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Ferree Champions CPB Balance

Public broadcasting provides a nutritious alternative to the “fried foods and desserts” served up by commercial media, the chief of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting told a collection of public radio executives Monday.

“Profit motivated, commercial media is very good at providing high-fat low nutrition programming consumers rush to in their weaker moments,” said Ken Ferree, who was named acting president of CPB three weeks ago following the abrupt resignation of predecessor Kathleen Cox.

Cox’s departure has been characterized by some media activists as a coup against liberals in public broadcasting by CPB’s Republican chairman, Kenneth Tomlinson.

Ferree, who has expressed interest in the permanent post, denies there’s an agenda to turn public stations into right-wing mouth pieces, but defended a move to include more conservative voices on stations that are supported in part by taxpayer dollars.

“I’d urge you to think seriously about diversity of opinion as you consider ways to serve your audiences,” he said. “CPB, funded as it is with taxpayer dollars and guided as it is by statutory language, has special responsibilities to strive toward objectivity and balance.  Frankly, I don’t think any of us should ever aim at a lower standard.  As public broadcasters, our goal should be to expand and enlighten public discourse; offering a wide range of views is one way to do that.”

Ferree made his comments in an address to the Public Radio Leadership Forum in Washington.

Ferree said the current state of commercial broadcasting makes the role of public television and radio essential. “Beyond talk shows comprised of bromides and pap, beyond programming premised on demeaning sensational voyeurism, there has to be someone who will use the tools of electronic media to provide a meal of substance to Americans--someone who will save us from the Desperate Housewives, the cloying efforts to be the next American Idol and the incomprehensible Fear Factor.

That someone of course is you; it is me it is everyone who works in public broadcasting.”

Ferree praised public radio in particular for being a broadcast industry leader in tailoring programs for local and other specialty markets. 

That kind of tailoring will be necessary in an age of individualized media created for Ipods and PCs rather than TVs and radios. Commercial media, on the other hand, has only begun to tailor advertising for narrowly targeted audiences while commercial programming continues to aim for mass appeal, he said.

“This is now the ‘My Yahoo’ generation.  Our audiences want programming that is tailored to their needs available on their schedule.”

Ferree used the occasion to speak out against a New York Times article he says "misrepresented" his public broadcasting viewing and listening (or lack of) habits.

“Whatever you may have read or heard about me, I am completely and inexorably committed” to making that mission of public broadcasting a success.

In a recent Times report, Ferree was quoted referring to the venerable Newshour with Jim Lehrer as “it's slow,” saying that he didn’t listen to NPR because he commuted to work by motorcycle.

“These facts, however, should not be understood, as has been suggested, that I don’t listen to public radio or that I don’t watch public television. Of course I do, and, indeed, now that I work for CPB, I do so now more than I ever did before.”

Ferree did say that watching television at home takes a back seat to practicing the piano, reading and spending time with his kids.

“Although I might be perfectly comfortable with only my piano and my books, I know electronic media continues to dominate American political social and culture life and that’s precisely why free public media is so important and why I am at CPB.”