Sunny Days For Public Broadcasting

July 1, 2005
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WASHINGTON — Big Bird's name has never been bandied about quite so much as it was last week. The iconic character from the PBS children's program "Sesame Street" became the de facto poster child for a debate between Congressional factions as they contemplated the future funding of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Don't starve Big Bird. Pluck Big Bird. Big Bird is a billionaire. Big Bird is in big trouble. Big Bird's goose is cooked.

But the debate wasn't about Big Bird. It was about Big Bucks, and to a lesser extent, Big Bias.

Political opponents of public broadcasting would like to pull the plug on federal funding, suggesting that programs like PBS' "Now with Bill Moyers" and NPR's "All Things Considered" show too much liberal slant. Fiscal opponents question the value of funding any public broadcast system, regardless of its political stripe.

These factors colored the debate as members of the House of Representatives considered House Resolution 3010, the appropriations bill that determines funding for the CPB. The CPB, in turn, passes along about 15 percent of the funding for NPR and PBS stations across the country. The resolution suggested cutting $100 million of the $400 million slated for CPB funding in financial year 2006.

That had public broadcasting supporters crying foul (and fowl).

U.S. Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., put forth an amendment that would restore the full $400 million to next year's budget.

The amendment passed by a margin of 284 to 140. While no Democrat voted to reject the amendment, 84 Republicans crossed party lines to vote the amendment forward. Grand Rapids representative Vernon Ehlers was among them.

The house then went on to pass the full resolution by a slimmer margin, 250 to 151.

Michael Walenta, general manager of NPR and PBS affiliates WGVU radio and television, was glad to see the resolution move forward.

"I think it's a great sign that it passed," he said. "And it passed by a lot."

However, fiscal 2006 may not come without some disappointment for public broadcasters. Walenta said that all funding has been "zeroed out" for Ready to Learn, which helps to fund children's programming and distributes educational materials into member communities. He said the program has been a success in West Michigan, inspiring parents to help their children learn to read. He said that the books his staff gives out through the program are sometimes the only books a family owns.

"I think that with education the way it is in the country, the more we can help get kids ready to come to school and just (be) ready to read, the better we're all going to do," he said.

Although Walenta was discouraged about the future of the Ready to Learn program, he is heartened to learn that the Senate is reinstating funding to the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program (PTFP).

"This is the program through Congress that gives us all of our funding for capital equipment, if you will — the transmitters, the transmission system. The Senate just voted to put ($22 million) back into that program," he said.

The restored funding provided by the House bill will be voted on by the Senate later this summer. Walenta feels that the Senate's willingness to re-fund the PTFP is encouraging.

"I think for the Senate to do that was a great sign. Because why would you fund capital improvements if you're not going to fund operating?" he said.    

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