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a standard accessory in every new car), perhaps longstanding funding models should change because they are based on now-outdated assumptions.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.