Public Broadcasting’s Golden Age

Nov 6, 2019

As JPR completes its 50th anniversary year and NPR looks ahead to marking its golden anniversary in 2020, I thought it would be interesting to visit some of the founding documents that established public broadcasting as an American institution.

NPR's original logo (circa 1971).

First and foremost among these documents is The Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.  While the text of the act itself is a very dry read, the act was the seminal step in establishing the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) which became the catalyst for creating the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR).  In announcing passage of the act, President Lyndon Johnson extolled the aspirations of the legislation:  “The Corporation will assist stations and producers who aim for the best in broadcasting good music, in broadcasting exciting plays, and in broadcasting reports on the whole fascinating range of human activity … It will try to prove that what educates can also be exciting … So today we rededicate a part of the airwaves--which belong to all the people--and we dedicate them for the enlightenment of all the people.”

Another early document that influenced the growth and development of public radio was NPR’s first mission statement.  Authored in early 1970 by Bill Siemering — one of the organizers of National Public Radio and later its first program director —the statement supported NPR’s request for funding from the newly formed Corporation for Public Broadcasting and became the guiding force of the network as it created its first daily program, All Things Considered.  Siemering wrote:

“National Public Radio will serve the individual: it will promote personal growth; it will regard the individual differences among men with respect and joy rather than derision and hate; it will celebrate the human experience as infinitely varied rather than vacuous and banal; it will encourage a sense of active constructive participation, rather than apathetic helplessness.

National Public Radio, through live interconnection and other distribution systems, will be the primary national non-commercial program service. Public radio stations will be a source for programming input as well as program dissemination. The potentials of live interconnection will be exploited, the art and the enjoyment of the sound medium will be advanced.

In its cultural mode, National Public Radio will preserve and transmit the cultural past, will encourage and broadcast the work of contemporary artists and provide listeners with an aural esthetic experience which enriches and gives meaning to the human spirit.

In its journalistic mode, National Public Radio will actively explore, investigate and interpret issues of national and international import. The programs will enable the individual to better understand himself, his government, his institutions and his natural and social environment so he can intelligently participate in effecting the process of change.

The total service should be trustworthy, enhance intellectual development, expand knowledge, deepen aural esthetic enjoyment, increase the pleasure of living in a pluralistic society and result in a service to listeners which makes them more responsive, informed human beings and intelligent responsible citizens of their communities and the world.”

In reading these early formative documents, it’s easy to feel the idealism of the time and the optimism and hope expressed by public broadcasting’s pioneers.  At JPR we try to honor the aspirations of our early champions through our daily work.  And, while we operate in a far more complex media environment than anyone ever imagined at the dawn of public broadcasting, we continue to believe public radio plays a vital role in American society.  Each day, with your generous support, we strive to create the world our founders envisioned – one where diverse voices and people are celebrated, where lifelong education and intellectual curiosity are fostered, and where knowledge inspires citizens to engage in their communities to create a stronger democracy.