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Patrick Butler Remarks at the NETA Conference

As prepared for delivery 

I am honored to join you today, and I’m very grateful for the warm welcome I’ve received as the new kid on the block in public broadcasting.

I should tell you, first of all, that I’m not so new. I’ve been a member of the APTS board for two years, chairman of the Maryland Public Television Foundation for six years, a producer for public television for 13 years, a corporate and foundation underwriter for more than 25 years, and a loyal viewer and member for more than 40 years.

I believe deeply and enthusiastically in your mission, and I’m going to do my best to persuade the Congress, the White House, the FCC, the news media, the funding community and anyone else who’ll listen that public broadcasting is one of the most important enterprises ever invented in this country – and one that richly deserves continued support from the federal government and many other public and private benefactors.

Here is where I think we are:

  • The new Republican majority in the House of Representatives is very serious about reviewing all of federal funding, from Medicare and Social Security to national defense and public broadcasting.
  • The government is facing a $1.3 trillion deficit, and our political leaders of both parties are looking at every option for reducing the cost of government.
  • The cost of public broadcasting is barely a rounding error in a $3 trillion federal budget, but underlying our negligible budgetary impact is a more philosophical argument about whether the government should be in the media business at all – and especially in economically challenging times like these.
  • There are ideological complaints in some quarters that complicate matters further.
  • A new web-based platform called YouCut, through which citizens can “vote” on where to cut federal spending, has identified public broadcasting as a candidate for cuts.
  • The Senate is not so interested in public broadcasting as a spending target, and not so enamored of making cuts by referendum, but we can take nothing for granted there, either.
  • The White House, through its Office of Management and Budget, has proposed stable funding for public broadcasting but has also proposed to zero out programs like Ready to Learn and the Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, and to consolidate programs wherever possible.

Our job – and it’s not just mine; it’s yours, too – is to make it clear that public broadcasting is not “a luxury we can’t afford,” as one Congressman has suggested, but rather an essential part of the fabric of this country; an enterprise that performs the mission it was assigned by Congress very well through a highly successful public-private partnership; a national treasure that contributes every day to a well-educated, well-informed, civilized and cultured citizenry, well-equipped for the special responsibilities they exercise in the world’s oldest and most successful democracy.

In creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967, Congress found that “it is in the public interest to encourage the growth and development of public radio and television broadcasting, including the use of such media for instructional, education and cultural purposes.”

In the 44 years which followed this Act of Congress, public broadcasting has pursued this mission with extraordinary success:

  • It has created a public media infrastructure of more than 1,000 local public television and radio stations who enhance the lives of their local communities through educational programming and services in K-12 schools; GED and other lifelong learning services; job training; in-depth coverage of local elections and state legislative proceedings; and local documentaries capturing the unique stories and histories of the communities you serve.
  • It has created a home for Sesame Street and other groundbreaking children’s programming which has helped millions of America’s children get Ready to Learn:  learn to read, learn the basics of mathematics, learn the value of our diverse culture, learn the excitement and satisfaction of learning itself.
  • It has created a home for the works of accomplished film-makers and historians such as Margaret Drain and Ken Burns, whose documentaries have taught America its own exceptional story as no commercial medium could do.
  • It has created a home for Great Performances and Austin City Limits on television and classical music and opera on radio, bringing the best of American culture to the most remote places in our country and fulfilling the promise of President Johnson to “build a great network of knowledge” across America.
  • It has created a home for Prairie Home Companion, Car Talk, Science Friday, Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, Fresh Air, To the Point, Diane Rehm, Live at the Met, and other much-honored radio programming that run the gamut from extolling America’s small-town virtues to explaining events in a dangerous world, in unparalleled depth and breadth.
  • It has created a home for the most trusted and civilized news and public affairs programming in America, from the nightly PBS NewsHour to NPR’s Morning Edition and All Things Considered to hundreds of candidate debates in every State in the Union.
  • It has created a home for NOVA, for Bill Nye the Science Guy, and for many other programs that inspire our young people to pursue studies and careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
  • It has created a place to explore the rich diversity and culture of our country, with programs such as NPT’s Next Door Neighbors and Tennessee Cross Roads right here in Nashville.

No wonder public broadcasting has attracted a regular audience of 170 million Americans.

No wonder the American people rate public broadcasting as the second best use of taxpayer dollars, just behind national defense.

No wonder that for the past seven years in a row, the Roper Poll has found public television to be the most trusted national institution in America.

And no wonder the supporters of public broadcasting have created the largest and most successful public-private partnership in history, with more than 300,000 private donors contributing more than $1 billion every year to match the $500 million annual federal investment in the “instructional, educational and cultural purposes” of public broadcasting.

From the 90th Congress through the 111th, our elected representatives have made a priceless commitment to this system of enlightened citizenship.

And now, with the benefit of 21st century technology, public broadcasters are becoming much more than broadcasters – and accomplishing much more than they were able to do when bound to the radio and television media alone.

We provide the infrastructure for the Digital Emergency Alert System to warn first-responders, government officials and citizens of public safety, medical and weather emergencies in the making.

We provide the backbone for Amber Alerts in communities across the country and feed the headends of wireless providers for alerts to cell phones, pagers and other mobile devices.

We provide virtual high schools with rich offerings of courses and teachers that have hundreds of thousands of enrollments annually.

We supply a Digital Learning Library for millions of students; a TeacherLine for professional development of educators; PBS Kids and PBS Kids Go! providing digital video, games and interactivities for kids aged 2 to 9; PBS Kids Island and The Great Word Quest to help kids learn to read and help parents track their progress; and many more educational innovations at the local station level.

I have only scratched the surface of what public television is doing to serve our country, and I encourage all of you to tell me more about how your station is contributing to the common good.

APTS has a newly redesigned website –– which highlights the good work of our member stations. APTS will continue to tell the stories of our member stations as you provide invaluable services to your local communities.

But we need to hear more stories from you, about how you serve your communities in ways that no other institution can do. Please send us your stories, with videos, photos and press releases, so we can continue to make the case for the essential nature of public broadcasting, especially in these days when we are among the last locally owned and controlled media outlets in the country.

As much as we’re doing, there is still more we can do, and plan to do.

As the States arrive at common core educational standards – not imposed by Washington but agreed among Governors, legislatures and Chief State School Officers – important new opportunities are arising for public media to embed themselves even more deeply in the classroom, bringing all their technological, artistic and curatorial resources to bear on improving educational achievement across the country.

We are in discussions with the National Archives to incorporate its DocsTeach initiative – teaching American history through the use of 10,000 primary documents safeguarded by the Archives – in the public media infrastructure to give DocsTeach virtually instantaneous national reach through our system of 368 local public television stations.

We are in discussions with the White House and the US Department of Education to develop a partnership that brings the best thinking in pedagogical innovation and learning technologies to thousands of classrooms around the country through the public media infrastructure.

We are also in discussions with the White House and the Administration’s Chief Technology Officer about using our spectrum and our learning technologies in new and innovative ways.

We are in discussions with the US Department of Labor to create more effective job training programs through a partnership between the Labor Department, public media and America’s community colleges.

And we are exploring with the Federal Communications Commission ways in which we may use our broadcast spectrum most efficiently in the service of our instructional, educational and cultural mission.

Congress has charged public media to reflect the diversity of America to the fullest extent possible. The system incorporating many local television and radio stations with a few national programming services has contributed to this diversity from the beginning. But we see diversity in its deeper sense as meaning a diversity of perspectives across a range of ideological, geographic, racial, ethnic, cultural, generational and other fields.

Diversity, to us, means “public” in the broadest sense. It means reflecting the American public in all of its dimensions and contributing to a greater understanding of the true nature of the nation and the world in which we live.

We are proud of the fact that public opinion research has consistently found that public broadcasting is viewed as significantly more objective and comprehensive in its coverage of the nation and the world than any of its commercial counterparts, on radio or television.

We fully understand that, particularly in a time of economic challenge, it is appropriate for Congress to carefully examine every federal expenditure to assure its continued value to the American taxpayer.

And we fully expect that the Congress will conclude that its annual investment in public broadcasting of $1.35 per taxpayer is more than justified by the instructional, educational and cultural services we offer to the American people.

The people themselves have rendered this judgment: 170 million regular viewers and listeners, 300,000 private donors contributing $3 for every $1 of federal investment, a consistent history of public opinion research confirming the taxpayers’ high degree of satisfaction with the federal investment in public broadcasting.

Have we done what Congress asked us to do in 1967?  We have, and we have done it well.

And with the conversion from analog to digital spectrum, and with the proliferation of mobile and other technologies available to us in this brave new world of the 21st century, we can do a great deal more to prepare our fellow citizens for the responsibilities of citizenship in the world’s greatest democracy.

This is our mission. This is our commitment. This is the work to which we have dedicated our professional lives. And this is the rich harvest of a modest federal investment that keeps our country educated, informed, cultured and civilized. America has never needed us more than it needs us today.      

That is our case, and I am confident that the Congress will ultimately agree with us. I have tried this argument out on several of my friends in Congress, across the ideological spectrum, and it has resonated with all of them. The White House loves where we’re going, and so does the FCC.

But we will need your help more than ever before to make this case and make that happen. There are 112 new Members of Congress – the most in 70 years – and we simply do not know where most of them stand on public broadcasting.

We do know that the need to restrain the growth in federal spending and reduce the federal deficit is felt by conservatives, moderates and liberals alike, and public broadcasting cannot expect to completely escape the barber’s chair.

But the American people need to speak out in support of federal funding for public broadcasting, and we have an exciting new way to do it.

APTS has joined with public television and public radio stations across the country to launch the unprecedented campaign of 170 Million Americans for Public Broadcasting. Most of your stations have already joined as partners in this new campaign -- a grassroots effort stretching from Homer, Alaska, to Fort Myers, Florida.

If you haven’t already done so, please join our campaign by going to the website – – or find us on Facebook ( or Twitter (@170Million).

We at APTS will keep you fully informed about the nature, severity and timing of any threat to your continued funding. There will likely be more than one such threat this year, and I will do my best not to cry wolf until I see a real wolf. But you must be ready to respond, and if you do, I am quite confident that we can win this battle as we’ve won them in the past.

Not because we’re great lobbyists, but because our cause is just, and our case is strong. I encourage you to go to, sign up to help us fight the good fight, secure the future of public broadcasting once and for all, and play our indispensible part in the future success of our country.

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