Why NPR’s Better Off Without Federal Funds

March 13th, 2011 at 11:49 pm | 24 Comments |

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I think it’s safe to say that National Public Radio has had a rough week recently.  Support for NPR funding during the current budget cycle has become a proxy for other culture war debates and perhaps it is time for NPR supporters to ask themselves – is federal funding worth the hassles that relate to it?  Hamilton Nolan summed up the issue in Gawker recently:

NPR gets about 2% of its direct funding from the U.S. government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. For NPR’s member stations, CPB funding is about 10% of their total, with other federal, state, and local government sources kicking in another 6%.  This relatively tiny piece of money has been called “a critical cornerstone of public media.” That was the stated position of Vivian Schiller—the NPR CEO up until today, when she was forced out, thanks to that government funding.  It’s not worth it. As long as NPR takes a single dollar from the U.S. government, it will be forced to appease and cater to Congressional Republicans, who know that NPR is a convenient target in the culture war. And—newsflash—NPR will never be able to appease the Republican Party. It simply won’t happen.

Let’s leave partisanship aside for a moment.  Is it really wise for NPR to spend its resources and cultural capital (and by extension, those of its supporters) chasing federal dollars that make up a small part of its total revenue?  In business, it’s not uncommon for a firm to cut loose a client that requires much more work and attention than their payments justify.  Perhaps NPR should consider doing so with regard to federal funding.  That funding makes it a lightning rod for political debate and provides leverage to its political and cultural adversaries during the budget process.

Also, the media and financial world that NPR now operates in is a very different world than when it was created in 1970.  For one thing, we no longer live in a world in which audio news and music comes exclusively via the FCC-regulated radio spectrum.  Satellite radio and the internet have completely changed all that.  As the line between the internet and all other forms of media blur (such as if wireless internet radio becomes a standard accessory in every new car), perhaps longstanding funding models should change because they are based on now-outdated assumptions.  Further, there now exists a mass market for the sort of content provided by NPR which can fund NPR by corporate, private and foundation donations.  One need not be a devotee of the writings of David Brooks to notice that there is a vast source of, for want of a better word, culturally literate and liberal wealth out there that can be tapped, which does not require Congressional oversight.

To be clear, I do not support abolishing federal support for NPR by Congress in the current budget cycle.  Such a sudden move would be overly damaging to NPR because it wouldn’t have time to adjust for an immediate loss of revenue.  Also, while some of those who want to cut its federal support are doing so for bona fide budgetary reasons, some of NPR’s opponents are interested in doing so for purely ideological reasons and I can certainly understand NPR’s desire to prevent giving such opponents a victory.  That having been said, perhaps NPR and its supporters should acknowledge that the market it functions in has changed over the decades.  NPR should begin weaning itself from a funding source that causes it a lot of heartache and opens it up to the sort of scrutiny that any recipient of federal funding can and should expect.  If NPR gives up federal funding on its own terms rather than terms dictated by someone else, it might be better off.


Recent Posts by Mark R. Yzaguirre



24 Comments so far ↓

  • dugfromthearth

    I agree. I am “socialist” on a lot of things. I want healthcare for all, social security, environmental protections, etc. But I see no reason why the government should pay for NPR or PBS or why they should want government funding.

  • Bunker555

    You’re right. They should give up federal funding. The programs they broadcast –Sesame Street, BBC, Al Jazeera, and Masterpiece Theatre are far superior to the junk on Faux News, CNN, and MSNBC. With better promotion, these shows can attract more viewers and corporate sponsors.

  • rbottoms

    You are mistaken if you think the national wing of NPR even wants federal funds. Who needs this crap year after year when national programmings… surprise profitable. It’s the local stations which are terrified of losing federal money. NPR is a brand that can stand completely alone from the weak sisters in their network. Tell Newt to shove his outrage up his posterior and wave bye bye to this annual screech-fest.

  • rockstar

    Yes, it’s a good idea.

  • rockstar

    Starve the beast and support locals like the Baltimore Sun. ‘Nuff Said.

  • SFTor1

    Is it a thought to keep some federal funding, precisely for the reason to hold at least one station accountable to the American people? I realize that there will always be far-right shenanigans if federal funding is continued, but that may be a small price to pay for a station that would actually have to be, well, fair and balanced.

    I use NPR a lot, and I donate every year.

  • Rabiner

    NPR may not need federal funding but rural radio stations that provide the populace with news about their state capital and world news needs federal funding since it isn’t commercially viable. It just so happens that these rural stations are NPR affiliates.

  • rbottoms

    It just so happens that these rural stations are NPR affiliates.

    Really, then maybe they should stop voting for Republicans and they’d have their funding, eh?

    • balconesfault

      rbottoms Really, then maybe they should stop voting for Republicans and they’d have their funding, eh?

      Well, if you go to the Midwest, you’ll find that the NPR station usually represents a radio oasis – the only other talk radio to be found will be national right wing pundits, Christian broadcasting, and the occasional right wing local host. The folks listening to NPR by and by aren’t reliable votes for Republicans, the way Fox News listeners are …

      I actually disagree with the “get rid of Federal Funding” thing … because once the Federal Funding is gone, the “National” thing is gone. And personally, I think that the Corporate sponsors that chip in to make sure that National Public Radio continues to be reliably pro-corporate and centrist in its news coverage will be happy to quickly abandon it altogether if the “National” brand that being federally funded disappears.

      Because they’re even better served if it doesn’t exist at all.

      Although the other thing that could result is that NPR might feel compelled to parade even MORE Heritage/Enterprise/Cato hacks through their studios to provide editorial commentary in order to please the corporate overlords and keep the money flowing.

      One things for sure – NPR isn’t going to suddenly turn into Pacifica if the GOP isn’t always scaring with threats to pull funding.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    Not only should they have done it, they should have done it *on their own*. They seem not to understand that giving up your independence and making yourself open to attack from the knuckledragging right isn’t worth the tiny amount of money they get from the government.

    Of course, we’re dealing with a management team so tone-deaf and incompetent that they respond to selective editing propaganda pieces with “let’s admit our guilt” resignations.

    • Houndentenor

      This is why it’s bizarre to hear some of the conspiracy talk from the right about liberals and their goals. Liberals will compromise on anything and will do things like fire someone based on a heavily edited tape that misrepresents them. (Yes, Obama, I’m looking at you. Shame on you for being manipulated by Breitbart!)

      Yes, nationally npr would be better off without federal funding. It just gives the right something to demagogue with. But without some government money many smaller rural stations would go under.

  • Rob_654

    I don’t understand all of the funding options that NPR has available to it.

    Let’s say NPR says “Fine, we don’t want any further government funding”, can they then offer advertising slots? Or perhaps offer certain companies a chance to “sponsor” shows that would have an upfront and back-end commercial?

    The rural stations that might be lost – I don’t know what to say other than the folks in rural areas often send some of the most Conservative people to Congress and those are the folks who want to cut NPR funding.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    “But without some government money many smaller rural stations would go under.”

    So? Then let them. Vermont is the most rural state in the nation and we are able to support numerous NPR stations. If others places don’t, that’s their choice.

    The fact is that most of NPR’s programming isn’t aimed at people in rural conservative areas. Why should their tax dollars be used to prop up something used by a minority?

    If NPR decides it wants a national presence even in areas where there isn’t sufficient support, they can use the same model as the USPS and prop up those stations that can’t support themselves.

    • jquintana

      talkradiosucks.com // Mar 14, 2011 at 9:32 am:

      Vermont is the most rural state in the nation and we are able to support numerous NPR stations.

      You live in Vermont? Well, that explains volumes…getting set to vote for the self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders next year?

  • armstp

    Mark,

    I think the real question you should be asking is whether the country is better off with a cut in funding to NPR?

    I am not sure that you understand where exactly the federal funding that NPR gets is actually used. It is used to fund the 100s of rural radio NPR stations across the country where there is often zero radio or access to information. Federal funding for NPR is not used to fund it programming or big city operations. A cut in federal funding will result in the closing on 100s of small rural NPR radio stations, further leaving rural America disadvantaged. Combine this with funding cuts at say the post office, which will also result in primarily the further closing of rural post offices, and rural America will be much worse off. It is funny because rural areas in America are almost entirely conservative and Republican, so conservatives wanting to cut NPR or Post Office funding will primarily hurt their best constituents.

    Being target by that conservative loon is a travesty. It is all about politics and not what is good for the country.

    • balconesfault

      rural areas in America are almost entirely conservative and Republican, so conservatives wanting to cut NPR or Post Office funding will primarily hurt their best constituents.

      First off – conservatives don’t care if cutting NPR hurts their best constituents. What they want is to reduce the number of non-corporate information sources readily available to their best constituents (that’s what the fight against net neutrality is all about, as well). Even if NPR rarely adopts an anti-corporate bias – even when reporting on the worst corporate excesses – by the same token it DOES report on the worst corporate excesses, in contrast to pretty much all the mainstream media outside of a few MSNBC shows. NPR covers things in enough detail to allow people to become informed – which makes it an oasis in our broadcast media world (along with perhaps the Lehrer report).

      Second, killing the local Post Offices is just serving the GOP’s primary constituents – Corporate America, who will swoop in to provide for-profit service once the Post Office is gone. Plus, the local Post Office provides a foothold if you will for the Federal Government to be a integral part of the local community.

      Once they get rid of local Post Offices, the next target will be the Ag Service offices, I’m guessing.

      • armstp

        balconesfault,

        Actually, in terms of rural post offices I think you got it backwards. Companies like Fedex and UPS do not deliver to most rural locations in the U.S. because it is not profitable. The dirty little secret is that the private delivery companies rely on the Post Office to deliver their packages to rural America. The Post Office essentially subsidizes these private businesses.

        It will be a disaster for many rural conservatives/Republicans to lose both their only radio station and their post office.

  • jamielove

    Some government supported reporting, including what you see these days at BBC, RT, NPR, NewsHour, Al Jazeera etc, is actually pretty good, by any objective standard. As Hillary Clinton noted the other day, some of the reporting (left center and right) from commercial broadcasters is not that good. Too bad a developed information society can’t find ways to fund decent news gathering and reporting.

  • AMurphy

    Most people who listen to NPR do so for the classical music, not the commentary. In fact in my own little circle of life, most people I know who listen to NPR are Republicans.

    My point is a conservative one, why should Mozart have to be subject to the same Benthamite laws that Lady Gaga and the Black Eyed Peas live by in the market place.

    If conservativism is about defending the “permanent things” as Russell Kirk once said, then defending some form of help to maintain culture things like classic music which help make all of us, both rich and poor, more well rounded, cultured human beings is needed.

  • CentristNYer

    I’m of conflicting opinions on this. On the one hand I agree that it’s probably not worth NPR’s time and effort to have to constantly go on bended knee to an increasingly hostile (and cash-strapped) government in search of funding that it barely needs. But at the same time, I do share Balconesfault’s concern about the law of unintended consequences. As NPR becomes increasingly dependent on corporate sponsorship, it also risks losing its independence and vaunted objectivity and could become subject to many of the same ratings pressures that have turned commercial stations into bastions of mediocrity and propaganda.

  • talkradiosucks.com

    “You live in Vermont? Well, that explains volumes…getting set to vote for the self-described “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders next year?”

    Excellent job of ignoring the entire content of my post and just responding with a childish personal attack.

    I didn’t realize you were just another run-of-the-mill asshole. Duly noted for future reference.

  • Primrose

    Rabiner and Armstp are correct that it is the rural stations that will suffer the cut. Rural areas do not have access to much, including the internet. And with all due respect Talkradiosuck.com, Vermont does have a significant affluent community that can do the heavy-lifting of the fund drives. Places in the Ozarks and Appalachia, not so much. Some of the most rural communities just can’t afford the cash from the community it takes to support a radio station.

    As much as I’d like to support you AMurphy, most people don’t listen to NPR for the classical music.

    I think Tom Clancy has it right that NPR gets a lot of listeners from commuters with long drives. People who right now have the choice to listen to crass blather, the Rush brigade and NPR. (1010 wins and the like doesn’t work for long drives).

    I’m not completely sure where I stand on this, mainly because I’m tired of the right complaints, but I think if NPR goes we (the country) are trouble. We don’t have the BBC after all, more’s the pity.

  • sinz54

    SFTor1 asks: “Is it a thought to keep some federal funding, precisely for the reason to hold at least one station accountable to the American people?”

    In what ways has NPR been accountable to the American people up till now???

    Every other TV and radio network is accountable to the American people, through ratings. If the public doesn’t watch a show, it’s canceled.

    NPR actually lacks that accountability. They’re actually proud of airing programs that appeal only to a very narrow segment of the public.

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