Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Brief History of American Public Broadcasting

As the 2018 federal budget takes shape, funding for public broadcasting is one of many issues generating debate. In my last post, I presented different perspectives on whether the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) should continue to receive funding. In this post, let’s look at the history of radio and television broadcasting to understand how and why the federal government has gotten involved in these media.

The potential for broadcast media like radio and television to educate and inform citizens was recognized quite quickly after their invention. As soon as physics instructors heard about radio through scholarly communication networks, they began using it to teach students about the physical properties of waves, and many of the first licensed radio stations belonged to universities. The public interest in radio was galvanized when KDKA Pittsburgh, a commercial station, broadcast live results of the 1920 presidential election. During the Great Depression, President Franklin Roosevelt used his “fireside chats” to reach a national radio audience and foster a sense of unity and hope, while commercial networks expanded their broadcasts to encompass news, entertainment and public interest broadcasting. Educational, religious, cultural, agricultural, and labor interests also saw radio broadcasting as a way to further their missions and clamored for more bandwidth (Gibson 1977).

The laboratory research required to develop television was conducted by commercial broadcasters and the manufacturers of radio receivers, rather than universities. Nevertheless, educational institutions were many of the first to receive TV broadcast licenses, and commissions exploring the future of television in the 1940s and 1950s regularly discussed its potential for serving the public interest. Proposals for a national education television network appeared as early as 1952, and education laws passed by the Johnson administration in the 1960s laid down the legal justification for why government support of educational broadcasting would serve the public interest.

This activity culminated in the 1967 report Public Television: A Program for Action by the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television. The commission argued that commercial conglomerates were unable to meet the full needs of the American people; what was needed was a decentralized network of noncommercial, local stations creating content for their communities. Stations would receive steady federal funding free of government interference, thanks to a chartered agency that would disburse funds and support the broadcasters. It would be the creation of “a new and fundamental institution in American culture,” public television (Gibson 1977).

President Johnson asked Congress to take up this vision, and after extensive hearings and debate in both houses, the result was the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This law established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) as the corporate entity which would disburse funds and manage relationships between local broadcasters. During the next two years, the nation’s public broadcast system took shape as broadcasters, programming organizations and donor foundations raised money, built partnerships and decided who would do what. National Public Radio (NPR) and the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) were created to help develop programming and coordinate decision making among stations (Gibson 1977). PBS programs debuted in 1969 to solid ratings, with 1.46 million households tuning in to the premiere of Sesame Street (Day 1995, 160).

Government involvement in the early development of broadcast media served the purposes of regulating scarce bandwidth and encouraging technical innovation. The first radio-related laws outfitted all US Navy ships with transmitters for safety, and required broadcasters to register with the Secretary of Commerce to avoid interfering with ship-to-shore channels. As the AM radio bandwidth filled during the 1920s, broadcasters were supposed to share stations by agreeing to transmit at different times of day and using limited power, but initially no one had authority to enforce cooperation between stations. When the Commerce Department tried to sue the Zenith Radio Corporation for hijacking a Canadian channel to gain extra broadcast time, a federal court dismissed the case. Beginning the very next day, stations “engaged in an orgy of broadcasting with unlimited time, unlimited power, unlimited channel shifts, and unlimited interference” (Gibson 1977, 7). Sales of radio receivers plummeted and listeners demanded that Congress enact regulation, setting in motion a chain of events that would lead to the creation of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in 1934. A remarkably similar situation occurred after the FCC authorized VHF television broadcasting in the 1947, as new television stations proliferated, causing widespread interference and compelling the agency to regulate channel assignments more carefully (Gibson 1977, 70).

Like any technology, radio and television underwent long periods of technical innovation to arrive at a point where they could reliably sustain a mass audience. When the Italian inventor Guglielmo Marconi invented radio in 1895, he could only transmit in code. University and World War I military researchers added the ability to transmit voice and music using amplitude modulation (AM), and it was voice transmission that transformed radio from a scientific curiosity into a tool for civic engagement. The AM bandwidth rapidly filled, and regulatory agencies struggled to balance the needs of commercial and public broadcasters; however, FCC endorsement of frequency modulation (FM) radio in 1940 opened a new spectrum for public broadcasters, and they lobbied for stations to be set aside for educational purposes.  In the 1950s and 1960s, the FCC was similarly active in promoting the use of UHF television frequencies by mandating that receivers be able to tune both types of channels and reserving bandwidth for educational broadcasters (Gibson 1977).

Studying the history of radio and television shows us that the federal government has played important roles in managing scarce resources of bandwidth and funding, and encouraging technical innovation that enabled these media to reach a broader audience and fulfill their potential. In the 1960s, this led to the creation of public broadcasting as a new American institution. What challenges has public television faced since then, and will the new budget proposal bring an end to public broadcasting as we know it? We’ll turn to these questions in the next post.

Sanjeet Mann
Arts & Systems Librarian, Armacost Library


Day, James. The Vanishing Vision: The inside Story of Public Television. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Gibson, George H. Public Broadcasting: The Role of the Federal Government, 1912-76. New York: Praeger, 1977.

Sunday, March 05, 2017

Migrating to a New Integrated Library System (ILS): Update #1

Image credit:

The Armacost Library faculty and staff are deep in preparations for migrating to a new integrated library system (ILS), a complex system that facilitates many library functions from acquiring materials (ordering, receiving) to making them discoverable (cataloging, indexing) to tracking use of resources (borrowing). Preparations began in January and will continue through July, when we go "live" on the new system.

This is the first in a series of updates intended to inform students, faculty, staff and administrators on our process, progress, and about changes that will affect our community members.

Image credit: Sanjeet Mann

Library faculty and staff are meeting weekly as members of multiple implementation teams: Fulfillment & User Services (FUSE), Acquisitions & Resource Management (ARM), and Primo (the public-facing discovery layer). Additionally, a core team meets weekly via conference call with the ILS vendor's project management team. Sanjeet Mann, our project manager for the migration, and Emily Croft are at the center of all of this work, mapping our current system functions and data to the new ILS.

Image credit: Emily Croft
All of this planning and preparation includes:
  • Technical: translating, mapping, and managing system functions and data 
  • Conceptual: translating and understanding system functions and work processes
  • Philosophical: reconsidering policies, descriptions of data, and the way we interact with the systems as researchers and library users
  • Training: translating and learning a new language for our daily work
Snapshot of FUSE implementation team homework. Credit: Paige Mann
Needless to say, we are feeling a bit stretched thin and even fatigued with multiple weekly meetings and accompanying study, homework, and decision-making. Not unlike our students. It feels like midterms every week. 

Wednesday, March 01, 2017

Public Broadcasting and the 2018 Budget

Public broadcasting is back in the national spotlight now that the New York Times and Congressional news outlet The Hill have published reports stating the Trump administration's upcoming budget proposal may include the elimination of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), the nonprofit corporation entrusted with distributing federal funding to nearly 1,500 publicly owned television and radio stations.

Critics of the current funding model point out that public broadcasters already receive most funding from private donations. When the Heritage Foundation included privatization of the Corporation in a list of 116 recommended reductions to federal discretionary spending, authors noted that National Public Radio (NPR) only receives 5% of its funding from government at any level. They stated that public broadcasters could easily make up lost federal revenue through increased donations from corporations, foundations and citizens. "Many nonprofits manage to stay in business without receiving federal funding by being creative and responding to market fluctuations," remarked the authors. "Public broadcasters should be no exception." (Heritage Foundation 2017, 86)

Supporters of the current funding system counter that while public TV and radio stations may receive a small percentage of their funding from the federal government, the amount is large enough to make a difference, particularly for stations in rural areas. The combination of private donations and public funding allows CPB to partner with local stations to efficiently create content that would not otherwise be produced. At the current federal spending level of $445 million per year, public broadcasting costs American taxpayers the equivalent of $1.35 per person per year. (Corporation for Public Broadcasting 2014) Supporters also maintain that CPB's contribution to the public broadcasting system goes beyond economic efficiency.  A recent editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch emphasized that the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) "provides thoughtful and enriched programming for free to poor and isolated people, and children in particular," and argued that defunding the Corporation "would be a symbolic and mean-spirited mistake." (St. Louis Post-Dispatch 2017)

A recent phone survey commissioned by PBS and carried out by Republican and Democratic research firms found that 73% of respondents opposed eliminating federal funding for public television. Among respondents who voted for Donald Trump, 70% opposed eliminating public television and 60% had a positive impression of the media institution, a greater number than trusted cable TV networks or newspapers. (Bentley and Byrne 2017) This finding is consistent with prior polling on the importance of public broadcasting. (Bettelheim 1999)

How did we get this system of public broadcasting? And does a proposal to cut federal funding in next year's budget mean that CPB is doomed? I'll explore those questions in the next parts of this blog post.

Sanjeet Mann
Arts & Systems Librarian, Armacost Library


Bentley, Anne, and Jennifer Byrne. 2017. “New National Survey Shows 73% of Voters – Including Most Republicans – Oppose Eliminating Federal Funding for Public Television.” February 16.

Bettelheim, Adriel. 1999. “Public Broadcasting: Should the Subsidies Continue?” CQ Researcher 9 (41): 931–50.

Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 2014. “About CPB.” September 22.

Hoser Dude. 2016. "Cookie!" Flickr. 

Heritage Foundation. 2017. “A Blueprint for Balance: A Federal Budget for 2017.” Accessed March 1.