Today the editors restate the traditional conservative position on federal subsidies for public broadcasting, namely, that we should eliminate them. While I agree on that narrow point, that narrow point shouldn’t be the whole conservative position on public broadcasting. I admit I’m biased — and while I’ve been a regular guest on NPR’s Tell Me More with Michel Martin since last year, that’s not the source of my bias. I have listened almost exclusively to public radio since I was in college and it is still the only radio I listen to.
One reason is that I went to the University of Wisconsin, and the midwest’s venerable tradition of public radio has been particularly great (and infectious) in the case of Wisconsin and Minnesota. NPR’s main national news programs are simply great, as are shows like Wisconsin Public Radio’s To The Best of Our Knowledge. In Austin, Texas, where I live now, KUT is indispensable. It is the gatekeeper of the independent music scene here, and its DJs have quite possibly the world’s best taste in music.
The federal government shouldn’t be involved in most of what it’s involved in nowadays. That’s an argument against federal funding for lots of things, as the editors point out. But it’s not an argument against public broadcasting. Public broadcasting is like public libraries — it serves a valuable community and educational function. It is precisely the kind of civic institution that conservatives often say they would like to see more of.
Those who call for eliminating federal subsidies for public broadcasting are on much stronger ground when they are also advocates for public broadcasting at the state and community level. Governor Romney was onto something when he began his presidential debate answer on this by admitting that he likes public broadcasting. Encouraging more private support for public broadcasting would advance the conservative ideal of an increased role for private-based civil society. And it could more than make up for the loss in federal subsidies. That’s the better position, it seems to me.