Last week produced the worst crisis at National Public Radio since 1983, when it nearly went bankrupt. A sting on the hapless top fundraiser and his senior colleague by a right-wing prankster, and the fallout--resignation of NPR's gifted president, Vivian Schiller, along with a fusillade of congressional threats to eliminate all government funding to public radio--naturally shook the confidence of NPR and its 800 affiliates. For all its successes in recent years, public radio, both national and local, has never felt completely secure in the intensely competitive and fast-changing world of commercial and digital media, especially when it comes to the need for growth in station budgets and the development of a robust Internet presence.
If Congress cuts public radio funding, the damage will be at the grassroots places where quality information of the kind public radio provides are much harder to find.
The upside in the turmoil--and surprisingly, there does seem to be one--is the likelihood that, for the first time, many more people among NPR and public radio's devoted audience of over 34 million across the country will have a clearer understanding of how the system works. The glare of the scandal and the reporting around it have provided valuable insights that could ultimately prove useful as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which dispenses the federal money that goes overwhelmingly to the stations, struggles to maintain government funding.
Contrary to what had been a widespread belief, CPB's direct grants to NPR are a very small portion of its overall news budget, less than 2 percent in recent years, all for specific projects, such as enhanced election coverage. NPR has been a convenient target for criticism because of its Washington base and the prominence its journalists now have. But it is only one element in an extensive and complex network on a scale that audiences simply have not fully appreciated.
The overwhelming portion of CPB money for radio goes to the stations and represents an average of about 10 percent of their budgets, which they use to pay NPR and the other major producers of programming in what are essentially subscription fees. The bigger stations, like New York's WNYC (which has an FM and AM station and bought WQXR from the New York Times to feature classical music) draws, according to its own estimates, about 6 percent of its budget from CPB. The station's board is a formidable group of movers and shakers in the city and was able to raise nearly $60 million in recent years to separate from the municipal authorities and build its own studios, complete with state-of-the-art performance spaces. Many of its signature features--such as the morning and midday Brian Lehrer and Leonard Lopate programs--are completely home-grown and have substantial followings. WNYC is such a fixture in New York that, like leading universities, cultural institutions, and the New York Public Library, it would probably find the resources it needs to make up whatever cuts it endured. (I do not expect station executives to agree with me, and in any case, the process would be arduous.)
While these larger stations may be able to find other revenue, smaller stations spread across the country, where they may be the only source of quality national and international news in the area, can barely cover operating expenses from their communities and available underwriters. Without CPB, their programming budgets would be drastically cut back. Naturally, if stations could no longer pay for NPR programs and staples from other distributors such as Prairie Home Companion, Marketplace, and This American Life, the system might well unravel. Some stations might redraft their charters to accept commercials and other sponsored religious or political programs, but the result, most long-term public radio advocates agree, would gradually mean a loss of the unique character they have developed since they began decades ago as college and community stations.
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At the end of the tumultuous week, 25 of NPR's leading on-air personalities released an open letter denouncing Ron Schiller, the disgraced fundraiser (and no relation to the ousted president) and asserting that his comments "have done real damage to NPR. But we're confident that the culture of professionalism we have built, and the journalistic values we have upheld for the past four decades, will prevail." By my count, many of the signatories, including Robert Siegel, Susan Stamberg, Nina Totenberg, Linda Wertheimer, and Cokie Roberts can attest to NPR's resilience. They were all there in 1983, which was, until now, NPR's low point in mismanagement. For all the details, it is worth reading This Is NPR: The First Forty Years. But in brief, NPR's dynamic president then, Frank Mankiewicz, in part to offset the Reagan administration's imposition of 20 percent cuts for public broadcasting, initiated a "Project Independence" and spent heavily to build up what was still a relatively fledgling national enterprise.
The result was a $7 million deficit in the spring of 1983. "NPR came within 48 hours of shutting down," This Is NPR recalls. "NPR was unable to pay the rent for the building that housed its studios and headquarters ... and the landlord was threatening to padlock the doors." The upshot, after Mankiewicz resigned, was a revamping of CPB policies, sending money directly to stations and giving them a greater role in overall control of the system. The crisis, painful as it was, actually provided momentum to the expansion of programming options and added an entrepreneurial edge throughout because of the stations' need to provide more of their own resources and revenues. For all the years since, the intricacies of this arrangement remained obscure to almost everyone outside the immediate public radio system. Now it should be much clearer: Even if Congress intends to eliminate funding for CPB and the grants to local stations, NPR and its larger affiliates, with access and experience in major fundraising, will probably make it through after a period of adjustment.
The real damage will be at the grassroots places where quality information of the kind public radio provides are much harder to find. Sure, there are other options now: the Internet and satellite radio, among others. But the connection to communities that local radio provides is unique, a true benefit. At least now, as the battle for CPB funding wages on, more Americans will understand what is at stake.