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Public Broadcasting in the U.S. Posted by on Oct 4, 2018 in Culture

Broadcasting in the United States is widespread and highly competitive. There are an estimated 1700+ television stations and over 15,000 radio stations! There are networks for almost any interest, from California wine to CrossFit. Most of these are commercially owned and operated, meaning that they exist to make a profit. There are also, however, many public broadcasting stations.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay, CCO

Public broadcasting is common throughout the world. Essentially, this type of broadcasting is intended to present programming that is beneficial to most citizens. Much of it should be informative and educational, and it should be accessible to all. It should also provide the type of programming which commercial broadcasting companies do not provide. Public broadcasting in many countries may also reflect the views of the government currently in power. With little debate, this is not the case with public broadcasting in the US.

In many countries, governments collect mandated fees, or taxes, on every television and radio receiver. In the U.S. a portion of every citizen’s federal taxes help pay for public media. The rest of the funding for each individual public station comes from individual and corporate tax-deductible contributions.


There are two essential, but separate, public broadcasting entities. PBS is the television branch, and NPR handles radio. National Public Radio is a multimedia news organization and radio program producer. It is also the primary force for drawing membership to the local member stations.

NPR member stations are independent and locally owned broadcast stations. About two-thirds are licensed or affiliated with local colleges or universities. The remaining third are governed by locally run boards. Some stations are operated jointly with public TV stations. In order to be affiliated with NPR, local stations must be on-air a minimum of 18 hours each day and follow the NPR stated mission guidelines. Most will broadcast NPR-produced content, but they also create their own community-based productions. Some stations even create content which is syndicated by the national network.

One of NPR’s biggest supporters was philanthropist Joan Kroc, the wife of McDonald’s founder Ray Kroc. She loved public radio and public television, and their mission to bring unbiased reporting and information to local and national audiences. She planned to bequest a large fortune ($100 million) to each, but PBS never returned her calls, so NPR received all of the money!


Like NPR, PBS is largely funded through member station dues, corporate and private contributions, and some federal investment. There are about 350 PBS stations, most of which are operated by private and state colleges and universities. Because television programming is much more expensive to produce than radio, PBS programming is heavily dependent on tax-deductible sponsorship and private grants. These are called corporate underwriters.

PBS is largely a program distributor, providing content which it not only produces but also purchases, to its member stations. Most of this programming is broadcast in what is known as prime time, from 8 to 10 pm each night. PBS member stations pay fees for these shows, prompting the need for member pledge drives when stations set aside time to raise quarterly and annual funds. These breaks in regular scheduling are vital for programming survival. In areas with more than one PBS station, these fund drives can be quite competitive. The same can be true for NPR fundraisers.

Each PBS station is charged with the separate responsibility of programming content for local interest. This content is scrutinized for fairness and relevance to the community served by the station. What is this supervisory administration?

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting

The United States has the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private, nonprofit organization which oversees the federal government’s investment in public broadcasting. It does not produce programming and does not own, operate, or control any public broadcasting stations. It is, in fact, legally prohibited from doing so. Its primary function is to fairly distribute funding to more than 1500 locally-owned public stations. 95% of the CPB’s funding must go to public media stations, their content development, and community services and needs.

The CPB’s federal funding is astonishingly small compared with most of the rest of the world. Only 0.01% of the U.S. federal budget is allocated to public broadcasting. That’s about $445 million. Compare this with the £3.75 billion the British government is mandated to spend on the BBC. While budgetarily small, many lawmakers regularly try to eliminate the CPB, arguing that federal funding should never be spent on something that some Americans disagree with. Science shows which accept evolution, for example, are opposed by Christian fundamentalists.

For now, though, public broadcasting in the United States remains a mostly beloved institution.


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