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).
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 (Slate.com, 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.