President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967 and, according to the Knight Foundation, saw it as “a vital public resource to enrich our homes, educate our families and to provide assistance to our classrooms.” For years public broadcasting stations run by individual states have provided informative and entertaining programs.
But something dangerous is happening to West Virginia Public Broadcasting, run by West Virginia’s Educational Broadcasting Authority (EBA). Recently, Executive Director Chuck Roberts (with whom I have never had contact) was suddenly fired and, as reported by Phil Kabler in this newspaper, Roberts stated, “the EBA has decided to have the organization go in a different direction…”
What is that direction? Is it the death of WVPB? That’s what it looks like to me and many others. Gov. Jim Justice’s newly appointed EBA board members apparently dislike PBS. Kabler’s article notes that board member Danielle Waltz served on the board of directors of Cardinal Institute, “which has advocated for defunding WV Public Broadcasting.” Another appointee, Taylor Hood, is employed by a business owned by Senate Finance Chairmen Eric Tarr, R-Putnam, who is “a frequent critic of state broadcasters in general and WVPB in particular.”
The scariest appointment to the board is that of Greg Thomas, who said during his confirmation hearing that “he neither watches nor owns a television, saying he gets his news mostly from social media.” Talk about the fox in the hen house.
When public broadcasting, modeled after the British Broadcasting Corporation, initially was introduced, Americans still listened to radio (WWVA from Wheeling reached far and wide) and watched a limited number of TV channels, having to get our butts off the couch to change them. It was the stagecoach days of information and entertainment; cable channels, streaming services and social media didn’t exist.
My most memorable initial PBS show was Sesame Street, which became an important part of our family’s life. Big Bird, Cookie Monster and Oscar the Grouch spent hours in my house. The show, with Jim Henson’s Muppets, offered a new way of interacting with youngsters. Initial shows received complaints that they were “too wholesome” and lacked representation from females and minorities.
To date, West Virginia PBS has provided a wonderful selection of entertainment and information. Some of the best productions have included “Mountain Stage” and “The Road to Statehood.” A small sampling of WV PBS current offerings includes “Appalachian Heritage Workshop,” “Song of the Mountains,” “PBS News Hour” and “This Old House.”
When I was working and driving to Wayne County Schools or returning home after work, I would sometimes become so enthralled by the PBS program topic that I stayed in my car to hear the story end even after I arrived at my destination.
The nation’s mood has moved far right, and Justice while promoting conservative views has put in place an EBA board that dislikes (even if one member has never viewed it) what is presented on PBS. WVPB is popular and well-appreciated. The question is, is Gov. Justice trying to kill WVPB? Many of us hope not.