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Should the American Economy Follow in Public Radio’s Footsteps?


When I first started writing this blog about the BBC, I had the world’s economy on my mind. But then a controversy over Juan Williams erupted adding a new twist.

With our economy stuck in neutral, it’s been interesting to follow the policy debate raging over what to do about it. Some pundits are encouraging another government stimulus plan in order to help prime the pump of development; others think the last plan was a horrible mistake and have turned it into a potent campaign target. It seems likely that gridlock will prevail and we’ll get neither more stimulus spending nor any significant changes in government spending.

Meanwhile, in the United Kingdom, the Conservative party leadership has proposed a massive cut in government spending of $127 billion over four years. The Wall Street Journal termed the U.K. a “global test case in the argument of choosing austerity over stimulus to repair the economy.”

One of the cuts that caught my eye is the one to the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC). In return for a deal that guarantees a continued license fee for the next six years, the BBC agreed (or caved to government pressure, as the New York Times put it) to a freeze on its income and the assumption of new expense obligations previously handled by the government. The license fee obligates TV watchers to pay nearly $230 for every household with a color television set. The New York Times estimates that the license fee brings in $5 billion per year, and makes up nearly all of the BBC’s budget. The Guardian estimates that new additional costs and the license freeze will mean in effect that the BBC will experience a 16 percent cut in real terms.

The guaranteed revenue stream has helped the BBC become the best public broadcaster in the world and one of the world’s most powerful media companies, public or private. So although any cut is painful, the BBC has successfully fought off commercial competitors and critics who wanted to see the fee reduced or eliminated, as well as ensured itself six years of predictable revenue─not a small feat in a world of financial chaos.

Unlike the BBC, American public broadcasters rely primarily on voluntary contributions and local support for the bulk of its revenue. Our federal government contributes a measly $400 million or so for the entire system of over 1,000 public radio and TV stations. Most state governments provide some type of support, although these appropriations are under fierce attack at the moment in many places.

Last week’s firing of Juan Williams has brought some angry calls by politicians urging the elimination of federal government support. What these critics fail to understand is that American public broadcasting is primarily a collection of locally controlled and financed institutions, with relatively weak national organizations. This is both a strength and weakness. It is nearly impossible to destroy public radio because of its de-centralized nature. But the challenges in cobbling together funding from many local sources within a membership organization context─unlike the BBC’s license fee─means it will never have the domestic or international influence that the BBC enjoys.

Since there is no chance of a national license fee, the decentralized approach is not our only alternative─it may indeed be the best way to serve a country as diverse as ours.

Bob.jpgThe preceding is a guest post by Bob Ottenhoff,  Chief Executive of the Center for Disaster Philanthropy. With an entrepreneurial spirit, strong technology focus, and a quest to make an impact in the world, Bob has the ability to take an organization and lead it into strong performance, sustainability, and industry leadership.

Topics: Economy Policy