Public radio still rocks

Lately, thanks to the inexcusably inept firing of Juan Williams by NPR brass, and the acceptance of a $1.8 million grant from George Soros, NPR has tarred its credentials as a genuinely fair and balanced news organization. Which it mostly still is, by the way, no matter how much the right tries to trash it. (And mostly succeeds, since trying to stay in the middle has itself become a lefty thing to do.)

Columnists all over the place are calling for the feds “pull the plug on funding for Natonal Public Radio”. (That’s from No subsidy for NPR, by Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby. An aside: NPR’s name is now just NPR. Just like BP is no longer British Petroleum.) In fact NPR gets no money from the feds directly. What NPR does is produce programs that it wholesales to stations, which retail to listeners and sponsors. According to NPR’s finances page, about 10% of that sponsorship comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Another 6% comes from “federal, state and local government”.

Jeff points to a NY Times piece, Move to Cut NPR Funding is Defeated in the House, which says “Republicans in the House tried to advance the defunding measure as part of their ‘YouCut‘ initiative, which allows the public to vote on which spending cuts the G.O.P. should pursue.’ The You Cut page doesn’t mention public radio. It does have this:

Terminate Broadcasting Facility Grant Programs that Have Completed their Mission.

Potential Savings of $25 million in the first year, $250 million over ten years.

In his most recent budget, President Obama proposed terminating the Public Broadcasting Grants at the Department of Agriculture and Public Telecommunications Facilities Grants at the Department of Commerce. The President’s Budget justified terminating these programs, noting that: “Since 2004, the USDA Public Broadcasting Grants program has provided grants to support rural public television stations’ conversion to digital broadcasting. Digital conversion efforts mandated by the Federal Communications Commission are now largely complete, and there is no further need for this program.” and “Since 2000, most PTFP awards have supported public television stations’ conversion to digital broadcasting. The digital television transition was completed in 2009, and there is no further need for DOC’s program.”

CPB isn’t in there. And they’re right: the digital conversion is done. So maybe one of ya’ll can help us find exactly what the congressional Republicans are proposing here.

Here’s a back-and-forth between Anna Christopher of NPR and Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard. Says Anna,

NPR receives less than 2% of its funding from competitive grants sought by NPR from federally funded organizations (such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts).

Replies Michael,

I appreciate the smug, condescending tone of this letter, but I’m unconvinced. As one former CPB official I spoke to explained, “they love to claim they’re insulated, but they’re very much dependent on the public tit.” The other 98 percent of NPR’s funding comes from a mix of donations, corporate support, and dues from member stations. The fees and dues paid by member stations comprise more than half of NPR’s budget. Where does that money come from? In large part, from the federal government.

Take the local NPR affiliate in Washington, WAMU 88.5. That station paid NPR in excess of $1.5 million in dues, the station’s largest single expense outside of fundraising and personnel. The station also took in $840,000 in public funding and grants from the CPB. The station spent nearly $4 million on “fund-raising and membership development,” with a return of just $6 million. Fundraising is expensive — public money isn’t.

I looked at the .pdf at that link and don’t see the same numbers, but it’s clear enough that NPR affiliates pay a lot for NPR programming, and a non-trivial hunk of that money comes from CPB. According to this CPB document, its regular approriation for fiscal year 2010 is $420 million, and it’s looking for $430 million in 2011, $445 million for 2012 and $604 million for 2013. Bad timing.

Still, here’s the really interesting thing that almost nobody is talking about. Public radio kicks ass in the ratings. It’s quite popular. In fact, I would bet that it’s far more popular, overall, than right wing talk radio.

In Raleigh-Durham, WUNC is #2, with an 8.2 share. That’s up from 7.5 in the prior survey. Radio people can tell ya, that number is huge.

In San Francisco, KQED is #4 with a 5.2 share.

In New York, WNYC-FM is down in the teens with a 2.2 share, but nobody has more than a 6.5. Add WNYC-AM’s .8 share and classical sister WQXR’s 1.8 share, and you get a 4.8, which is #3 overall.

Here is Boston, WBUR has a 3.3 share. WGBH has a 1.1. Its classical sister station, WCRB (which now avoids using call letters) has a 2.7. Together those are 6.1, or #3 overall.

In Washington, WAMU gets a 4.8, , and stands at #5. Classical WETA has a 4.4, for #6. Add in Pacifica’s jazz station, WPFW, with .8, and you get 10, which would be #1 if they were counted together.

There are places where public radio, relatively speaking, sucks wind. Los Angeles is one. The public stations there are good but small. (The Pacifica station is technically the biggest in the country, but its appeal is very narrow.) Dallas is another. But on the whole, NPR stations do very well.

But do they do well enough to stand on their own? I think so. In fact, I think they should. That’s one reason we created ListenLog, which I visited at length here last July. ListenLog is an app that currently works with the Public Radio Player from PRX.  The idea is to show you what you listen to, and how much you value it. Armed with informative self-knowledge, you should be more inclined to pay than just to cruise for free.

We’re entering an era when more and more of our choices are both a la carte and our own. Meaning we’re more responsible, on the whole. And so are our suppliers. There will be more connections between those two facts, and we’ll be in a position to make those connections — as active customers, and not just as passive consumers.

So, if you want public radio to do a better job, to be more accountable to its listeners and not just to the government (even if indirectly), pony up. Make it yours. And let’s keep building better tools to help with that.

[Later…] Here’s a bonus link from Bob Garfield’s AdAge column. (He’s also a host of NPR’s On the Media.) And a quote:

The only quality journalism available, at least in this country, is from a few dozen newspapers and magazines, NPR, some alt weeklies, a few websites (, for instance) and a few magazine/website hybrids such as Atlantic. On TV, there is “The News Hour” and “Frontline” on PBS and that is it. Cable “news” is a wasteland (watch for a while and let me know when you see a reporter, you know, reporting). Network news, having taught cable how to cut costs and whore itself to ratings, isn’t much better. Local TV news is live remotes from crime scenes and “Is Your Microwave Killing Your Hamster?”

Good stuff. Read the whole thing.

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5 Responses to Public radio still rocks

  1. One of the problems with generalizing about NPR stations is that the generalizations always break down upon deeper inspection. Major markets behave one way. Mid-markets behave another. And tiny/rural markets, well… they aren’t even “markets” so they behave totally differently.

    You’ve covered the large market situations, where Arbitron ratings could conceivably be used to sustain the stations. For the biggest stations, they could keep going without CPB dollars, but they’d definitely have to make some serious staffing cuts. They’d survive, albeit a bit damaged. And they’d likely have trouble continuing to pay NPR the annual king’s ransom at the same rates.

    For mid-market stations, it’s much worse. Most of these stations are already running threadbare staffs with little to no local news production capacity and local programs created there are shadows of the major network fare they carry (and they sound worse due to the comparison). A loss of CPB funding at these stations would be devastating, with some staff cuts (there’s not much to cut) and definitely a loss of capacity to pay NPR the high cost of programming.

    Finally, at the tiniest stations, CPB funding is almost all available funding. Here in Alaska, the rural stations (which are often sole-service stations with no competitors within hundreds of miles) can often have budgets comprised of 80% or more of CPB dollars, followed up with 10% or more of State funding. Basically, there’s no advertising dollars, and little to no membership dollars in subsistence communities like these. Alaska is the most extreme example, but I’m sure it’s replicated to some degree in other rural parts of the country. Cut CPB funding here and the stations simply go dark permanently.

    In all, you end up with a spectrum of impacts if CPB funding is eliminated, and it all boomerangs to NPR. The system is sustained with CPB dollars, which then attracts corporate sponsorship, which then attracts private donors, which sustains CPB, which sustains sponsors, which sustains donors, which… You get the point.

    There was an old Simpsons episode in which Mr. Burns goes to the doctor for an exam and the doctor explains that the only reason Mr. Burns is alive is because of his illnesses, ailments and conditions are in perfect balance — disrupt any part of that balance and Mr. Burns is a dead man. That’s the CPB / NPR / stations funding conundrum.

    I don’t mean to say there’s no solution, but tinkering with such a system will have all kinds of unintended consequences. We just need to be prepared for them.

    One more thing…

    If NPR were allowed to raise money on a national scale (they are prohibited by the stations from doing so in an obvious way), perhaps we could turn the entire system on its head. NPR raises the money, pays for the program development and distribution, and then releases the content in a Creative Commons style to anyone that wants to broadcast them for free. Local stations would pay exactly $0 to NPR for the programming — all they would have to pay for is FCC licensing (no small cost), transmission gear, staff, fundraising and transmission power (very expensive for FM).

    That could break the CPB / NPR / station linkages and would put the stations in a position to make very clear appeals to local listeners… “If you want to hear this programming on FM radio receivers in a given radius around our tower, then donate.” No longer would stations have to lie to listeners claiming, “You can only get this great programming here.”

    Of course, the problem with that is the NPR Board is stocked with station people who will defend the status quo to the death. There are a lot of corner offices throughout the public media system, and those people have a lot of money to defend.

  2. Doc Searls says:

    Thanks, John.

    First, you covered a topic I didn’t have time to visit (writing in haste), which is that this is an attack on NPR by way of starving the smaller stations, which depend far more on CPB funding than the large ones.

    Second, I think you have a good idea for switching things around for NPR fund-raising — and that you’re right that the stations would never allow it. Unless, of course, the Republicans succeed in killing off CPB, which won’t happen soon but might be a real possibility.

    A third item is the viability of stations in a world where more and more listening will move to data streams rather than radio signals. Right now it’s still a bit labor-intensive to tune in a station on an iPhone or a laptop. But we’re one good invention away from streams being as easy to tune as dials. Or easier. As reliance on 3G and 4G goes up, reliance on signals will go down. I think we are five years or so from some kind of integration of public radio with satellite distribution as well. Once that happens, and NPR programming on Sirius XM isn’t second-tier stuff but Morning Edition and All things Considere delivered direct, it’s game over for the stations. As you say, the stations won’t like that, but the situation in five years might be quite different. If those small market stations go dark in Alaska and other places, satellite may be the only way to cover what’s not reached by 3G and 4G data streaming.

    In any case, we now have NPR in the political crosshairs. It’s not the biggest target for the new GOP-majority House, but it’s there. If NPR can avoid controversy for awhile, maybe this will blow over. If not, tinkering with the system will probably be unavoidable.

    Meanwhile, making funding easier through native mechanisms on data devices (such as we propose with EmanciPay) might help make up for the CPB losses too.

  3. Julie Drizin says:

    I don’t know if the popularity of public radio would surpass “right wing radio” if you similarly added up the audience to all conservative talk content in a given market, but it’s an interest hypothesis and certainly worthy of research.

    By the way, I believe Michael Goldfarb used to be on the NPR payroll. I don’t know if he was a staffer or a freelancer based in London. I’m not sure he has to disclose this past professional affiliation every time he weighs in on issues affecting public radio, but I think if he’s publicly challenging NPR’s conduct vis-a-vis politics and personnel decisions, full disclosure is probably the most ethical thing to do.

    A long time ago, stations needed to use some of their CPB grants for the creation or acquisition of national programming. I don’t know if that’s still the policy or the financial formula, but as a result, the networks do get federal funding that bounces off the local signal and back to Washington.

  4. Doc Searls says:

    Julie, I think public radio vs. right wing radio would vary a great deal by market. In Raleigh-Durham, where the big AM talker is WPTF, the lineup is not especially right-wing. The ratings are also not good: 1.8 overall. That’s a huge drop from what it was when I was there, 30 years ago. Rush Limbaugh was on WPTF, but is gone now. Rush is now on Rush Radio, WRDU, an FM station. That does pretty well: a 5.3 share. Still, added to WPTF, it’s still short of WUNC’s 8.2.

    As for Goldfarb and the rest, I’m not yet familiar with it, so I’ll hold off for now.

  5. I drove to Austin and had to endure the only station available , right wing, I will listen to both sides but still know that righties in the end only want their pie. In a capitalistic and war economy country you have to know. “checks and balances”
    No. It is usually a check against the democrat who is trying to overhaul a righter winger’s greed campaign. Back to radio, I am always at ease once I can tune into while on the road usually in the high 80s to low 90s FM frequencies. What would I do without it? Find a print publications somewhere to stay informed.

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