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Public Broadcasting

A network of independent, noncommercial television and radio stations that operate with public and government funding instead of with revenues from advertising

Public Broadcasting

Television is one of the main methods of gaining information and entertainment. Whether people have watched the local news or Sesame Street, there’s a good chance everyone’s watched something on public broadcasting.

Public broadcasting may seem new, but its history goes back as far as 1862. So, what is the history behind public broadcasting, and what are its associated trends? These questions and more will be answered in this article.

History of Public Broadcasting

Public broadcasting may seem like a new thing, but its history goes back over 150 years ago. In 1862, Congress passed the Morrill Act, endowing state universities with land grants to create what some consider the precedent for public broadcasting and its public funding.

Half a decade later, some universities started experimenting with broadcasting. For example, Iowa State College’s station 9YI (or WOI) experimented with broadcasting in Morse code in 1912. Five years later, the University of Wisconsin began experimenting with voice broadcasting with the radio station 9XM under an experimental license.

Then, on November 12, 1925, a forerunner of NPR and PBS formed– the Association of College and University Broadcasting Stations (ACUBS). It changed its name to the National Association of Educational Broadcasters nine years later.

Pretty soon, stations all over the US began airing educational programs on public broadcasting, whether on television or the radio. Then, on November 3, 1969, the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) was incorporated, with its most famous program Sesame Street airing a week later.

While public broadcasting is still around, funding has been a considerable problem. For example, on May 1, 1969, Fred Rogers of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood successfully appealed to Senator John Pastore for CPB’s first appropriation. Senator Pastore said, “Looks like you just earned $20 million.”

Funding was still an issue almost three decades later. On November 13, 1994, after winning a majority in the House, Newt Gingrich, the new Speaker, claimed he wanted to privatize cultural institutions like CPB (Corporation for Public Broadcasting). He said he would zero out CPB’s funding almost a month later.

On May 15, 1995, the House and Senate agreed to reduce CPB’s funding to $275 million and $260 million for 1996 and 1997, respectively. CPB’s funding was set at $250 million for 1998 on August 3, 1995.

Trends and Statistics of Public Broadcasting

Since public broadcasting is, well…public, it’s no surprise to see it have a sizable audience yearly. For example, the top 20 NPR-affiliated public radio stations had a yearly average of around nine million in 2020. The peak listening audience was around 11 million in 2017.

As of 2020, 927 radio stations are broadcasting from Public Radio Exchange (PRX). That’s almost 100 more stations than in 2016 (836). The NPR News app has the most listeners at almost 27 million on iPhones.

In 2020, the NewsHour program airing on PBS gained an average audience of 1.2 million, an 18% increase from the previous year. That same year, foundations made up 58% of funding for PBS. Corporations made up 18% of funding, while individuals made up 24%.

Public funding has been essential– not just for education but for entertainment. Since it’s public, it’s no wonder many people rely on public broadcasting for televisions and radios.




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