Why Public Broadcasting Matters

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People often ask me how I got involved in public broadcasting. "It was an accident," I tell them. "A glorious accident."

I didn't really spend a lot of time watching television or listening to the radio 30 years ago. I was busy working on theater productions and learning how to sing. So, you can imagine how surprised I was when the head of the public television station in Oklahoma offered me a job!

It sounded like an interesting opportunity, so I started working part time in on-air fundraising. I spent a lot of time standing in front of a cardboard cutout of Big Bird talking about the importance of supporting Sesame Street. I was also on during the daily broadcasts of The MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour.

Over time, I was introduced to the great pioneers in public broadcasting like Louis Rukeyser – the first person to host a program about Wall Street. There was America’s most trusted name in home improvement -- Bob Vila -- and This Old House.  And, Masterpiece Theater brought us great classics like I, Claudius.

And, there was classical music, too. Big time. Do you remember the annual Gala of Stars? Yes, in those days it was classical music that brought the PBS spring fundraising drive to a close with an impressive list of artists gathered in support of the cause (see video below). 

We loved these programs and they were naturals in helping us make the case for what was then the "fourth network" -- PBS. 

The folks I worked with at the local public television station back in those days were my kinds of folks – interesting, fun, curious about the world around them and appreciative of the value of a good education. So, when I moved to New York in 1985, it’s no wonder that I found myself - once again – working in public broadcasting. Only this time, I was working with the people who actually created the programming. At the flagship station. Channel 13. And, boy, was that interesting!

Public broadcasting legends Robert MacNeil and Bill Moyers both worked with us in the building at the time. And, for several years, I worked side by side with Jac Venza -- the creator and Executive Producer of Great Performances, the award winning series of music, dance and drama programs. I was with Jac at Tanglewood for Leonard Bernstein’s 70th birthday celebration. Incredible. I will never forget seeing Mstislav Rostropovich rehearse. And, Christa Ludwig – what a riot! She sang music from Candide with an audio technician desperately trying to keep her mic in place. Needless to say, she did a fabulous job of working the guy into the act!

Back at the station - somewhere along the way - I also found myself in an office right next door to Charlie Rose who was busy getting his talk show up and running. He came in every day, put his briefcase on his empty desk, and started making telephone calls. ‘This is Charlie Rose. Would you like to come on my show tonight?’ he would ask. Amazing. He eventually got a staff, but he was making those calls in the beginning.

When I became a classical music radio announcer on WQXR in 1993, it was a pretty easy transition for me. First and foremost, it was all about music. What could be better? In addition, the station seemed a lot like a public broadcasting station even though it was actually a commercial operation owned by the New York Times. In fact, it was a commercial station for over seventy years. Then, a year and a half ago, WQXR was sold by the Times to the public radio station WNYC, and WQXR officially became a member of the public broadcasting system. 

Every one of the people I have ever worked with in public broadcasting – both on-air and off - knows what it means to commit his or her product to a powerful mission of using high quality educational and cultural programming to address the needs of the underserved. Without this important alternative, the airwaves would be filled with nothing but stuff that sells commercials. I can understand the appeal of the Super Bowl and programs like Dancing with the Stars and The Bachelor. But what if these kinds of programs were the only choices we had?

WQXR and public broadcasting are a natural fit because even though WQXR was a commercial station for many years, it has always been mission driven. Talk about serving the underserved! Last time I checked, we are the only New York radio station playing classical music 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you watched the most recent Grammy Awards ceremony, you know that there is a reason why classical music earns no airtime on the show. And don’t try to tell me that it’s because Lady Gaga is more talented than Renee Fleming! I think not.

Those of us who love and value classical music are in the minority. It’s a fact. We’ll always be fighting an uphill battle when it comes to protecting our interests. But the remarkable thing about public broadcasting is that even though we struggle to maintain our existence, when it comes to programming that is truly worthy of your time and attention, we’re still by far and away the best thing available on the airwaves today. 

It was a glorious accident that brought me to public broadcasting. And there is absolutely no arguing the fact that public broadcasting has made me a more interesting and, yes, a better person. In so many ways. 

If you believe in public broadcasting, too, I’d love to know why. And, thanks.

Below: Placido Domingo performs during a PBS Fundraiser in 1981: