Connecting Public Interest Communications with the 2007 Council on Foundations Conference Themes

Ralph Smith, the 2007 Conference Chairman, issued a challenge in his welcome message – “that all who attend will leave with renewed energy, capacity and resolve to make a positive contribution toward meeting the challenges of our time.”

The Benton Foundation comes to the annual conference ready to support philanthropy in its efforts to end poverty; improve public health; protect the environment; and increase disaster preparedness. We want to explore how we can best help the field leverage its ideas, programs, and resources through creative uses of the media and through advancing media policies that strengthen democracy.

For more than 25 years, Benton has committed its resources to developing and promoting communications in the public interest, exploring the efficacy of communications technologies, such as the Internet, in addressing social issues. A primary Benton focus is promoting public interest television programming. Simply put, the airwaves are an invaluable public resource, while they also make possible an incredibly lucrative commercial enterprise. We must not lose sight of the fact that the federal government, acting on behalf of us all, grants broadcasters access to a portion of our airwaves in exchange for a commitment to serve “the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” This has been the law since the 1930s.

Benton and many of our colleagues in the public interest media advocacy arena work to see that this critical public interest obligation is met. With support from the Ford Foundation, in 2005 Benton published a Citizen's Guide to the Public Interest Obligations of Digital Television Broadcasters in anticipation of the February 2009 completion of the transition from analog to digital TV broadcasting. Much work is still needed to ensure that the transition to digital will serve the needs of children, voters, minorities, the disabled, and people in emergency.

Our focus on communications in the public interest, however, goes well beyond broadcasting.

Ending Poverty

Access and equity are the cornerstones for Benton's activities to help bridge the Digital Divide, where those with few resources are excluded from full participation in the information and discourse available only online. More than 10 years ago, the foundation played a role in making available online A Nation of Opportunity: Realizing the Promise of the Information Superhighway -- the first significant report from the federal government to examine the role of the Internet in America; at that time, we set forth a vision of making the Internet accessible to everyone.

Today our emphasis on democratizing digital opportunity and participation continues in our Universal Broadband activities, to which Benton has dedicated significant resources. As Congress puts Universal Service reform at the top of its telecommunications policy agenda, we are supporting new research that advances a vision for Universal Service aimed at making broadband (high-speed Internet access) as universal as telephone service is today. This effort embraces the premise that Universal Broadband access is as important to the advancement of the American ideal of equal opportunity in the 21st century as universal access to education and universal phone service was in the last.

Benton reports and policy papers have focused much needed attention on the underserved.

  • Losing Ground Bit by Bit: Low-Income Communities in the Digital Age, published in 1998, examined the gap that separates America's low-income and underserved communities from the benefits of the information age.
  • The following year we published Native Networking: Telecommunications & Information Technology in Indian Country, which analyzed the critical telecommunications and information technology policy issues facing tribes, focusing on the interaction between Indian sovereignty and federal and state regulation in a rapidly changing policy and practice arena.
  • With the support of more than a dozen communications companies and foundations, Benton launched the Digital Divide Network (DDN) in 2000, an online resource and network focused on solutions-oriented reporting and debate on access, equity and diversity on the Internet. In 2006 TakingITGlobal, a Canadian organization, took over the operation of DDN.
  • In March 2002, Benton published Federal Retrenchment on the Digital Divide: Potential National Impact, a policy brief that explored the likely impact of budget cuts to federal investments to bridge the digital divide.
  • On June 15, 2007, Benton will co-sponsor a Community Media Summit in Chicago with the Community Media Workshop. This Summit seeks to address a concern that emerged from a Benton-sponsored community media scan. To help remedy a fragmentation of efforts and resources, more communication and sharing of best practices across different media platforms and organizations is needed, especially if community media are to serve the goals of community development. Click here for the Summit agenda.

Improving Public Health

In 1996, Benton entered a strategic partnership with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to create “Sound Partners for Community Health”, a 10-year project using community media to address health issues. In this packet we're proud to include Local Voices for Healthy Communities, a report on this remarkable initiative. It began as a project to fund and build alliances between local public broadcasters, community health and media partners to create innovative programming and outreach on health care issues. Over the life of Sound Partners and through the experiences of the project's grantees, we found that authentic collaboration is not only possible, but it can enable local media and community groups to give voice to our most vulnerable populations on health care issues.

The next iteration of this successful partnership is launching this year. Between 2007 and 2011, “New Routes to Community Health” will support local partnerships among immigrant organizations, media production centers and established community institutions to improve the health, work- life and civic participation of immigrant and refugee populations in this country. The Request for Proposals can be accessed online:

Protecting the Environment

While traditional environmental issues are not a specific focus of the foundation's work, Benton believes the public airwaves are indeed part of our environment, along with the air we breath and the water we drink. All are public assets that need protection and preservation for the public good.

Further, we do view all of the media…both commercial and public…and the policies that govern or in other ways affect them, as a key part of our society's “environment.” For over 10 years the Benton Foundation has published, via the Internet, Communication Headlines. This is a daily information service that summarizes both consumer and trade press stories and reports on all major media and communications news – business, public interest, local, national, international, broadcast, cable, video, telecommunications, Internet, FCC, Congress, NTIA, the Administration, etc. – used by many thousands of subscribers and tens of thousands of readers every weekday. Click here to access Communications Headlines.

Increasing Disaster Preparedness

Benton has identified Emergency Communications as a key part of TV broadcasters' public interest obligations. Further, in a post-9/11, post-Katrina communications environment, ubiquitous broadband is a national security imperative. The Internet, designed by the Defense Department to withstand a nuclear attack, has some inherent advantages over traditional communications systems in an emergency. These advantages are critical to our communities' first responders, regardless of the nature of the emergency. For this and many other benefits, as outlined on Benton's Broadband Benefits web page , we work in collaboration with our colleagues in the media policy reform sector to urge the development and implementation of a national broadband policy. These documents more fully describe the project and the research.

As a colleague recently pointed out, in reality, the first three 2007 Conference themes concerning poverty, health, and the environment each represent “disaster in slow motion.” It is gratifying for the Benton Foundation to stand in the company of philanthropic leaders who make major contributions in many ways to hold these “disasters” at bay. Over the past 26 years, Benton has taken a number of approaches, large and small, with our philanthropic efforts in communications. We have experienced successes and disappointments and learned invaluable lessons along the way. As the media proliferate and converge, we are unwavering in our commitment to strengthen communications in the public interest.

April 28, 2007