The sacking of Juan Williams by NPR has restarted the eternal left-versus-right debate over whether the U.S. government should subsidize radio and television. But the key to understanding the debate, as Reason's Jesse Walker points out, is that the Republican threats to cut off funding are mostly theater.
President Richard Nixon wanted to defund public broadcasting, Walker notes, as did the Reagan administration. Just weeks before he became speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich talked of his ambition to "zero-out" federal funding of all public broadcasting. Now John Boehner is making noises about killing NPR, which he calls a "left-wing radio network." But the Republican threats never go anywhere, Walker writes, because the GOP's primary goal is to "whip" the networks into line, not to defund them. NPR and PBS have been such useful campaign targets for Republicans that if they didn't exist, the Republicans would have to invent them.
NPR's reflexive response to defunding threats is to shrug and say that it receives, on average, only about 2 percent of its $161.8 million annual budget from such federally funded sources as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts. The biggest source of NPR revenues, the network states, "comes from program fees and station dues paid by member stations that broadcast NPR programs." On average, those program fees and dues account for about 41 percent of NPR's revenues.
But where do the member stations get their loot? As Tim Graham of the Media Research Center wrote in 2008, "NPR receives substantial money from the CPB—through member stations," a fact that can be easily gleaned on the NPR Web site. In Fiscal Year 2008, NPR acknowledges on its site, CPB funds accounted for 10.1 percent of all public-radio-station revenue. The New York Timesputs the dollar amount of CPB largesse to local stations at about $90 million. In what looks suspiciously like money laundering, the feds give money to CPB, CPB gives $90 million of it to member stations, and the local stations give a chunk of it to NPR.
According to NPR, public radio stations collect another 5.8 percent of their revenues from federal, state, and local government. Universities, many publicly supported, chip in another 13.6 percent. That means the public contribution to the average public radio station's budget—if it's affiliated with a public university—could be as high as 29 percent. It's impossible to tease out from this information the exact percentage of taxpayer contribution to the NPR budget, but it's obviously higher than 2 percent.
No matter what the percentage, you'd think 1) that by now NPR would be sick of being a political pawn and 2) that it would want to liberate itself permanently from all of the Nixons, Reagans, Gingrichs, and Boehners. Far from being a radical idea, this has been the direction the network has been heading in since its founding, as my former Slate colleague James Ledbetter writes in his 1998 book Made Possible By ….After financial mismanagement led to government cutbacks in the early 1980s, the strictly noncommercial NPR "opened itself wide to commerce, on both the national and local levels," Ledbetter writes. It started accepting donations to cover specific topics from corporations and foundations, which is still a no-no at newspapers. Ultimately, it agreed to run on-air announcements—indistinguishable to most ears from commercials—touting its financial underwriters.
Like its commercial competitors, NPR cancels unpopular shows and chases audiences with programs it thinks will be hits. Like any commercial network, it boasts about the size of its audience. It markets itself aggressively. It defines itself by growth and expansion. One sign that NPR no longer considers itself "public radio" came this summer, when it changed its name from National Public Radio to NPR.
Having come this far, NPR should go all the way and remove its fingers from the public pocket. Only by making itself independent of government funding will it become independent of government meddling. First step: Cut that 2 percent in federal money from the NPR budget. Second step: Put the member stations on notice that the $90 million that CPB ships them each year will be zeroed out in five years, and tell them to adjust their budgets accordingly.
But how will NPR and NPR member stations survive? Public radio's extinction would suit me fine, but I understand that many listeners would be lost without it. So here's my plan: The stations should proceed in the direction they've been traveling since the 1980s, only move faster to become more like the commercial operations they already resemble. Kill those annoying underwriter announcements and replace them with real advertisements for real money.
If the taint of pure commerce is too great for public radio to tolerate (and I don't think it is), stations could go to work and build an endowment on the back of the only real asset they have: their spectrum, a scarce and valuable resource that they are rich with. In 2005, when PBS found itself mired in a political fistfight similar to the Juan Williams affair, I suggested that Congress and the FCC allow public TV stations to declare independence and "privatize and dezone" their slices of spectrum, as Peter Huber puts it. It was a good idea that's only gotten better. Let public radio stations sell, trade, or repurpose their spectrum and use the proceeds to build endowments to support programing. If the stations are still keen on airing NPR shows, let them use the endowments to pay NPR program fees and dues.
It's fine with me if the network and its stations continue their usual whoring for money—endless pledge drives, taking contributions from George Soros, soliciting sponsorships and foundation support, and all the rest.
My plan won't necessarily re-create NPR and its stations as they are today. But I can promise this: They'll be better, because they'll finally be independent.
NPR already has an endowment. It stood at $205 million in 2009. Nice start, NPR! Usually when I write about nonprofit media, I hear from Vivian Schiller. But she's a little busy right now, so I'll have to make due with correspondence from readers who think like Schiller. Send it to email@example.com. Endow my Twitter feed with your subscriptions. (E-mail may be quoted by name in "The Fray," Slate's readers' forum; in a future article; or elsewhere unless the writer stipulates otherwise. Permanent disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co.)
Track my errors: This hand-built RSS feed will ring every time Slate runs a "Press Box" correction. For e-mail notification of errors in this specific column, type the word dezone in the subject head of an e-mail message, and send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.