The network formerly known as National Public Radio has dropped the “Public” from its name, and it is past time that Congress dropped the public from its funding. The Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was created in an era when Americans had only a handful of radio stations, three television stations, a few magazines, and one or two newspapers to choose from. Today we live in an age of surplus media: thousands of television channels, C-SPAN (the privately run organization that does a better job of what it is public broadcasting is supposed to be doing), YouTube, satellite radio, podcasts, blogs, and a smorgasboard of web offerings ranging from dizzying aggregators to nonprofit investigative news sites — is there a commercial market that needs subsidies less?
NPR’s supporters argue that what it provides is not “media,” but news and journalism that consumers would otherwise be unable to find anywhere. NPR itself does not receive any direct federal funding, but its supporters howl whenever Republicans try to defund the CPB, because 40 percent of NPR’s revenues come from station programming fees, and many of its member stations, especially in rural areas, are dependent on CPB largesse. In this sense, NPR is sort of like Amtrak: Self-sufficient in urban areas where it has lots of listeners but dependent on taxpayer subsidies to broadcast its programming nationwide.
If listeners in Dubuque want NPR content, let them pay for it. We are tired of kicking in contributions so that coastal liberalism may find an audience in Ogallala. NPR offers many fine programs, but it is towering arrogance to imply, as some supporters of public funding do, that residents of Big Sky would be left stranded on an island of ignorance if forced to do without Morning Edition. If it’s really that important to them, they can increase their yearly contributions to Yellowstone Public Radio. If not, why should taxpayers in other parts of the country make up the shortfall?
This editorial reminded me of Andrew Ferguson’s well-argued Weekly Standard editorial from 2005:
Public radio in the United States is remaking itself according to a wholly new sense of its mission. Originally conceived as a service for preserving and encouraging minority tastes ignored by the market–particularly in the arts, not only in classical music but also in jazz, bluegrass, cabaret, folk–public radio is being transformed into the nation’s first government-funded news service. We would like to draw the attention of members of Congress to this sly conversion, and to its likely long-term effects. In the coming months congressmen will be sifting through the government’s books in search of outlays that have outlived their usefulness. The $80-plus million now being spent to build a federally subsidized news organization, under the auspices of National Public Radio, would be a good place to start.
One comment, from WETA’s president, Sharon Percy Rockefeller, struck us as revealing. “We’re in the business of trying to create a larger audience,” she told the Washington Post, explaining the board’s decision. Her line of reasoning is shared by the new generation of station managers who have gained control over public radio in the last 15 years. According to their conventional wisdom–though whether it’s wisdom or merely convention has yet to be determined–news and chat inevitably bring in more listeners, and more affluent listeners, than classical music or jazz. And affluent listeners draw higher-class advertisers (called “underwriters” in the painstaking lexicon of public broadcasting) and respond more generously during pledge drives.
Perhaps only students of public broadcasting will see the revolutionary nature of Mrs. Rockefeller’s remark. For the point of subsidized radio has never been to maximize its audience, and certainly not to maximize its income. It has always been sustained instead on an odd, but sturdy, rationale: Public broadcasting needed to exist because its programming wasn’t terribly popular. The dissemination of certain kinds of music and arts programming was a good in itself, and the government had an interest in roping off a part of the marketplace for its preservation. After all, if arts programming were sufficiently popular, the market would take it up–as the market has, for example, in the cataract of commercial talk and news stations flooding every region of the country, the very stations that public radio has now chosen to compete with. Pursue Mrs. Rockefeller’s line of reasoning, on the other hand, and you’re led quickly into absurdities: If a public radio station is in the “business” of drawing big audiences, why not fill its airwaves with Green Day or Alicia Keys and really pull ‘em in?
Public radio hasn’t sunk so low, not yet, and in fairness it probably won’t. The present generation of public radio station managers take their market reasoning only so far, just to the point where it coincides (amazingly enough) with their own preferences in programming. As mostly white, affluent baby boomers, proud of their advanced educations and utterly ignorant of the arts, they share the tastes of the audience of doppelgängers they hope to attract: an indifference to forms of non-popular music and an endless appetite for chatter. We’re disheartened to admit that the market strategy is working; these programmers may be tasteless but they aren’t stupid. Today the public radio system has grown into a colossus of the American media landscape. NPR’s two signature news shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are the nation’s second and third highest-rated nationally syndicated radio programs, after Rush Limbaugh. Several of its other shows, such as Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion, routinely win their time slots in markets across the country. NPR has become, as its marketers like to say, a hugely successful brand, aimed straight at the nation’s most affluent demographic cohort.
NPR has attracted generous support from George Soros and the estate of Joan Kroc, and I can’t see why it can’t flourish without public dollars. State and local governments that choose to support local stations are of course welcome to do so. But in an era of straitened federal budgets, it is hard to justify the funding the Corporation for Public Broadcasting receives from federal coffers.
To be sure, there are other programs funded by the federal government that are less deserving of the $430 million the Corporation for Public Broadcasting is slated to receive in FY 2011, and that those less deserving programs should be defunded as well. I can certainly think of many more deserving uses for that money, e.g., we could invest the funds in finding new, more creator-friendly ways to allocate spectrum. Many community groups are interested in low-power radio broadcasting, yet they’ve stymied by major broadcasters. Or the money could go towards TANF or transportation or early childhood education.
I will say that I don’t like the idea of NPR being punished for deciding to end its relationship with Juan Williams. Consider the following headline from USA Today: “Jim DeMint vows to cut NPR funding over Juan Williams’ firing.” That strikes me as wrongheaded in the extreme. Yet there was more to Senator DeMint’s argument:
“The country is over $13 trillion in debt and Congress must find ways to start trimming the federal budget to cut spending,” DeMint said in a statement. “NPR and PBS get about 15 percent of their total budget through federal funding, so these programs should be able to find a way to stand on their own. With record debt and unemployment, there’s simply no reason to force taxpayers to subsidize a liberal programming they disagree with.”
Again, I’d cut out the liberal programming part. I don’t think it’s appropriate to force taxpayers to subsidize conservative programming either. For all the reasons Ferguson explains, the popularity of the views expressed is not the issue.