What's not brought to you by the letters PBS

AIR WARS:The Fight to Reclaim Public Broadcasting By Jerold Starr Beacon Press 338 pages, $27.50

Probably everybody who switches on a public television station has noticed that some of the programming is highbrow, which is what public television programming is supposed to be all about.

But a few days of viewing will also yield programming that is nearly indistinguishable from the mostly lowbrow broadcast and cable channels.

Jerold Starr, a sociology professor and self-styled community activist, wants lots more highbrow programming, a minimum of middlebrow programming, and no lowbrow programming at all. So he is devoting much of his life to running an organization called Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting.

In his book "Air Wars," Starr explains how the originally commercial-free, not-for-profit public broadcasting system turned out to be so much like the commercial-laden, for-profit television networks.

Interwoven with his impressive research about the big picture are chapters that explain his journey from passive, mostly satisfied public television viewer to active, mostly dissatisfied public television viewer. Eventually, Starr's activism focused on the public television situation in Pittsburgh, where sister stations WQED and WQEX disappointed him on a regular basis.

"Air Wars" is not an easy book to read because of its disparate organization and style. It is actually several books advertised as one. One of the books within the book is a skeptic's history of public television, starring the US Congress, the White House, the Federal Communications Commission, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Public Broadcasting Service, major business corporations, politically conservative and liberal pressure groups, and other institutional entities.

The history is well researched, pointing to how those with influence drove public broadcasting to emphasize the capitalist worldview. But most of this book within a book is dry reading because Starr has no gift for making history come alive through the development of individual characters.

He is a self-educated policy wonk who writes like a policy wonk. At best, these third-person, omniscient chapters approximate a lengthy encyclopedia entry. There have been much more interesting books written about the big picture, including James Ledbetter's "Made Possible By...: The Death of Public Broadcasting in the United States" (Verso, 1997), which Starr cites.

But the second book within a book works much better because it covers ground that Starr has trod personally and that probably nobody else has written about as comprehensively: how the national dumbing down and selling out of public broadcasting played in Pittsburgh.

These chapters are written mostly in the first person, so there is some humanity within the pages, with Starr as the star. His persona is sometimes overbearing and condescending, but it is easy to forgive those traits in somebody so dedicated to bettering the lot of the thinking audience.

The third section of the book explains how disgruntled citizens in any locale can do what Starr and his colleagues did in Pittsburgh - a blueprint for reform, if you will.

Starr takes readers to San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, and Jacksonville, among other places, where activists are trying to promote programming diversity in public broadcasting.

The story is not over, according to Starr: "While the struggle in Pittsburgh goes on, it is important to note that it is not unique. It is part of a larger, longer history of citizen action to promote more community-responsive public broadcasting. My participation in this rich heritage has brought me in contact with many other activists. Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting will be drawing on them to build a broader and more coordinated movement to put the public and the public interest back into public broadcasting."

*Steve Weinberg is a freelance investigative journalist in Columbia, Mo., and serves on the National Book Critics Circle board of directors.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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