and AM radio -- before the proliferation of cable channels, before DVDs, before multiplexes, before the Internet, before satellite radio, before iPhone apps.

Today, there is a multitude of electronic means in which people may enrich their spirits. Public affairs programming has never been easier to find. Cultural fare is available in wild profusion. Americans who once had to rely on local outlets for news and entertainment can tap a vast array of sources from all over the world.

Your spirit can feast to the point of gluttony. Amid all these options that flourish on their own, it's hard to see why Washington should divert tax dollars to prop up two -- public radio and television.

Yes, they provide something of value. But so many other media. A lot of Americans think Fox News offers something crucial that did not exist before -- a conservative news alternative to the other networks. No one thinks, however, the federal government should have provided the startup funding.

For that matter, major newspapers have long provided far-flung, in-depth reporting that Americans would have trouble finding anywhere else. But when the media environment changed, to their detriment, Congress didn't put them on the dole.

Those organizations had to decide what coverage their readers truly valued and were willing to pay for, and then find more creative, less costly ways to provide it. Some newspapers even went out of business.

But public broadcasting stalwarts have no patience with demands that it forgo welfare. The amount that could be saved, $430 million, is so small that "it's not going to make one iota's difference in the deficit," scoffs Patricia Harrison, president of the CPB.

Actually, $430 million amounts to at least a couple of iotas. If it's a trivial sum, would Democrats be willing to provide a matching grant to Fox News?

Public broadcasting is perfectly capable of supporting itself. In a typical week, some 27 million people listen to NPR. Many of them also kick in to support their local stations. In a pinch, they could do more. The typical NPR household had an annual income of $86,000 in 2009, far surpassing the $55,000 national average.

Doing without federal help would also take public broadcasting out of pointless political battles. If a commercial network fires a commentator, it doesn't invite members of Congress to protest. But when NPR canned Juan Williams, Republicans on Capitol Hill thought it was their business. They had a point.

Defenders of public broadcasting subsidies raise the specter of its most beloved shows, like "Sesame Street," going extinct. But even if PBS went out of business, which is unlikely, its most popular shows (if not all of its shows) would quickly find new homes.

Yet we continue to treat it and NPR like helpless children. Public broadcasting has been the object of federal help for more than 40 years. It's big enough and old enough to stand on its own.

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