At a Time of Crisis, Torey Malatia Reports to His Audience | Bleader

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

At a Time of Crisis, Torey Malatia Reports to His Audience

Posted By on 02.22.11 at 08:30 AM

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Three-quarters of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting budget — $430 million at the moment, or $430 million more than most House Republicans would like it to be — underwrites public television. The balance underwrites public radio. A case can be made that as wonderful as the programming on WTTW happens to be, there are equal wonders on cable channels. Not the same wonders, certainly — you won't find Sesame Street or Chicago Tonight on HBO — but commensurate wonders.

There is no case to be made that if WBEZ shuts down you'll find anything close to its programming on some other radio station.

CPB is under siege. So I was pleased the other day to get email from WBEZ's general manager, Torey Malatia, that found him standing up for CPB and for the business he's in. Understand, he said, in his message to the WBEZ membership, there is no federal bogeyman here: the CPB money supports about 900 local radio stations around the country, not national outfits like National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting Service whose "perceived failings" give conservatives the willies. "This is a crucial distinction," wrote Malatia. And he noted, "Hundreds of public service radio and television stations in small- and medium-sized cities, mainly serving rural and racially diverse American communities, depend on this annual funding for 20%-30% of their budgets every year."

I wrote Malatia back. He had said that the prospect of "wholesale defunding of CPB" found the staff of WBEZ "conflicted," and my first question was to ask him what he meant by that. "Too conflicted by your skin in the game to cover the story disinterestedly," I wondered, "or to be a reliable witness for your own interests in your news coverage?"

Malatia said the language was simply a "disclaimer." "We receive money from the legislation that is being debated." Therefore, "I cannot be considered an objective reporter. I point this out in an attempt to be straightforward with the reader." Moreover, WBEZ is a player in the debate. "We have been working with public radio and television stations through professional associations like the Station Resource Group and the Association of Public Television Stations in state by state efforts to inform congressional leaders of CPB's significance for some months now. These efforts will continue."

Washington could cover the cost of the CPB budget by ending the war in Afghanistan two days ahead of schedule. I can say that but it's not the sort of snarky remark you're likely to hear on WBEZ, certainly not during a news show. I asked about the line the station would draw between its news programming and institutional interests, and Malatia answered, "It is inappropriate for a public service institution committed to independent, fair journalistic practices to use its public service platforms to urge specific legislative action, even if — especially if — that action results in institutional financial benefit. Journalists either report content to the public in a way that rejects politicking or not. You either stick to principles or you really don't have any."

And because I'd mentioned how "highly persuasive" his station could be arguing for funding during a pledge drive, and wondered if he'd turn that gift against Congress, Malatia told me he hoped I understood "that it's a different thing to appeal to a member of the public to make a personal decision of support....That is an individual philanthropic request: it is not a directive to listeners to use the democratic process to shape Federal policy."

Yet by writing to brief the membership, he was inviting us to get involved. And there is nothing wrong with that.

More questions and answers:

What is your annual appropriation from CPB? What percentage of your budget is it? If it were cut off, what position would you be in? Could you continue? Are there contingency plans?

We are projected to receive $1.2 million in operating grants against a $20 million dollar budget this fiscal year along with some additional funds from CPB targeted to specific projects. I’ve itemized those on line. So, it’s about 6 or 7 % of the annual budget this year. If we had to replace these funds, we would just work tirelessly to get it done—we would seek other sources of funds or trim expenses or both. It would be difficult, but we would find a way. We are currently meeting to plan two scenarios to present to our board—one with the grant halved and one with it gone. Of course, our preference is to see this appropriation supported by Congress because it serves the needs of American communities.

Would you make the argument that PBS pays for television that is redundant with what cable offers, but that there is no alternative to the kind of radio that CPB underwrites?

It’s always easy to look at this kind of thing from afar and diagnose the many wrong turns that we in public broadcasting have made along the way. One could similarly say that Public radio is late to the Internet—that we still don’t have the vitality on interactive media that we had in broadcast media. The point is this—these stations—television and radio—continue to serve communities everywhere. Their history in a community makes them familiar and trusted. Public broadcasting’s democratic distribution method serves across all economic classes. That is, TV’s are cheap; radios are cheaper. Cable isn’t everywhere—it costs a lot if you do get it. Broadband is not universal and it’s costly.

If the American people truly decide that this service has lost its relevance to public life—that public television’s day is over, that public radio has one last sunset before the credits roll, then the appropriation should be discontinued. But is this a choice being made by the American people? Is it even the choice being made by lawmakers? Or is the rhetoric clouding the very nature of the decision? Has the defunding debate been so fogged with ideologies and partisan politics that we’ve forgotten what the question was?

My letter was a way of just asking the people we serve to at least consider the issue and be sure that their opinions—whether they are for or against defunding—are accurately reflected by their elected officials.

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