Now Playing:



A Child Of The 'Great Society,' Public Broadcasting Act Turns 40

The roots of Oregon Public Broadcasting go all the way back to 1922: a college radio station at OSU. Forty years ago this week Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act. It was a pivotal moment for what was then a hodge-podge of community and university-based stations.

On this anniversary, we look back at how the law came into being. And where government-supported broadcasting is going. Elizabeth Wynne Johnson reports from Capitol Hill.

In the 1960s, President Lyndon Johnson’s vision for a ‘Great Society’ ushered in what came to be known as Public Broadcasting.

Lyndon Johnson: "It will get part of its support from our government. But it will be carefully guarded from government or from party control. It will be free and it will be independent. And it will belong to all of our people."

Shortly after passage of the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, Johnson was out. Richard Nixon, never a fan of the concept to begin with, immediately slashed funding for public media.

Nixon did, however, give public television one of its early opportunities to set itself apart from commercial networks.

Watergate Hearing Coverage: "The first phase will deal with the Watergate caper itself, and the activities of the CTRP [pounding] and now the opening gavel I believe…"

Only public TV rebroadcast the Watergate hearings in full every night in prime time. So millions of Americans could watch. Public TV audience ratings surged. So did financial contributions from viewers.

Music Theme from “Masterpiece Theatre.”

In the 1990s, Newt Gingrich led a strident but ultimately failed attempt to eliminate federal support for public broadcasting altogether.

These days it’s hard to find anyone in Congress who’ll even question it. Rick Boucher is a Democrat from Virginia.

Rick Boucher: "The debates of the past in my view are largely behind us."

Michigan’s Fred Upton is the ranking Republican on the subcommittee that overseas public broadcasting.

Fred Upton: "The support is solid among both Republicans and Democrats in both the House and the Senate."

Ironically, the only skeptical voice I could find — at least these days, with an election looming — came from the guy who was employee number one at National Public Radio. Jack Mitchell is now a professor at the University of Wisconsin.

Jack Mitchell: "The case for a federal subsidy is not that strong. Frankly, public broadcasting has found another way to be paid for."

These days there are more corporate underwriting messages – and that $200-million donation to NPR from Joan Kroc, of McDonald’s fast food fortune. But Democratic Representative Earl Blumenauer of Oregon says even though federal support is minimal, it’s critical.

Earl Blumenauer: "Because there will always be public broadcasting in the major metro areas around the country. They will be supported one way or another. But the federal investment goes to extend the svc to the rural, small-town America, people who arguably need it the most, get that support."

Not everyone can afford a monthly cable bill, he says. Much less tickets to the symphony, ballet and opera. But for a price that represents a miniscule percentage of the federal budget.

Earl Blumenauer: "They have the best in the world brought to them for nothing."

Public broadcasting is rooted in the notion that independence begets quality. And both radio and television have had their purity and integrity challenged.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting archivist Ted Coltman says the so-called ‘decency wars’ under today’s more conservative oversight board have had a chilling effect.

Ted Coltman: "The fact that the Pacifica stations declined to broadcast a recording of Alan Ginsberg’s ‘howl’ on its 50th anniversary is indicative of that."

Public broadcasting will always have a critical audience on Capitol Hill. One with strong opinions about what does and doesn’t make it onto the airwaves. And whether taxpayers should foot the bill.

More News

More OPB