Political analysts are dismissing last Thursday’s House vote forbidding public radio stations to spend federal dollars on content (HR 1076) as little more than red meat for the Republican base. But even if not a single dollar ends up being stripped from public broadcasting appropriations, the current battle threatens to strangle innovation in a sector that was just gaining new media sea legs.

Given the toxic tone of the debate over the last few weeks, neither public media leaders nor station staff are eager to go on the record with their concerns. But behind the scenes, they fret that the most vulnerable dollars are those funding cross-platform, mobile and participatory public media experiments.

Stations have begun to hunker down and trim back in anticipation of not just federal but state cuts, as the national drive to pull funds has given courage to local legislators eager to slash spending. Additional federal funding that had been dedicated to supporting stations’ transitions from analog to digital broadcast has more recently been used to fuel both forward-looking news projects and cross-system infrastructure-building for networked public media. Now it’s on the chopping block. Current and immediate appropriations — also still under threat in the budget debate — have no money explicitly earmarked for either.

Conservatives’ (and even some progressives’) ideological objections to public broadcasting — that it’s too elitist, too liberal, too centralized, too vulnerable to government pressures — could prompt legislators to decide that future taxpayer funding will focus on maintaining the pipes, rather than supporting what flows through them. This means certain kinds of innovation, including cross-platform, digitization of archives, creation of metadata and interconnection schemes, could continue unscathed. But this would still leave stations and national players scrambling for production support from users, foundations and underwriters, each already squeezed by the economic climate and carrying their own risks of biases. This would radically shrink resources for a different, riskier form of innovation: crafting new forms of expression and engagement practices that reach publics not currently well served by either commercial or public media.

New Experiments

It is exactly public media’s mandate to inform and involve the whole public — not just targeted partisan clusters or market niches — that drives such content innovation. Beloved shows such as “Sesame Street” and “This American Life” broke new ground in terms of voice, aesthetics and inclusion of differing perspectives. They served new waves of users, influencing commercial formats in the process.

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A new generation of such experiments was on display at last weekend’s IMA-SXSW confab. There was Glynn Washington’s fun and edgy Snap Judgment (“storytelling with a beat”) to the user-informed Public Insight Network, to Frontline’s multiplatform and collaborative investigative documentaries, to the Public Media Corps, which we’re incubating at the Center for Social Media.

It’s not yet clear if or how these and other related projects might enrich and influence our media ecosystem. But if they lose support, the country will lose the chance to find out.

Such losses could mean sure and slow (or maybe not-so-slow) death for the sector. They’ll drive a brain-drain of younger, more creative and wired staffers just at the point when Boomers are beginning to retire in droves out of stations and national networks. They’ll choke off funding for independent radio, film and online producers. They’ll disgust foundations and major donors who have poured millions into trying to jump-start the shift from public broadcasting into public media 2.0. What’s more, they’ll render public media mute in a national conversation that is increasingly 24-7 and cross-platform.

Producing for radio and TV is still important, but is no longer the center of gravity when it comes to democratic deliberation.

Wide-Ranging, Vociferous Debate

The debate over defunding itself demonstrates the speed and fluidity with which advocates and newsmakers harness new technologies to cover issues and score political points. James O’Keefe’s “sting” videos didn’t break on a national news source — they started on a conservative website and migrated into newspaper and broadcast coverage.

Over the past month, much of the commentary and analysis of defunding proposals and NPR controversies has been taking place on blogs and in the digital pages of print and online magazines. Print may be dead, but text is alive and well — spirited coverage by sources including the Atlantic, Slate, and multiple independent weeklies across the country — have all been aggregated and shared on the fly by public media supporters and opponents alike. (I’ve been tracking many of them here.)

Twitter in particular has been on fire with posts related to NPR. Streaming non-stop through my TweetDeck are snarky comments, deep analysis from experts, links to all manner of media, and questions from perplexed audience members. The very fact that you’re reading this piece on the PBS site suggests your own engagement in this contemporary public sphere, and the need for touchstones in a sea of conflicting and variably sourced claims.

Reflecting and grappling productively with this wide-ranging and vociferous debate — previously streamlined and managed by gatekeepers but now visible to anyone with access to a search engine — requires not just new platforms, but new skills. As Jay Rosen suggested in the wake of the NPR sting video, public media makers may need to learn to practice pluralism and transparency rather than lay claim to an impossible “view from nowhere” stance.

For many legislators, less-plugged-in users, and station managers, however, this expansive, contested and lively public sphere is still invisible. For them, the public broadcasting debate hinges on other factors: taxpayer cost, objectivity, educational content. They often fail to see the overarching function of public media, regardless of platform, to provide spaces, perspectives and facts that help Americans flourish and self-govern. The need for such a function becomes most visible in crisis conditions, as with the revolt in Egypt. As this example suggests, next-generation public media shouldn’t just bring content to citizens, but help them learn to filter and interpret the glut of information they encounter each day, and to make their own contributions to key civic deliberations, unencumbered by either commercial or government imperatives.

Change the Conversation

It’s time to change the conversation about public media from one of scarcity to one of abundance. We still have incredible, unprecedented access to low-cost tools for production, distribution, and connection. How can nearly half a century of public investment in media content and infrastructure be retooled to direct such rich resources to address pressing public concerns?

At the Center for Social Media, we’ve been exploring such questions for several years, and with support from the Ford Foundation, have worked with Ellen Goodman of the Rutgers Institute for Information Policy and Law to create a video imagining how different members of an imaginary family might better use public media:

Other proposals for reforming the system have been making the rounds. For example, see Stephen Hill’s paper, Funding the Future of Public Media. “The goal is a comprehensive, tiered public media service that serves the end user the way they like best, on any screen or digital platform, wherever they are,” he writes. “In practice this means a range of interactivity, from passive listening on fully programmed channels, to customized on-demand service, to intensive interaction for high level user requirements.”

But building such next-generation networks will require not just money, or innovators, but full public participation and buy-in to a new vision. What do you wish public media could do for you, your family, and your community? Join the dialogue with your own comments, below, or on Twitter at #pubmedia.

Jessica Clark directs the Future of Public Media Project at American University’s Center for Social Media, and is a Knight Media Policy Fellow at the New America Foundation.