Carnegie and Public Broadcasting

  • Arts & Culture
  • 1967

By the time he endowed the Carnegie Corporation of New York in 1911, Andrew Carnegie had already given away some $43 million and started five charitable organizations. But he was 76 years old, and the day-to-day strain of managing his own philanthropy was getting to him. After consultation with friends, he gave $125 million to start a trust to distribute funds in his name. Additional sums were transferred upon his death.

One of the corporation’s lasting achievements was in the area of public television. In 1964, a conference on educational television led Boston civic leader Ralph Lowell to pitch Carnegie president John Gardner on the idea. Gardner checked with the Ford Foundation, which had up to that point dominated the field (eventually spending $300 million over 25 years to support local educational TV stations). He got only encouragement from Ford.

In 1965, the Corporation used $500,000 to establish and fund the Carnegie Commission on Educational Television, to establish precisely how Americans used their televisions and make recommendations about how the technology could be used to spread learning. The commission included prominent figures like author Ralph Ellison, pianist Rudolph Serkin, and a number of businessmen and academics in technology-related fields. In 1967, the commission made its recommendations in “Public Television: A Program for Action.” Their central provision called for the establishment of a corporation for public television with a mix of public and private funding.

The report quickly made headlines. It sold 50,000 copies in a few days, and was mentioned by President Lyndon Johnson in his State of the Union address. In November of 1967, the commission’s top recommendation became reality with the passage of the Public Broadcasting Act. This eventually led to a Public Broadcasting System airing everything from Sesame Street (which premiered in 1969), to adaptations of classic literature, to various current-events shows. In the 1970s, the same framework led to creation of National Public Radio.

In the years since, the Carnegie Corporation has remained a major supporter of arts and education broadcasting on both TV and radio.