In defense of public broadcasting

by Pearson Cross

The $1.35 cents that each American pays in taxes per year to support the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is negligible when compared with the alternative: the arid and insipid wasteland of commercial programming.

Perhaps I’m cynical, but I was not particularly surprised when I heard that President Trump’s inaugural budget plan called for cutting all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). The CPB is one of those institutions that conservatives love to hate, believing it to be an unjustified burden on taxpayers, a socialist propaganda tool, an intrusion of government into the private market, or all the above. While I wasn’t surprised by this most recent threat to the CPB, this time was different. Why? Because I host Bayou to Beltway, a politics and news talk show, on KRVS 88.7 FM, a station partly funded by the CPB. So now it’s personal: Trump wants to defund my show and the station that hosts it. Or that’s the way it feels anyway.

Of course, I don’t get paid for my work at KRVS. My weekly show, which features state and local politicians and issue experts, is a labor of love. Each week I talk to someone who has something meaningful to say about life in Acadiana. Sometimes the show covers local political issues, like the campaign to remove the statue of Alfred Mouton Downtown, the pros and cons of the school tax initiative, the dark and untold history of civil rights in Lafayette, and the Lafayette Parish funding crisis. Other times, Bayou to Beltway talks with a politician at the state level. Recent guests have included Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, then-Congressman Charles Boustany, Congressman Clay Higgins and Supreme Court Justice Jimmy Genovese. Or the show may feature local politicians such as Lafayette Mayor Joel Robideaux, Assessor Conrad Comeaux and Lafayette Parish Clerk of Court Louis Perret.

Unabashedly political, although non-partisan, Bayou to Beltway is an outlier compared with most of the other locally produced programs on KRVS. These tend to feature music and culture, reflecting the vast ethnic, cultural and demographic variety that makes Acadiana special. For example, “The Blues Box,” with host Raul Breaux, plays a spectrum of blues and roots music. “Freetown Radio,” with Roger Kash, focuses on an eclectic mix of old and modern sounds, often organized by a theme selected by the host. A number of KRVS shows reflect the French heritage of Acadiana, including “Bonjour Louisiana,” with Pete Bergeron, Megan Brown’s “Encore,” which explores music from the Cajun and Creole archives at UL Lafayette, “Dimanche Matin,” hosted by French-speaking Gurvais Matte who plays traditional and contemporary French music, and “Bal de Dimanche Apres Midi,” an all-French show hosted by Nonc Jules Guidry. For those preferring a more contemporary French listening experience there is “Francomix,” hosted by Drake Leblanc, which focuses on the Francophone pop and dance scene.

Other KRVS shows of local interest are “Lost in Love” with host Renella Rose Champagne (aka Stephanie Patton), “Louisiana Eats” with Poppy Tooker, “Out to Lunch” with economist Peter Ricchiuti, “Music of Yesteryears” with Bob Guchereau, “The Medicine Ball Caravan,” hosted by Cecil Doyle, an eclectic mix of in-studio performances, interviews and music, and “Zydeco Stomp” with Herman Fuselier. Some on-air personalities, like Lee Kleinpeter and Cecil Doyle, host several different shows. A program that area residents have come to rely on is “Après Midi,” hosted by Judith Meriwether, which interviews local performers, showcases upcoming events and opportunities, and keeps the Acadiana community informed. (A complete list of KRVS programs may be accessed at

So what is objectionable about these varied and unique programs? Why are they being targeted by President Trump’s budget? According to conservative columnist George Will, the CPB, which provides partial funding to 575 TV and radio stations across America, illustrates the “immortality of entitlements,” especially “how impervious government programs are to evidence incompatible with their premises” (Will, Washington Post, June 2, 2017). He argues that terminating the CPB, along with public funding for KRVS and stations like it, would “reduce viewers’ approximately 500 choices to approximately 499.”

In other words, what might have been necessary and reasonable in an era with only three major networks is today unnecessary. Will believes that the government shouldn’t pick winners and losers: if the public wants something they will pay for it. In this view, the campaign to “Save Big Bird” is unnecessary because a commercial entity would be quite happy to maintain this potentially lucrative franchise. Finally, Will argues that the stations and programming supported by the CPB are aimed primarily at a small group of elites. Public funding thus requires the less-educated and -affluent to pay for the entertainment of those doing better. This is hardly fair or good government policy according to Will. As federal Budget Director Mick Mulvaney has put it, you can justify asking a coal miner to help pay for something necessary like defense, but not for frippery like Sesame Street.

While these arguments must be taken seriously, they miss the larger picture. First, defense programs and cultural programming are not mutually exclusive. General Stanley McChrystal recently argued in the New York Times that public broadcasting “makes our nation smarter, stronger and, yes, safer.” Publicly funded television and radio is, in his view, an investment in our civil society that strengthens our life together and lifts under-served children and communities all across the nation. (April 5, 2017).

Nor, despite George Will’s view of the matter, is it clear that the many stations and programs that the CPB underwrites would exist without its help, particularly in rural areas that often have fewer educational and cultural choices. Currently 248 of the 575 radio and TV stations supported by the CPB are located in rural areas where they are often the only consistent source of local news and children’s programming. These stations provide other needed services as well, including “Amber Alerts” and weather reports, often, as in Alaska and other out-of-the-way areas, a crucial resource. The “market” does not provide many needed services for rural communities because there is not a strong financial incentive to do so. This requires government to step in, much as it does to provide high-speed internet and cell phone service to under-served areas.

I think of public radio as a park or commons in the midst of a bustling city. If someone had not had the foresight to provide for that park, private development would have filled the entire space, crowding out any green. But parks are necessary for our shared life together. They provide a place for people to enjoy themselves, to interact with nature, to picnic, to play games and to exercise free speech. In this sense, KRVS is a green space on the radio dial, where commercial considerations are put aside in favor of the things we create, enjoy and share together. It is a public space curated by volunteers who contribute their time, labor and love to provide a listening experience that exists nowhere else on the radio. The $1.35 cents that each American pays in taxes to support the CPB is negligible when compared with the alternative: the arid and insipid wasteland of commercial programming. KRVS, supported by contributions from over 1,000 local residents, as well as the University of Louisiana at Lafayette and the CPB, is a vital part of our community. It supports and enriches our lives together. It is well worth its small price.

Pearson Cross is an associate professor in the Political Science Department at UL Lafayette. He holds a Ph.D. from Brandeis University (1997), and his principal areas of teaching are state and local politics, and Southern politics. Cross interviews local politicians and newsmakers on his radio show, “Bayou to the Beltway,” which airs on KRVS 88.7 FM at 12:30 p.m. on Wednesdays and 5:30 p.m. on Saturdays. Contact him at [email protected].