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Beyond Big Bird

While Big Bird as a character served as a symbol in the fight to protect public broadcasting, it is now important to move past support alone and use nonprofit media to make genuine political changes in the country.

During the presidential campaign, Big Bird became a convenient symbol in the fight to defend public broadcasting. But behind all those feathers is a diverse network of people, organizations and communities that are creating a new generation of public media.

In the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Vince Stehle argues that it’s time for us to think beyond Big Bird and go back to the roots of public broadcasting, which was envisioned as a true “network for knowledge.” Stehle believes it’s vital to support NPR and PBS, but says we must also expand our support for real “experimentation and expansion” in nonprofit media.

This idea is rooted in a report that Free Press released earlier this year. In Greater Than the Sum, we call for the public, community and nonprofit media sector to build a more collaborative and connected vision for the future.

In his piece, Stehle makes the case for why lawmakers should double down on our investment in a broader public media system. But before that happens, we need media makers themselves to stand together.

For too long, nonprofit media outlets — NPR and PBS stations, documentary filmmakers, community radio and TV stations, nonprofit magazines and online journalism sites — have defined themselves in terms of their differences, not their shared mission.

Our nearly total reliance on commercial media for educational and entertainment programming is an anomaly among democracies around the world. The current upheaval in the journalism landscape may signal an important shift toward nonprofit news becoming a much more prominent part of American media. The rise of nonprofit journalism is a uniquely American response to the struggles in commercial media. Noncommercial media, in its many forms, embodies some of the best of America’s character: localism, service and charity.

For all these reasons, it’s time for nonprofit media to take a more prominent role in American society. We will always have commercial media — and we should — but we can’t and shouldn’t rely on the marketplace alone for the full extent of news, arts, culture and information we need.

We need more solidarity in the noncommercial media sector to fight for a bold future, but also to battle against existing threats. Too often, the various sectors under the tent of noncommercial media have been left to fight on their own, rallying their own troops, building their own allegiances and developing their own champions. Imagine what we could do if we marshaled the combined force of our shared resources: our communities, our boards, our contributors and underwriters. Imagine if we fought together today for the media of tomorrow.