Tuned In

The NPR-Elitist-Funding Battle: Mostly, Not About NPR or Elites

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Public broadcasting is one of the great bargains of government spending. For $400-odd million a year—the cost of a handful of Charlie Sheens—public subsidy gives us TV and radio networks that reach the most remote corners of a huge country. It also gives political culture warriors a convenient regular target to rally their base voters by railing against liberal elitists propagandizing the nation on the government dime—all for the fraction of the cost of Social Security!

The recent controversies over NPR—fomented, largely, by conservative opponents—have led some non-conservatives, like Jason Linkins and Hamilton Nolan, to say that government money is not worth NPR’s being made a political football. I agree: I don’t want the government in the media business. You take government money, you invite political meddling, and worries about politics tend to make programming toothless. NPR is relatively flush as public-media outlets go anyway, and it would be better off being free to tell Congress to buzz off. (Yes, a public-funding system works without too much acrimony in, say, Britain, but no amount of wishing will make America British.)

The main problem: most of the “NPR” money we’re talking about doesn’t go to NPR in the first place.

Even many people who work in media don’t always have a clear idea how public broadcasting works. The layperson might assume that there are two big central organizations, “PBS” and “NPR,” that take money from the government (and listeners, and donors) and use it to fund a big network of stations across the country.

That’s almost the opposite of what actually happens. Simplified: most government funding goes to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The CPB, mostly by mandate, has to distribute that money a certain way: 75% of it to TV, and most of the money to local public-TV and radio stations. They, in turn, produce some local shows, but they pay networks like NPR—and not the other way around—to carry national shows like All Things Considered.

NPR, on the other hand, gets about 2% of its budget from either the CPB or other government grants—a fraction of a fraction. The public-broadcasting community has committed to the united-front idea that all government funding is essential (hence, Ron Schiller’s true statement that NPR would be OK without federal money was as problematic as his insults to conservatives). But there are big distinctions. NPR might be inconvenienced by defunding. A local radio station—let alone a much more expensive public-TV station—in the Great Plains could be killed by it.

There’s the irony: so much of this culture clash is premised on the idea that heartland America is supporting liberal programming for contemptuous coastal elites. But if you took away every dime of public-broadcasting money, East coast elites like me would be just fine. We’d still have our well-funded local public outlets, which we support with the piles of money we get when our banks, media corporations, &c. suck the lifeblood of decent average Americans like you.

It’s the heartland that would be screwed—places, if you look at an electoral map, that vote Republican. Conservatives are right: Sesame Street will be fine. And my kids will still be able to watch it.

On the other hand, if you live in, say, South Dakota, or some other rural region with a sparse population base within range of the broadcast signal, you likely won’t have a public-TV station anymore to watch it on, public TV being far more expensive to run than public radio. Thank your Congressman for sticking it to us elitists! (Now, you may still be able to get this programming if you have a computer and mobile devices, high-speed Internet and a mobile data plan—and the income to support them.)

For all that, I actually do believe that public broadcasting—all of it—would be better, braver and more interesting if it had the independence that came from being entirely separated from the government and thus politics. But I can afford to believe that: I live in New York.

And doing it will require a rethinking of the way that local public media are funded: in part, broadcasters may need to convince coastal people like me to not only donate to our local stations but chip in to keep local radio and TV stations alive in places far, far away. (Is it ridiculous to expect people in Seattle to pay for amenities in Kansas? That’s how taxation works.)

I’d be all for it—and would be willing to pay for it just like I donate to WNYC radio—but it will also require planning and a transition. Cut it all at once, without a backup plan, and you’ll be sticking it to someone all right—but it won’t be people like me or Ron Schiller.

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