PubRadio- A Short History

In 1996 Sue Schardt (now AIR exec) wrote this concise “Public Radio- A Short History” for the  Christian Science Monitor. Her article starts in the 1920s, then moves toward our current pubradio sys:

By 1967, national leaders recognized that noncommercial broadcasting was being held back by its lack of a network structure. Stations were on their own, with little way to share programming of national interest. With the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, Congress provided for ways to build a national financial and distribution infrastructure for noncommercial television and – oh, yes! – radio (added to the legislation at the last minute).

The Act created the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to serve as a conduit for federal financial support of local radio and television stations, nationally produced programming, and interconnected services. With regard to radio, it was concluded (after a year of study) that most noncommercial radio was either student-run, or religious in nature, and therefore did not fit the criteria for funding. Consequentially, two important strategic decisions were made with regard to administering radio. First, a set of criteria was devised for funding. Unlike television, virtually no on had the capacity to produce sustainable, quality programming on a national level. In 1970, National Public Radio (NPR) was created as a national production center for news/information and cultural programming. NPR was to also serve as the coordinator for national program distribution. NPR began its national program service in 1971 with production of “All Things Considered”, a daily hour of in-depth, primarily national, news. The distribution infrastructure was completed in 1979 with the launch of public radio’s own satellite system which, for the first time, allowed local stations to send and receive programs among themselves. Between the years of 1970 and 1982, NPR was funded almost entirely by the CPB (stations paid $100 to join NPR).

Community radio also formalized itself during the ’70s. Fifteen stations and license applicants, several from Lorenzo Milam’s original group, formed the National Federation of Community Broadcasters (NFCB) in 1975. In general, the ’70s and early ’80s were a period marked by dramatic growth across the spectrum in public radio… the independent producers community emerged, the number of public radio stations tripled, minority participation grew significantly, Morning Edition from NPR (the a.m. sister to All Things Considered) went into production, and university stations moved to redefine their community outreach beyond simply acting as “classrooms of the airwaves”.

There were two important developments which took place between 1984 and 1986. The CPB began funneling money directly to the stations rather than to NPR, and an alternative distribution house was created. When NPR turned down the chance to distribute nationwide the Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) program “A Prairie Home Companion”, MPR established American Public Radio (APR, now known as Public Radio International or PRI) in Minneapolis to distribute independently produced national programming. This “decentralization” resulted in a public radio environment which was driven by the stations, and one which was more competitive and diversified. Via APR/PRI, new producers began coming onto the scene; besides Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”, there were alternative news services – Monitor Radio (from the publishers of The Christian Science Monitor), the BBC from England, and the CBC from Canada. Pacifica Radio benefited from this diversification of the marketplace as well, with its offerings gaining greater national carriage. The production community continues to diversify, with the recent emergence of such entities as American Indian Radio on Satellite (AIROS), and Radio Bilingua (a public radio service targeted to the Hispanic audience).

Emerging information technologies market the idea of “interactivity” without acknowledging radio’s pioneering work with that concept. Public radio warms interactivity into participation. Public radio calls on its listeners to be owners and, in some cases, producers… to support stations directly and to have a say in their development. Public radio makes listening itself active. Its programs create time for thoughtful attention to voices speaking around the world or down the road, inviting listeners to supply something of their own imaginations to the process. Public radio’s commitment to reach you where you are, while taking you places you’ve never been – all for the price of one good ear and a small wireless receiver – preserves the best the medium has to offer and calls on some of the best we have within ourselves.

—”Public Radio- A Short History” © 1996 by Sue Schardt and The Christian Science Monitor Publishing Company

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