US National Public Radio has just announced that it is cutting two programmes and many jobs. Free market adherents will not lament this (partly because they are now too busy lamenting other things), but a national public broadcasting system is more vital to a nation's democracy than may be apparent, especially when print journalism is not all that strong, and there is no national newspaper of record, and none of the nation's chief ministers are elected.
At this time of anguish and questioning, NPR should be broadened, deepened and strengthened. This may sound absurd as the economy buckles under multiple strains, but it is clearly possible, especially given that billions, and most likely trillions, of dollars are going to be injected into the U.S. economy.Barack Obama has spoken of spending money on infrastructure projects - this should include public broadcasting, especially more and better coverage of current affairs and world affairs. We are entering a global crisis, and it is not just an economic crisis, but also an energy crisis, an environmental crisis, a population crisis, and a civilisational crisis. We are surely now seeing that after moving into overshoot some time ago, we are entering a phase of limits to growth - especially as we pass peak oil and global warming worsens.
A crisis of this depth and scale will require more of the right kind of information and analysis not less. European countries have a variety of ways of funding their national broadcasting systems, with the BBC licence fee being one way of providing at least some insulation from government interference.
Though the Internet has become a vital source of news and current affairs, it is notoriously hard to fund a pure Internet broadcasting or media operation (having founded Global Public Media in 2001, I have some firsthand experience)* and because of the way that the Internet is received, it is not likely to become a full substitute for terrestrial broadcasting. For a host of reasons, every nation should maintain a good network of land-based transmitters operating both AM and FM.
Regarding NPR's financial situation, it does seem absurd and unwise that a national broadcasting system should depend so heavily on funding from just one human being (in this case $225 million in 2004 from the late Joan Kroc, wife of MacDonald's CEO), no matter how generous and public-spirited.
So many problems come back to the way things are funded. Reforming the way American politics is funded is surely at the top of this kind of list, but a well funded and independent national broadcasting system should also be considered as vital to the functioning of democratic government.
* Though there are reports that YouTube is starting to earn its posters money.