Early public stations were operated by state colleges and universities, and were often run as part of the schools’ cooperative extension services. Stations in this era were internally funded, and did not rely on listener contributions to operate; some accepted advertising. Networks such as Iowa Public Radio, South Dakota Public Radio, and Wisconsin Public Radio began under this structure.the United States, other than a few direct services, public broadcasting is almost entirely decentralized and is not operated by the government, but does receive some government support. The U.S. public broadcasting system differs from such systems in other countries, in that the principal public television and radio broadcasters – the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) and National Public Radio (NPR), respectively – operate as technically separate entities. Some of the funding comes from community support to hundreds of public radio and public television stations, each of which is an individual entity licensed to one of several different non-profit organizations, municipal or state governments, or universities. Sources of funding also include on-air and online pledge drives and the sale of underwriting “spots” (typically running 15–30 seconds) to sponsors. Individual stations and programs rely on highly varied proportions of funding. Program-by-program funding creates the potential for conflict-of-interest situations, which must be weighed program by program under standards such as the guidelines established by PBS. Donations are widely dispersed to stations and producers, giving the system a resilience and broad base of support but diffusing authority and impeding decisive change and priority-setting. U.S. federal government support for public radio and television is filtered through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which operates as a separate organization.
Public broadcasting is sometimes also referred to as public media, in an effort to capture the expansion of public broadcasting content from radio and television into digital technologies, in particular the web and mobile platforms. While some consider public media to be analogous to public broadcasting, others use the term more broadly to include all noncommercial media. Public radio and television stations often produce their own programs as well as purchase additional programming from national producers and program distributors such as NPR, PBS, Public Radio International (PRI), American Public Television (APT), American Public Media (APM), and Public Radio Exchange (PRX).
Public television and radio in the U.S. has, from the late 1960s onward, dealt with severe criticism from conservative politicians and think-tanks (such as The Heritage Foundation), which allege that its programming has a leftist bias. Partly because of this belief, although it accounts for only a small fraction of government spending overall, some conservatives (including Presidents Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, George W. Bush and Donald Trump, and former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich) have made various efforts to defund or privatize the Corporation for Public Broadcasting through federal budget legislation. Support for continuing CPB funding by liberals, independents and many conservatives in Congress has led to many of these efforts being defeated at the federal level, although there have been successful attempts to reduce – though not eliminate – funding for public television stations by some state legislatures.
Arts advocates and media observers opposed to defunding the CPB argue that PBS provides educational and arts programming that have limited availability on American television, even as the advents of cable television and online streaming have led to the development of similar content, including to viewers in rural areas where educational funding is even lower than that of urbanized areas and do not have access to arts education. Previous estimates by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting have illustrated that removing federal funding to the CPB would severely hamstring rural PBS, NPR and independent public broadcasting stations, and may result in the gradual collapse of the public broadcasting system. Comprehensive studies by the Government Accountability Office and other organizations have concluded that private financing would not be universally available to public television and radio stations in less densely populated areas to sufficiently replace taxpayer funding that makes up 40% to 50% of the annual budgets of some stations, and ensure universal access to public broadcasting services.
The first public radio network in the United States was founded in 1949 in Berkeley, California as station KPFA, which became and remains the flagship station for a national network called Pacifica Radio. From the beginning, the network has refused corporate funding of any kind, and has relied mainly on listener support. KPFA gave away free FM radios to build a listener base and to encourage listeners to “subscribe” (support the station directly with donations). It is the world’s oldest listener-supported radio network. Since the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, Pacifica has sometimes received CPB support. Pacifica runs other stations in Los Angeles, New York City, Washington, DC. and Houston, as well as repeater stations and a large network of affiliates.
A public radio network, National Public Radio (NPR), was created in February 1970, as byproduct of the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967. This network – which replaced the Ford Foundation-backed National Educational Radio Network – is colloquially though inaccurately conflated with public radio as a whole, when in fact “public radio” includes many organizations. Some independent local public radio stations buy their programming from distributors such as NPR; Public Radio International (PRI); American Public Media (APM); Public Radio Exchange (PRX); and Pacifica Radio, most often distributed through the Public Radio Satellite System (PRSS). Around these distributed programs, stations fill in varying amounts of local and other programming. A number of public stations are completely independent of these programming services, producing all or most of their content themselves. Public radio stations in the United States tend to broadcast a mixture of news and talk programs along with music and arts/cultural programming. Some of the larger operations split off these formats into separate stations or networks. Music stations are probably best known for playing classical music, although other formats are offered, including the time-honored “eclectic” music format that is rather freeform in nature common among college radio stations. Jazz is another traditional, but declining, public radio programming staple. Cultural Native American and Mexican American music and programming are also featured regionally.
The U.S. government operates some limited direct broadcasting services, but all are either highly specialized (and, since the dawn of the millennium, automated) information services (WWV/WWVH time service, NOAA Weather Radio) or targeted at foreign audiences like Voice of America. From 1948 to 2013, foreign-targeted broadcasts, many of which were intended as propaganda, were barred from U.S. audiences because of the Smith–Mundt Act, a restriction that has since been lifted. While NOAA Weather Radio has individual terrestrial repeaters across the United States (albeit on a special band reserved for such broadcasts), WWV, VOA and others operate from single shortwave facilities; none of these services can be heard on the AM or FM bands most common on U.S. radio. In early 2016, KIOF-LP (97.9 FM) in Las Vegas, Nevada began airing VOA News hourly, and is the only known public radio station in the United States to broadcast the VOA news service since the Smith–Mundt Act restrictions were lifted.
Local stations derive some of the funding for their operations through regular pledge drives seeking individual and corporate donations, and corporate underwriting. Some stations also derive a portion of their funding from federal, state and local governments and government-funded colleges and universities, in addition to receiving free use of the public radio spectrum. The local stations then contract with program distributors and also provide some programming themselves. NPR produces its own programming (PBS, by contrast, does not create its own content, which is instead produced by select member stations and independent program distributors). NPR also receives some direct funding from private donors, foundations, and from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.