There is a well-known Indian parable about six blind men who touch an elephant, each in a different spot, and they come away with six different perspectives of the animal. That is something of a metaphor for public radio and television.
Public media provides different things to different people: educational children’s programs if you have kids, documentaries if you want in-depth science and history, NPR if you thrive on news, music and performance if you follow the arts. Each segment of the audience feels strongly about the part of the programming they touch. And when programs change, audiences react, as has recently been the case with WGBH’s jazz followers.
The matter of what public media should present — how it should serve the community —is defined differently by each viewer and listener. And it is debated with every schedule shift and congressional cycle. With public in our name, there is an expectation that we provide something for everyone. But just as the blind men disagree about the nature of the elephant, there are understandable disagreements about the role of public media. How best can it have something for everyone?
Public broadcasting was envisioned as an alternative to commercial media. Its purpose, as President Lyndon Johnson noted when he signed the act creating it in 1967, was “most of all to enrich man’s spirit.” WGBH built its mission around that aspiration, and for 60 years the idea of enriching peoples lives through programs and services that educate, inspire, and entertain has guided our choice of what goes on the air.
As we survey today’s media landscape and note what is prevalent, and what is lacking, it’s clear there is a continued need for the alternative programming public media provides, the exploration of topics thoughtfully considered. In our polarized and economically strained society, a fostering of citizenship and culture — the heart of our enterprise — is more needed than ever. Civil discussion and the arts bring people together, illuminate a larger world, and help break down barriers in language, geography, culture and ideology.
At the same time, the world is experiencing a technical revolution that is altering the way people use media. From online streaming to satellite channels to infinite apps, the public has many more options for accessing the specific, narrower content they want. That makes it increasingly complex to decide what merits broadcasting on radio and TV. In the case of WGBH radio’s jazz schedule change for example, we had to recognize that with audiences fragmented, weekends are the time when listeners are most inclined toward music, performance and concerts, so a focus there makes the best use of public media’s limited resources.
But a change in schedule does not mean a change in character. Public media, and WGBH more than most, remain deeply committed to the arts, recording local events like Yo-Yo Ma’s Goat Rodeo at the House of Blues producing a new young people’s performance series, Broadway or Bust; broadcasting live from Tanglewood and capturing regional music festivals; presenting Great Performances, American Masters and Austin City Limits. Starting Friday, WGBH is partnering on the first Boston Summer Arts Weekend, three days of free public performances at Copley Square that will showcase the arts in our region and beyond.
Amplifying the arts, fostering citizenship, culture, education and the joy of learning: these are the elements that continue to define public media. If audiences collectively experience these things through our work, we are fulfilling President Johnson’s aspiration, perhaps truly offering something for all, and in so doing, bringing to light the whole elephant.