Thanks, KNPB

Public broadcasting has been under heavy and growing pressure from dogmatic conservatives and right-wing federal regulators to control its content. And some stations have surrendered. In other cases, public broadcasters have been doing the job of left and right pressure groups by blanding down the content to make it non-controversial.

David Giovannoni of Audience Research Analysis has convinced National Public Radio to do just what commercial broadcasting does—dumb down the content to attract the widest possible audience and the biggest possible contributors. As a result, NPR is becoming just another radio network, progressively sounding more and more like commercial radio when its whole reason for existence is to produce programming unlike commercial radio. Bluegrass and documentaries increasingly have no home on radio.

Consequently, an exodus of talent has been underway at NPR—some being pushed (Bob Edwards), others jumping (Tavis Smiley).

Last month, renowned WETA in Washington, D.C., finally caved in and followed numerous other NPR stations around the nation by dropping classical music, jazz, and other alternatives to commercial programming.

It’s a classic example of what the best political campaign managers and broadcasting executives have long known—don’t let the guy who does the opinion surveys make the executive decisions. “Giovannoni single-handedly destroyed the soul of public radio,” one veteran radio broadcaster told the Washington Post last week.

In television, Public Broadcasting Service execs responded to conservative criticism of Bill Moyers’ Now program by handing air time to conservative Tucker Carlson. There’s nothing wrong with that in principle, but the programs are not analogous—Moyers’ program provides reporting and interviews. Carlson does just another political attack show like Hannity or O’Reilly.

PBS killed an episode of a cartoon program because conservatives, in their endless gay bashing, didn’t approve of a traveling bunny’s encounter with a same-gender couple (we’re not making this up).

And PBS, too, has made efforts to dumb down its programming, like the unsuccessful attempt to retool Washington Week in Review.

Against these efforts, local stations can stand firm—if they will. They are not creatures of their parent entities (indeed, NPR is the creation of local affiliates).

Three weeks ago, PBS told local stations it couldn’t protect them against doctrinaire federal regulators determined to enforce “decency” standards on broadcasters. At issue was a documentary, A Company of Soldiers, about U.S. troops in Iraq. PBS produced a sanitized version of the program for local stations that purged 13 candid words spoken by soldiers, which became known as the “war is heck” version. Local stations could only air the original version if they signed a document indemnifying PBS against any fines (the Federal Communications Commission last year imposed nearly $8 million in fines in its crazed decency crusade). Many local stations went with the softer version.

In Reno, KNPB stood firm and let U.S. soldiers have their freedom of speech and viewers their freedom of choice. The station aired the documentary in its raw, uncensored form.

KNPB deserves our thanks.