Patrick Butler's Presidential Address at the 2020 Public Media Summit

Remarks as prepared for delivery on Monday, February 24, 2020. Watch a recording of this speech.

When we gathered here a year ago, we celebrated the 50th anniversary of Mister Rogers’ historic congressional testimony that saved federal funding for public broadcasting.

I proposed that we make a little history of our own by securing the first increase in our federal funding in a decade.

How did we do?

We won another $20 million installment on our new interconnection system.

We received $29 million for Ready To Learn – an increase of $1,269,000 over the previous year. (We count every dollar.)

And we secured $465 million for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting – a $20 million raise.

Mister Rogers would be proud of us.  

And it is, indeed, a beautiful day in the neighborhood.

Almost as important as the money – almost – is the way we got it.

This year-long effort involved the cooperation of everyone in public broadcasting – all 23,000 of us.

Leading the way were fourteen of the hardest-working people in show business: my colleagues at APTS Global Headquarters.

Our legislative consultants – bringing decades of high-level congressional service, and close relationships with some of the most powerful people on Capitol Hill – played a critical role, as well.

Our public policy collaboration with our friends at CPB, PBS and NPR was – and is -- constant and constructive.

Almost all of you went to Capitol Hill last year to tell your stories of local service in education, public safety, and civic leadership – and your legislators were clearly listening.

Many of you invited your Senators and Representatives to your stations, to see for themselves the public service work you’re doing with all manner of community partners.

Lawmakers unanimously tell us that these station visits are the most impactful and persuasive experience they have with you.

And the more of those visits you organize, now and forever, the better for our cause.

Our Leadership Council – influential citizens in communities across the country – shared their passion for public broadcasting with political leaders, the news media, their professional colleagues and civic allies in highly effective ways.

Protect My Public Media, our growing army of grassroots advocates, generated almost 200,000 memorable and well-timed contacts with congressional offices on both sides of the Hill and both sides of the partisan aisle.

This alliance between America’s Public Television Stations and NPR grows larger, better targeted and more powerful every year.

Our grassroots army now numbers more than 750,000 citizens in reserve, rivaling the size of the United States Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps reserves – combined.

They are ready to be mobilized at a moment’s notice to make our case with their own Members of Congress.

And while their weapons of choice are emails and phone calls, they are just as mission-oriented as their military counterparts – and just as formidable in their way.

We will need all the collaborative strength we can summon to convince our friends in Congress to further increase our federal funding this year.

The White House is still proposing to zero us out.

The competition for funding among many worthy programs remains keen.

The annual federal deficit now exceeds $1 trillion.

And the two-year budget agreement adopted by the House and Senate last year leaves very little room for new funding in fiscal 2021.

In such a challenging political and budgetary environment, holding our own over the past ten years – while dozens of other programs have been decimated or eliminated – has been a remarkable achievement.

And getting a $20 million increase last year was little short of miraculous.

On Wednesday, we will have the opportunity to thank four of the people who made this miracle possible:

Senator Dan Sullivan, Republican of Alaska, helped secure a record number of Senators endorsing an increase in our funding.

Congressman Fred Upton, Republican of Michigan, put his prestige on the line as a former chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee to co-chair our Public Broadcasting Caucus and enlarge our bipartisan support.

And House Appropriations Committee chairwoman Nita Lowey, Democrat of New York, and our subcommittee chair Rosa DeLauro, Democrat of Connecticut, actually secured a $50 million increase for CPB in the House version of our bill last June.

The budget agreement reached later in the year limited their ambition -- and may do so again this year.

Even so, they have encouraged us to make our case to Congress that ten years of frozen funding reduced the purchasing power of our federal appropriation by almost $100 million – and we are still $80 million behind.

So we will ask again this year for a $50 million increase for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

We will ask for $30 million to expand Ready To Learn – the most effective broad-based preschool education program ever devised.

We will ask for $20 million to further fund our new interconnection system.

And we will ask for a new $20 million annual investment, to be administered by the Department of Homeland Security, to finance infrastructure improvements to pursue our public safety mission more effectively, reliably and comprehensively than ever before.

Since Congress eliminated the $20 million Public Telecommunications Facilities Program, or PTFP, in 2010, public media have been without any consistent source of funding for upgrades and replacement of critical infrastructure.

After ten years of making do, or doing without, that situation needs to change – and change this year.

Today’s technology makes it possible for us to:

reduce earthquake warning time from 30 seconds to less than two seconds;

or convey to first responders the treacherous path of wildfires, or the route to safety from a tornado, a hurricane or a flood.

Tomorrow’s technology – the Next Gen broadcast standard, with its advances in mobility and interactivity – will make it possible for us to send such critical information to everyone with a cell phone equipped with a Next Gen chip.

A federal investment to make all this happen – an investment in towers, antennas, encoders, receivers, multiplexers, datacasting and Next Gen equipment, and more – may be the best money Congress has ever spent on public safety and homeland security, and that is the case we will make this week.

These are all big asks, perhaps the most ambitious public policy agenda in our history.

Our legislative team will take you through this agenda in detail this afternoon and show you exactly how to persuade your legislators to endorse these requests.

And while our focus this week is on Washington, we should understand that funding from State governments also represents a large and growing source of financial support for public media.

In 2019, thirty-six States invested $218 million in the work of public broadcasting -- $6 million more than the year before, and almost half the level of our federal funding.

We lost $100 million in state support – in real dollars – in the aftermath of the Great Recession of 2008, and we are almost back to where we were before the roof fell in.

We are committed to getting it all back, and increasing the number of States that fund our work, and growing State funding by $100 million more over the next ten years.

We have found that our focus on three pillars of public service – education, public safety and civic leadership – is as effective at the state level as at the federal level.

Today you will meet our new partners at 50 State – the most well-connected state government advocacy firm in the business, founded and led by the former directors of both the Republican and Democratic Governors Associations.

They are helping us tell the stories of public media’s exceptional service to every Governor in America.

And what impressive stories they are.

California’s public media stations, which lost all their state funding in 1983, are working to get it back through partnerships with the State in early childhood education and emergency communications.

Tennessee’s public television stations are already standing up an emergency communications network with their state government, as Vickie Lawson of East Tennessee PBS will report to you tomorrow.

We are collaborating with increasing success with other community partners, as well.

As Bohdan Zachary will explain, Milwaukee PBS has partnered with the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel newspaper to produce a powerful documentary on “Kids In Crisis,” in the finest tradition of civic leadership.

In Tacoma, Washington, DeAnne Hamilton and her colleagues at KBTC are collaborating with the Tacoma Children’s Museum to engage not only students and teachers, but parents and other care givers in the voyage of educational discovery.

In literally thousands of ways, everyone in this public broadcasting system is contributing every day to the vital work of public service.

The better we perform that service, the more support we can expect from state and federal governments alike.

And we need all the public support we can get.

We are making tremendous progress in enhancing station revenues, through Passport, planned giving, sustaining members, donated cars, the Contributor Development Partnership, data mining, software improvements, and other fundraising innovations.

But public funding -- both federal and state -- still accounts for a substantial share of the annual revenue at most public television stations.

And the further away from the major markets, the more important public funding becomes.

So getting all the public funding we deserve – and deserving all the public funding we get – is, and will remain, our principal mission at APTS Global Headquarters.

While restoring our lost purchasing power is central to the case we’ll make on Capitol Hill this week, so is the urgent need to revitalize and enhance one of the most successful public service institutions in the history of our country.

We’re the only pre-school education there is for 52 percent of America’s kids – but we could do more.

We’ve been pioneers in public safety communications, with partners at the federal, state and local levels, but we could do more.

We tell the stories of hometown America more comprehensively than anyone else –- producing thousands of hours of programming on local history, local culture and local public affairs -- but we could do more.

Over the past few years, many of your stations have celebrated your 50th anniversary of service.  

So has Fred Rogers Productions. So has Sesame Street.

This year, PBS will celebrate its 50th. And next year, it will be NPR.

These have been important, historic milestones, and the outpouring of respect, affection and appreciation for what you do has been nothing short of extraordinary – and extraordinarily well deserved.

Last month, I had the honor of being welcomed to the floor of the New York State Assembly in Albany.

And when I was introduced by the Speaker of the Assembly as the president of America’s Public Television Stations, I received a spontaneous standing ovation.

That ovation wasn’t for me – it was for you:

for all the years of teaching America’s children, producing programs America loves and needs, keeping our fellow citizens safe, and taking our nation’s public affairs seriously.

Members of the Assembly came up to me afterward to introduce themselves, and to share with me their memories of your influence on their childhood, or their appreciation for your civil and balanced approach to journalism, or their reliance on the range of essential services you provide in your communities.

And I have no doubt that this heartfelt expression of goodwill would be matched in any legislature in the country – including the Congress of the United States.

But there’s so much more we want to do – so much more that new technology enables us to do – if we have the financial resources we need to do it.

We have a whole future to invent, and you will see the outlines of that future this week.

John Lansing, the new president of NPR, has a new vision for public radio.

John Taylor of LG Electronics will show you the future of the Next Gen broadcast standard as it’s already unfolding in South Korea.

FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly believes public media can revolutionize communications in rural America, and he’s ready to help.

Susi Elkins of WKAR in East Lansing will unveil a technology platform called Apollo that can help you take full advantage of Next Gen – now and later.

Molly Phillips of Iowa PBS will show you how we can transform precision agriculture – after she explains what precision agriculture is.

Tom Karlo of KPBS in San Diego doubled his station’s revenues in ten years -- by listening closely to his community -- and he’ll tell you how you can do it, too.

Craig Fugate, the former FEMA Administrator and now a member of our board, will take you further into the future, where a portion of your spectrum can be deployed in applications as diverse as weather warnings and financial market timing.

And Lieutenant General Bruce Crawford, the Chief Information Officer of the United States Army, will join us to explore an intriguing collaboration in national security.

This is the new world of communication and public service we’re creating, and there’s never been a better time to be in public media than now.

But truly successful leadership of the public media enterprise in the 21st century will require still more of us – more than a grasp of new technology, more even than a willing embrace of new opportunity.

As a new generation of leaders emerges, and as the work of public media evolves far beyond its origins, we must be serious and systematic about diversifying the management, the board membership and the workforce of public media to better reflect the society we serve and the country we’re becoming.

Milton Clipper, president emeritus of Public Broadcasting Atlanta, will guide us toward this goal tomorrow.

And Maria Ghazal of the Business Roundtable will show us how America’s largest companies are making diversity a foundational strategy for success in the 21st century.

Together all of us can reap the benefits of a profound collaboration with every race, gender, faith, age, nationality, ideology, and regional identity in this marvelous patchwork quilt of a country.

We want to build a universal platform, to be the common ground on which every American can stand with dignity, and equality, and purpose.

This is the ultimate collaboration we seek, encompassing the academy and the military, the liberal and the conservative, the Native American and the newest immigrant, the farmer and the financier, and anyone else attracted to the ideals of freedom and fellowship that bind our nation together.

This very luncheon is being sponsored by our friends at Sinclair Broadcast Group and ONEMedia – business allies and technology partners in our quest to make the most of the Next Gen broadcast standard, both in broadcasting and datacasting.

It was one of their senior executives, Jerry Fritz, who long ago encouraged our own Lonna Thompson to go to law school, with spectacular results for public media.

And it was Jerry who arranged for me to be introduced to the New York State Assembly just last month.

Sinclair and its SpectrumCo partner NexStar have now joined Pearl TV – including Cox, Scripps, Gray, Hearst, Meredith, TEGNA, and my old friends at Graham Media – in a collaborative effort to effect a swift and successful transition to Next Gen television.

They, and we, and everyone else in this business need to work together to ensure that local broadcasting – public and commercial – survives and thrives in the years of growing competition ahead.  

And NextGen can help us make that happen.

The great philosopher, and a pretty good basketball player, Michael Jordan once said, “Talent wins games, but teamwork wins championships.”

Tomorrow we will learn a great deal more about how to build a championship team from Ted Leonsis, the principal owner of the 2018 Stanley Cup champion Washington Capitals and the 2019 WNBA champion Washington Mystics.

And over the next three days, it will become increasingly clear to you why the theme of this 2020 Summit is “The Power of Collaboration.”

This power is real. It’s battle-tested. And it holds the promise of even greater success in the future.

But we will also be reminded of the power of one person to set a standard of professional leadership and personal example to which we all should aspire.

Tomorrow and Wednesday, we will present well-deserved awards to political and public media leaders alike, in recognition of their extraordinary contributions to the success of our public service media enterprise.

And today we will pay tribute to three of our best, who have departed this life but whose legacies will never die:

  • Bobbi English, the heart and soul of Sesame Street;
  • Cokie Roberts, one of the “founding mothers” of NPR; and
  • Jim Lehrer, the guiding light of the PBS NewsHour.

We were fortunate beyond measure to have called each of these remarkable people our colleagues and our friends.

And as we honor them today, may we also be inspired by their passion for our work, the surpassing skill with which they pursued it, and the personal grace, and dignity, and beauty, and humility

with which they made their way in this world.

Jim Lehrer always said, “It’s not about us.”

We have the great privilege, and great responsibility, of serving all of our fellow citizens, in all of our States and territories, every hour of every day: teaching them, protecting them, informing them, bringing them together to address the most important concerns of our time.

In their name, and on their behalf, we will petition Congress and the States for a greater investment in our work.

We will harness technology to serve them even more effectively.

We will open our doors to new people and our minds to new opportunities in a profoundly changing America.

And we will employ the awesome power of collaboration to do what public media were always meant to do: elevate our society, enrich our civilization, and extend a new world of possibility to everyone we reach.

It’s not about us. It’s about US.

And we never needed the enlightening, civilizing, uniting power of public media more than now.

God bless you for doing so much, so well, for the people we serve and the country we love.

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