The Common Ether

President Johnson signed the Corporation for Public Broadcasting into existence on November 7, 1967, making possible the network of 1,300 PBS and NPR stations that currently provide service across the country. Emphasizing educational, cultural, and community-based programming, PBS and NPR have earned a reputation for not just reliability and innovation but for going places where the commercial media providers mostly do not go.

For example, the award-winning StoryCorps counters the dominance of the celebrity-industrial complex by giving voice to ordinary Americans, so helping “to weave into the fabric of our culture the understanding that everyone’s story matters.” Over the past fourteen years some 65,000 Americans have stepped into the StoryCorps recording booths, many of their stories broadcast on public radio and television and also published in a series of bestsellers. In his Introduction to the latest book in the series, Callings: The Purpose and Passion of Work, StoryCorps founder Dave Isay notes how his own decision at age twenty-two to give up medical school for broadcast journalism mirrors similar decisions made by many in his book, “everyday people who have found — and often fought — their way to doing exactly what they were meant to do with their lives.” For eighty-five-year-old Herman Heyn, the path to becoming Baltimore’s street-corner astronomer wound through college and an endless series of short-term jobs, arriving at the inevitable in 1987: “Some people like trees, some people like birds. For me, it’s stars.” For some 3,000 nights over the past thirty years, Heyn has taken his telescope and his tips hat to the streets, where he invites the world to have a peek at his passion:

When I set up, I have a sign on the front of the telescope that says, “Tonight Saturn and its rings. HAV-A-LOOK!” That’s my trademark: HAV-A-LOOK! Then, as people are passing by, I’ll say, “Have a look, folks. The moon: an awesome view through my telescope!” or “Have a look, folks. Tonight the rings of Saturn. A chance of a lifetime!”

Despite its award-winning shows and high esteem, public broadcasting has never established itself in America as it has done in Britain, Canada, and many other countries around the world, where similarly funded and mandated radio and television stations often anchor the media spectrum and are integral to an inclusive national identity. Funding issues aside, public broadcasting seems especially vulnerable in today’s “Here Comes Everybody” world — this the title of Clay Shirky’s 2008 book, which describes how “mass amateurization” has made everyone a private broadcaster. The authors of Spreadable Media: Creating Value an Meaning in a Networked Culture argue that the new technologies and platforms are a historic opportunity, one that can be harnessed to service “an inclusive, equitable, and robust media landscape.” But books such as The Death of Expertise argue that our digital addictions, driven by the familiar clickbait commercialism, have created an over-entertained public that is “confused and ornery” on the important issues, if not “resolutely ignorant and uninformed.” In World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech, Franklin Foer concurs, arguing that many well-intentioned and professional media outlets have made a devil’s bargain we will all regret:

Dependence generates desperation — a mad, shameless chase to gain clicks through Facebook, a relentless effort to game Google’s algorithms. It leads media outlets to sign terrible deals that look like self-preserving necessities: granting Facebook the right to sell their advertising, or giving Google permission to publish articles directly on its fast-loading server. In the end, such arrangements simply allow Facebook and Google to hold these companies ever tighter.

A vigorous public broadcasting network may have an important national role in today’s commercialized, partisan, and over-saturated media landscape. But all of us must make better — and fewer — media choices, says Tim Wu in The Attention Merchants. Just as urban sprawl has taken over too many green spaces, media sprawl has been allowed into every minute of our lives, and we are in desperate need of zoning schemes to reclaim our own consciousness:

If we desire a future that avoids the enslavement of the propaganda state as well as the narcosis of the consumer and celebrity culture, we must first acknowledge the preciousness of our attention and resolve not to part with it as cheaply or unthinkingly as we so often have. And then we must act, individually and collectively, to make our attention our own again, and so reclaim ownership of the very experience of living.

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