COLUMBUS, Ohio — Some conservative members of Congress are seeking to de-fund National Public Radio, but these legislators might want to think twice about that effort.
NPR is — believe it or not — a favorite of many conservative listeners. In a survey by the research firm GfK MRI, 28 per cent of the network’s listeners self-identified as conservative or very conservative — 25 per cent identified as middle-of-the-road, and 37 per cent identified as liberal (the other 10 per cent were split among less mainstream political persuasions). Millions of informed conservatives regularly listen to a network that some critics describe as a service aimed at a prosperous liberal elite.
Do NPR and public radio primarily serve the liberal elite? For twenty years, I hosted a public affairs call-in show on a public radio station in the American heartland, NPR affiliate WOSU in Columbus, Ohio. Among my listeners and on-air callers: taxi drivers, farmers, retail clerks, construction workers, small-business owners, beauticians, bank tellers. Callers articulated political views across the spectrum.
Some members of Congress who seek federal de-funding of NPR point to what they say is the network’s liberal bias in news reporting.
I don’t hear it. I hear a scrupulous attempt to be — may I coin a phrase? — fair and balanced. Conservative talk show host Michael Medved agrees. He told the liberal media watchdog Media Matters that, though NPR doesn’t always succeed, "I think they make a genuine, constant attempt to try to play it up the middle."
Does NPR really need federal money? NPR’s largest source of revenue: membership dues and fees paid by local stations to carry programs like Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Your local public radio station gets federal money, which it uses to pay these often substantial costs.
The largest source of federal funds for public radio is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a nonprofit entity created by Congress to fund public broadcasting. But Congress is currently considering legislation that would prohibit your local station from using CPB-allocated dollars to purchase NPR programs, pay dues to NPR or "otherwise support National Public Radio." The punitive intent of the bill is clear.
More affluent public radio stations could pay for NPR programs from other sources, like listener contributions. But some smaller stations would not have enough of those non-federal funds. They’d have to make a tough choice: buy NPR programming from their limited non-CPB funds, with resultant cutbacks in local programming no longer affordable, or lose popular NPR mainstays like Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
That very same bill, if enacted into law, would cut CPB funding for public broadcasting, both radio and television, by 50 per cent over the next two years. It’s part of a continuing effort by some in Congress to eventually eliminate all funding for CPB.
A recent CPB report to Congress says an end to this federal funding would result in "the closure of significant numbers of public television and radio stations, and substantial cutbacks in services at many remaining stations." If this happens, listeners in many communities will lose NPR service altogether.
Prohibited from using federal funds to buy NPR programming, could local public radio stations, "go commercial" — sell commercial time and pay their own way? That same CPB report says commercial activity won’t provide enough money to sustain public radio. But even if it could, do listeners — conservative, moderate and liberal — want a radio service filled with multiple minutes of commercials every hour?
National Public Radio, through local public radio stations, serves listeners across the country, from the largest cities to the smallest rural communities. This radio service is a national effort in which we participate through our listening, our feedback to stations, and our financial support. I’d say that’s a worthy common endeavor, American to the core. Congress should reject all legislation aimed at eliminating NPR’s federal funding.
Fred Andrle is an independent journalist and, until his retirement in 2009, was executive producer and host of a daily public affairs radio talk show on WOSU, Columbus, an NPR affiliate licensed to the Ohio State University.