Persistence Pays Off for Public Broadcasters

Despite the gloomy outlook for public broadcasting during the economic downturn, the Association of Public Television Stations stayed on mission, promoting the importance of the industry. That work is finally paying off in new government funding.

Public broadcasting is back, baby!

You may be thinking, ‘Did it ever really go away?’ But consider this: During the Great Recession, public radio and television budgets, which come from federal, state, and local governments, were hit hard. Funding fell sharply from a 2008 high of $277 million to $178 million in 2012, according to data from the National Educational Telecommunications Association, reported on by The New York Times.

“Our stations are having some success in telling their stories in a more compelling way than they have in the past.”

Since then, as the economy slowly improved, states have added $13.5 million back into their public broadcasting budgets. And, according to Patrick Butler, president and CEO of the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS), that trend should continue.

“We just got word [Monday] night that the Alabama House of Representatives has approved a 38 percent increase in state funding for Alabama public television,” he said.

If all goes well, the state will join Florida, Indiana, and 19 others that have increased their support in the current state budget cycle.

The rebounding economy isn’t the only cause for the resurgence of public broadcasting. The industry’s efforts at refining its message and its persistence in getting it in front of important players have been key.

“Our stations are having some success in telling their stories in a more compelling way than they have in the past,” Butler said. “They’re making a clearer case to their state governments, as we do at the federal level here [in Washington, DC], in terms of the public service missions we’re performing for their constituents in education and in public safety and in creating a well-informed citizenship.”

The emergence of wildly popular programming like PBS’s Downton Abbey has helped as well, Butler admitted.

“It certainly makes it a little bit easier for the political leaders to support what we’re doing,” he said. “But we’re asking them to make an investment in public services, and we ask them to look at Downton Abbey and the other programming that’s on public television as an additional bonus for what they’re investing in.”

Winning back funding for its member stations at the state and federal level has allowed APTS to turn its attention towards helping members in additional ways, said Butler.

“We’ve been able to focus on giving them the tools they need to refine their stories so that when they go to their state legislators, they can be more effective at turning the conversation away from just supporting television and radio services to really getting into how we support our communities and our states and our country. And from what we’ve seen, it’s paying off.”

What’s the lesson for other associations? Butler’s takeaway: Don’t be shy about touting the important work your members do.

“We’ve had an issue in public broadcasting that people are doing all of this work, but they’re not trying to claim any credit for it, and so it goes unnoticed and underappreciated,” he said. “When you finally do tell someone, all kinds of lights go off in their heads, and they say, ‘Well, I didn’t know you were doing that.’ It seems self-evident to our members, but it’s not so evident to the members of Congress and the governors on whose support we rely considerably for our success.”

The show Downton Abbey has helped public broadcasters boost their ratings. (Carnival Films)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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