A Close Call: Pbs President Breathes A Sigh Of Relief

Public Broadcasting Breathes A Sigh Of Relief

Marisa Demarco
6 min read
A Close Call
PBS President Paula Kerger
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PBS President Paula Kerger doesn’t look battle-worn.

But the last few months can’t have been easy. Earlier this year, Republicans in Congress waged a campaign to ax all federal funding slated for public broadcasting. Conservative pundits argued that media services such as PBS and NPR maintain a liberal bias and aren’t deserving of tax dollars given the budget pinch. According to site launched in defense of public media, 170 million Americans use this programming every month, and it costs less than $1.35 per person.

After the smoke cleared, the federal money was largely left in tact.

Kerger was in Albuquerque at the end of April to talk about more than being caught in the national budget skirmish.
KNME, the local PBS member station, is developing a pilot project to bring video into Albuquerque classrooms via broadband. Participating schools will have access to a library of content correlated to scholastic standards and subjects.

Kerger’s also been focused on adding arts programming to public broadcasting. "This is a part of the country, obviously, with a very rich history in both performing and visual arts," she says. There’s an arts void in commercial TV, she says. There’s "American Idol," "Glee" and "Dancing With the Stars" but not much else around the dial—no jazz or bluegrass, no theater or visual arts.

Because of the economy, arts organizations have had to struggle to showcase their work, she says. "I think we can play a role in that."

Alibi sat down with Kerger during her brief time in Albuquerque to talk about the future of public media and this year’s battle to save it.

In April, you learned that PBS’ funding had been spared. What was your reaction? Were you surprised?

That’s a good question. I would say I was pleased, and I was happily surprised. I think that for a period of months I had very real concern that we would lose a significant amount of our federal funding, and that funding goes directly to our stations. KNME gets about 10 percent of its budget from the federal government. There are stations that get up to 50 percent of their funding. If we had sustained a significant cut in federal funding, those stations would have gone under. There’s no question about it.

Why do you think it worked out?

Hundreds of thousands—actually I think close to half a million—people either emailed or called their Congressional offices on this issue, and that made the difference.

This wasn’t the first time that public broadcasting funds have been threatened. Was it different this time around?

Yeah, it was. I think this time I actually thought we were going to lose our funding. And it’s not that we haven’t taken the threats in the past seriously. But this time, I think, there was a real focus, and it seemed to be coming from lots of different places. So, we’re really relieved right now that we were able to hold onto our funding, but we’re not relaxing.

It’s going to be important for us to continue to tell our story and be really clear on the value that the American public finds in public broadcasting. Otherwise I think we’ll be in the same boat a year from now if we’re not careful.

There was a lot of debate about objectivity. What did you think of that rhetoric?

You know, it’s funny. I managed a station before I came into this job, and we got a lot of calls and emails from people in the community … . Because we’re public media, we’re always interested in that kind of feedback. Sometimes, around the news shows, I would wonder if people were watching the same broadcast, because I’d hear from people on both sides: You’re too liberal, you’re too conservative. I thought if we irritated everyone, we’d probably done our job pretty well.

We take a lot of care thinking about representing a spectrum of voices. We have journalistic standards we review on a regular basis. And we have an ombudsman … . He is the true place where people in the community can reach out if they have issues about either what they see as bias or might be perceived as bias. Having that kind of objective oversight is important.

How do you think news on PBS compares with corporate news stations?

We understand the difference between news and point of view. I see a huge blurring of that in commercial news. And I think part of that is driven by ratings. When the news divisions started to be accountable for the bottom line, it just took news in a very different direction. That’s why, even on network news, you see obsession over news stories—well, you decide whether they’re news stories—about Lindsay Lohan’s latest arrest.

With the complexities of the world, of issues that are local, national and international, people want to understand what’s going on, they want to be able to put things in context and understand the significance.

When did the debate over the public airwaves become partisan? Has this historically been the case, or is this a recent development?

Right now we just live in partisan times. The reality is that in public broadcasting we have, over the years, had support from both sides of the aisle. I think that’s part of what I’ve talked about with the blending of news and point of view we’re seeing in journalism on the commercial side. People who view themselves as being more conservative tell you that they watch FOX. People who view themselves as being more progressive tell you that they watch MSNBC. It’s unfortunate.

People are looking for news sources where they see their own perspectives reflected back to them. As a country, if we’re going to come together and have the right kinds of conversations around the important issues, you’ve got to be able to bring people together and discuss those. It shouldn’t be through the prism of right and left, or progressive and conservative.

What do you see in the future for public broadcasting?

There is no question that the new media platforms will continue to be an important piece of the way that people get information. I also think that our commitment to doing the kinds of content that commercial media is not taking up will continue.
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