The Public Funding of Public Radio, Part One: NPR vs. Local Public Stations   Leave a comment

January 31, 2012

The Public Radio Debate

Forget the big issues facing the country. The United States Congress can only find time to deal with inane issues, like de-funding public radio (a relatively miniscule portion of the annual budget.) Still, Republicans spend a lot of time whining about public funding of public broadcasting, and they usually wrap National Public Radio (NPR) into those whines. While they tend to focus on the perceived bias or rank stupidity of some (mostly) former members of NPR’s upper management, these legislators-on-a-mission generally tie all of public radio together as a single entity. That is unfortunate, unwarranted, and a mistake.

Public Radio is not a monolith. The staff and volunteers at the overwhelming majority of independently-licensed public radio stations have no contact, that is zero direct contact with NPR. And NPR, in turn, has no say in the operations of these independent stations. NPR is, simply put, a program supplier, not a broadcaster, i.e., not a public radio station. There are public and community radio stations that carry many NPR programs, some that carry a few NPR programs, and some that carry no NPR programs at all. Those that do carry programs like All Things Considered are “affiliates” of NPR. In the discussion of public radio, NPR provides content that can be broadcast locally by its affiliates to a waiting audience. When people, including those in congress, assume, declare, or suggest that these public stations are owned or operated by NPR by virtue of the amount of NPR programming each carries, or that there are plenty of other media options for people to turn to, one can only conclude that these people are uninformed or that they are carrying out some ideological mission.

So what evidence is there to assign any NPR ownership of these public radio stations?  It’s not unusual for public stations in medium to large cities in the United States to carry an overwhelming amount of programming from NPR. Looking at a published program schedule—for example, Tuesday, January 31, 2012—KQED, a San Francisco Bay-area station will (by my count) carry 6 hours of Morning Edition, 2 hours of Talk of the Nation, 2 hours of Fresh Air, and 4 hours of All Things Considered. Those four programs alone represent 14 hours out of a 24-hour broadcast day; expressed another way, at least 58% of KQED’s programming for that Tuesday comes from NPR.  WUWM in Milwaukee has a Tuesday schedule that includes 10 1/2 hours of NPR programming (44% of the Tuesday schedule.). KERA in Dallas carries 11 hours (45%). Some stations carry as few as 4-6 hours on an average Tuesday, while others carry 2-3 times that. My point is, the public can be forgiven if they believe that any of these or similar stations are owned by NPR. After all, if as a part of the on-air funding credits or the simple IDs one hears (as when a voice on the radio utters the phrase “This is NPR” a minimum of once or twice during each program,) some listeners could come to a logical (and incorrect) conclusion that NPR owns or operates that station. Then there is that third type of public radio station that carries no NPR programs at all, where 100% of its programming comes from non-NPR sources, whether local, regional or national, so no funding credits or other identifiers would suggest to the listener that the station is “an NPR station”. For a congress making funding-vs-no funding decisions (and conflating public radio with NPR,) one would hope they’d be better informed.

So, NPR raises money, stations raise money, and it’s all aimed at getting quality programming to underserved listeners around the country. NPR charges each local station a fee that allows them to carry NPR programming. And public stations pay those fees out of the money they receive from virtually all sources, including memberships, business underwriting, outright donations, capital campaigns, program production, grants from private institutions, grants from government, and so on. A station scheduling 50-100 hours of NPR-originated programming per week might be paying NPR a 5-, 6-, or perhaps even a 7-figure annual fee for those programs. In general, the smaller the city or broadcast area, the smaller the listening audience, the smaller the total revenue the station takes in annually, and the lower the fees. According to their public documents, the NPR affiliate in New York City, WNYC, spends almost $5 million for what they describe as “program acquisition costs”. Not all of that $5 million goes to NPR, but NPR’s fees are most likely a significant part of that number. Another station, KPCC in Southern California, also an NPR affiliatespent $2.2 million in program acquisition costs in a recent year and took in $1.4 million in government grants. KWMR, a small, unaffiliated station in northern California, reported $14,000 in program acquisitions, and a grant of $125,000 from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). None of KWMR’s expenditures went to NPR.

It’s the Corporation for Public Broadcasting funding that most Republicans wish to do away with. As a percent of a $1.7 trillion budget deficit, funding CPB amounts to less than .0003% of that deficit number. Unfortunately a prevailing point-of-view is  “. . . held by many new members of Congress, particularly Tea Partiers [sic] who see public broadcasting funding not only as nonessential in the light of a $1.7 trillion budget deficit, but also as ideologically repellent: The system is run by liberals, they say, as evidenced by NPR’s treatment of [Juan] Williams.”  The NPR parting with (dismissal of) Mr. Williams was a worst-case example of idiotic management from the top of NPR, but it by no means reflects the quality of their news-gathering and program creation people. Besides, I love the fact that the people wishing to do away with public broadcasting—based on the Juan Williams episode—neglect to point out that poor Mr. Williams was a wealthy, elite conservative before he was dismissed by NPR, and is a wealthier, elite conservative since leaving NPR. And besides, isn’t this the sort of bureaucratic overreach the right usually accuses the left of doing?

When one strips all of the window-dressing away from the conservative furor, public radio in its entirety—independent public stations, NPR, et al—receives about one-tenth of its funding from the federal government. The Christian Science Monitor reported in March 2011 that “. . . federal money, which is channeled through local stations for the most part, makes up about 10 percent of the public radio economy, according to NPR data. Losing that cash could hurt – particularly at rural stations without other ready sources of funds.  [emphasis added]

What’s also frustrating to many, with all of the attention it’s getting, is the total annual funding CPB receives from the Federal Government; it’s approximately $450 million, or roughly $4.5 to $5 billion over the last decade. In the nine years since President George W. Bush launched his war in Iraq (and most if not all Republicans rallied behind him), the direct cost (ignoring all legacy costs*) of that war is estimated at $800 Billion. Do the math. One can see that this is about ideology, and nothing else. In short, cutting CPB’s funding won’t do anything to balance the budget, or help communications in this country. It will simply cripple independent public radio stations, and give conservative Republicans something to brag about in their home districts, particularly if Democrats cannot find their spines and stand up for public radio.

I believe that there is an absolute need for public broadcasting, including federal grants to support those public stations. It’s easy for some in congress to suggest that people don’t need public broadcasting because they have the internet, commercial radio and TV outlets, cable or satellite TV, smart phones, iPads, etc. What these suggestions fail to take into consideration is the amount of discretionary income that the poor and less-than-middle class have to spend on these things. Internet access can cost $50 per month in many rural areas, more for satellite access to the web. Cable and satellite TV can cost $25-100 per month; smart phones usually cost an extra $20-$30 per month just for access to the internet (i.e., on top of the monthly cell service fees.) Over-the-air free television and radio are dominated by commercial broadcasters far more interested in programming to the largest available pool of listeners/viewers, and as such resist the temptation to create much (if any) programming that emulates the news, information, and public affairs programs found on public stations. When cost is a factor, lower-income families find it difficult to spend for a service (public broadcasting) that they currently have available for free. This is a particular problem in rural areas, unserved by over-the-air television, unserved by high-speed internet, and having limited radio outlets to choose from. I might offer an alternative.

In these times of budget deficits and selective amnesia—we haven’t heard much discussion from the right of the 8 years of the George W. Bush administration’s policies which took the country into the downturn of 2007/2008 and subsequent recession (depression). Perhaps there is a way to tone down the rhetoric and find a solution that congress, Republicans, Democrats, and Independents, could agree on. In my next blog posts I’ll offer exactly that: a rationale for funding Public Radio and a way to salvage and possibly keep the public radio and TV that we have today for future generations.

David Steffen

*Legacy costs of the war include [1] taking care of our wounded veterans over the long haul, [2] costs to retrain military personnel who will inevitably lose their jobs in a smaller Defense Department budget, and [3] any remaining rebuilding costs for the countries that we’ve occupied for a decade.

[NOTE: Full disclosure requires me to tell you that while I work for a public radio station, I am writing as a private citizen.]

© David Steffen 2012


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