The History of Public Broadcasting

In 1910, a single song changed the world of media forever. It wasn’t exactly the song — an opera performed by tenor Enrico Caruso — that did it, but the use of microphones, a transmitter, and an antenna, courtesy of inventor Lee de Forest, to wirelessly broadcast the song. On that night at the Metropolitan Opera, public broadcasting was born.

Though the medium has evolved to include television networks and entire multimedia empires, public broadcasting remains a staple in the world of current events, political reporting, children’s television, and entertainment. Through public broadcasting, non-commercial media outlets provide educational, well-balanced shows, and information for public consumption. Because they are funded partially by taxes — about .012 percent of the total federal budget — and mostly by private donations, the stations remain free of advertisers and commercial pressures. This allows the television, radio, and online members of the public broadcasting community to provide a unique and unbiased set of programming.

A Little Background

In the early days, engineering students at rural colleges operated the complicated radio technology, sending out reports on weather and agriculture to nearby residents. As the content improved, so did the competition for airwaves. In 1941, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reserved the lower FM band for non-commercial educational stations, and most public broadcasting stations remain there today.

In the 1950s, public television stations, predecessors to PBS, began to make waves on television. By 1967, it was clear that public broadcasting needed more organization. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act, creating the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to establish standards and serve as an organization to further the development of public media. The organization also helps insulate the stations from outside pressures on programming.

In the 2000s, the media would grow to take advantage of newer technology like video streaming on websites and podcasts. Public broadcasting has shown an uncanny ability to keep pace with its advertising-based competitors, while remaining a trustworthy source of news and education.

The Who’s Who of Public Broadcasting

Perhaps the biggest names in public broadcasting are the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR). PBS, which got its start in 1952 under the name National Educational Television, became PBS in 1970, and has been named the “most trusted institution” among nationally ranked institutions for the past 10 years. The schedule — which varies among the 360 member stations — includes shows like Frontline, NOVA, Masterpiece, Antiques Roadshow, and Sesame Street.

NPR, founded by a group of charter radio stations, remains as a bastion of investigative journalism and news radio with shows including Wait…Wait… Don’t Tell Me!, All Things Considered, and Morning Edition. NPR is best known for its dependable journalism and began its first broadcast in the early 1970s with the Senate hearings about the Vietnam War. The station has continued the tradition, launching Talk of the Nation during the Gulf War and going international with NPR Worldwide in the early 1990s. Now the station offers a variety of podcasts and online entertainment.

Though public media faces a unique set of challenges for funding and support, they continue to be a vital and important aspect of the American media landscape. Collectively they have hosted some of the most famous media moments from Fireside Chats with President Roosevelt to the creation of the big, yellow puppet known by kids around the world as Big Bird. Each threat to defund the stations is met with a wall of support from viewers who count on the stations for unbiased, trustworthy news, entertainment, and shows. With continuing support from citizens, public broadcasting stations will remain for a long time to come, entertaining viewers using the most innovative and current forms of media.