Mississippi Public Broadcasting is a bargain. So why don’t lawmakers want to fund it?

Published 9:45 am Wednesday, April 4, 2018

It’s a wonder that public broadcasting exists at all in Mississippi.

Jeanne Luckett, hired in the fall of 1969 to help get what was then known as Mississippi Educational Television on the air, remembers the early objections well.

One was the suspicion that, because federal funding was involved, “there would be some kind of direct line from Washington piped into classrooms, poisoning the minds of the children,” said Luckett, who later founded her own communications company.

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Another, she said, was the fear that sex education would somehow sneak into the offerings. The enabling legislation specifically prohibits any programming from the Sexuality Information and Education Council of the United States “or any of its subsidiaries or connections known by any other name whatsoever.”

Then, within months of ETV’s first broadcast on Feb. 1, 1970 – it was the last state east of the Mississippi River to have a public station licensed – another controversy arose.

“It was thought ‘Sesame Street’ was a little too liberal to air,” Luckett said. “There were green people and blue people living on the same street, and orange people playing with them. Even though they were puppets.”

Heaven forbid that Mississippi young’uns be exposed to racial diversity. Fortunately, the embarrassing public outcry soon forced Kermit, Big Bird, Oscar and the rest into Mississippi homes.

And the system has managed to thrive since then, despite some less than enlightened thinking on the part of officials. What is now Mississippi Public Broadcasting covers the state and beyond not only with television, but radio.

State-produced programs like “Mississippi Roads,” “Conversations” and “Southern Remedy” supplement PBS offerings like “Antiques Roadshow” and the revered “Downton Abbey.”

Ronnie Agnew is the executive director of Mississippi Public Broadcasting.

“It’s one of the most respected public broadcasting systems in the entire country,” said Ronnie Agnew, the executive director.

But the challenges from state officialdom have continued. In 2011, Gov. Haley Barbour proposed phasing out funding for MPB by 2016, saying, “Mississippi taxpayers should not continue subsidizing a television and radio network.”

That effort fizzled. But within its appropriation for the agency, the 2018 Legislature made clear its desire to end state financing in 2024.

Agnew is very much in favor of expanding the agency’s nongovernmental support. Last year, state funds accounted for about 57 percent of the budget, he said, with the Corporation for Public Broadcasting at about 17 percent and the remainder from a support foundation and ancillary sources, like tower rentals.

“We’re trying our best to reduce that level of dependence on Mississippi,” he said. “But going to zero? That’s just not possible.”

No state system operates totally without its state support, Agnew said, and Mississippi would be particularly hard-pressed to try.

“We’ve got to realize where we are,” he said, “in a state that has one of the slowest growing economies in the country. That’s a fact.”

“I’m not pointing a finger at any lawmaker,” he went on. “The facts would just suggest the dollars are not there to be totally self-sufficient.”

As it is, state funding has been trending down, from $7.9 million in 2015 to $5.75 million for 2019. I put a calculator to that 2019 figure, and, based on the most recent population estimate, that works out to about $1.93 per Mississippian.

Some legislators think that’s too much. I’d call it a steal.

Agnew said he’s confident lawmakers will eventually see the wisdom of continuing support and, if he has his way, even increasing it.

“I think Mississippi needs a winner, and I think it has one here,” he said.