Public Broadcasting Lobby Faces Big Challenges

The best-known lobbyists for public broadcasting are named Elmo, Big Bird and Arthur the Aardvark.

The beloved children’s characters have been known to make appearances on Capitol Hill when funding is under attack, which happens regularly.

They’re the public face of the public broadcasting lobby.

Behind the scenes, professional lobbyists are also waging battle.

As the chart below shows, the media outlet formerly called National Public Radio has substantially increased its spending in recent years:

With opposition on the right accusing it of liberal bias, NPR has focused much of its lobbying on appropriations for public radio stations around the country.

This is a roundabout way of pushing for government support for NPR operations. Stations receive grants directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and then pay NPR for programming.

According to its 2011 financial report, 38 percent of revenues came from the stations. Corporate sponsorships accounted for another 28 percent.

Last year, the House approved a bill to cut all funding for CPB in 2013. In the end, the cuts didn’t hold, but funding remains a favorite target of the right, particularly during tough economic times.

“There are legitimate questions about the role of government in media that go above and beyond any debate about public radio or public TV,” said Mike Riksen. NPR’s vice president for policy and representation.

“But we do in fact have to acknowledge that the last 18 to 24 months have been the most significant challenge to funding for public broadcasting ever.”

NPR joined forces with the Association of Public Television Stations (APTS) last year to advocate for government support.

The two formed the Public Media Association, described as “a joint initiative to respond to the current federal funding crisis on behalf of public broadcasting.”

While its lobby budget is larger than NPR’s, spending by APTS has declined in recent years. The trade group spent $900,000 in 2011, down from $1.6 million in 2007.

Three outside firms work for the association: Baker Donelson Bearman Caldwell & Berkowitz, The O Team LLC and Penn Hill Group.

Funding cuts at the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would hurt radio and TV. However, as a news organization, NPR is the more common target in Congress.

One critic, Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-CO), has repeatedly called for prohibition of federal funding for the organization.

He introduced one measure in late 2010, after NPR commentator Juan Williams was fired for remarks he made on Fox News about Muslims.

Lamborn described the firing as “a wake-up call for many Americans to political correctness and liberal bias at NPR.”

“However,” he said, “it is not so much the liberal bias that offends me, but the fact that our tax dollars are funding it.”

It wasn’t long before the organization had to grapple with another high-profile controversy.

Chief executive Vivian Schiller, widely criticized for firing Williams, resigned in March 2011 after the release of an embarrassing video showing a former fundraiser criticizing the Tea Party and questioning whether NPR really needed federal support.

Williams later signed a contract with Fox. Schiller, former senior vice president at New York Times Digital, joined NBC News as chief digital officer.

NPR seems to have weathered that storm, but is braced for continuing opposition.

Because CPB funding is set two years ahead, Riksen’s team is now advocating for 2015. President Obama’s budget proposal called for $445 million for the CPB, the same allocation as in 2013 and 2014.

Follow Laurie Bennett on Twitter: @Muckety.

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