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Do community advisory boards protect public radio stations?

Free Press has a provocative new report on the state of public media and how to more adequately fund it. Many of the reform group’s proposals involve siphoning income from commercial station advertising revenue or Federal Communications Commission spectrum auctions. I’ve got an overview of the document up on Ars Technica, which has generated quite a few comments. They largely focus on the question of whether the government should get more involved in media—always a subject for heated debate.

I’m not inclined to hash that out here, but do wonder about one of the report’s smaller recommendations. A section of the piece titled “Restoring Public Media’s Heat Shield” focuses on the very legitimate concern that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting fails to protect public media from external political pressure.

“The current appointment process for leadership at the CPB is overly politicized. Presidential appointments govern the entire process — into which neither the public nor the core constituency of public media producers have any input. It also often leads to appointments as rewards for political support, rather than simple calls to service for qualified people, including those who have broadcasting or media experience.”

Part of the Free Press cure for this problem is restructuring the CPB—curtailing the President’s power to just make appointments out of his (and hopefully someday her) hat. Here’s another section, concerning governance at community or school/college public radio stations:

“These stations often lack a community advisory board. Of course, even at the community-licensed stations where these boards are required by law, they can be largely symbolic and have little power to weigh in on programming or station decision-making. Though community advisory boards should serve as a mechanism to increase community oversight and public participation in public broadcasting, this is unfortunately not always the case. The legal framework that established the boards is vague and lacks specific definitions for the precise role and responsibility for them. This means that while some boards are very active, others meet rarely. The successful examples could serve as a model for stations to be more engaged in their communities.”

My concern with this complaint is that it assumes that there is an almost Rousseauean entity out there called “the public” or “the community” that, when consulted, will always serve up selfless suggestions about how to make a community or public radio station better.

Admittedly, my experiences around this issue stem from my involvement with the Pacifica radio stations, but I don’t think I’m alone in my skepticism. Lots of people who attend public media board meetings go there for self-interested reasons. They want some portion of the stations resources. They want a show on the station. Or they want access to the station’s air time. Or they’re a programmer who has some dispute with station management. Or they’re friends or allies with that programmer. Or they’re partisans in some local political dispute, and want to pressure the station to change its coverage of that issue.

I agree with Kathy Merritt that

“At their best, community advisory boards can play an invaluable role for stations by acting as a conduit for information, bringing it from corners of the community staff members don’t normally access and taking it back to a network of friends, colleagues and co-workers who might not hear about public radio otherwise. By providing input on programming, CABs can enhance stations’ efforts to connect with listeners.”

But pumping up the programming-related authority of CABs also comes with risks. These sort of boards can pressure stations to disconnect from their listeners by capitulating to small factions who have little interest in anything besides their own narrow agenda.

Free Press’s recommendation assumes that unhealthy “heat” can only come from top down. But it can also come from the bottom up. Let’s keep that in mind as we ponder giving community boards the “power to weigh in on programming or station decision-making.” How much power and weigh-in are we talking about here?

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