NPR needs new funding model
By Jeffrey Goldfarb and James Ledbetter, Breakingviews columnists
Impolitic remarks and political pressure have landed U.S. public radio in trouble. Vivian Schiller, the chief executive of National Public Radio, resigned over comments by an underling. Meanwhile, House Republicans passed a budget eliminating federal cash for the vehicle that helps fund the broadcaster. The government should support the arts, especially relatively inexpensive and popular ones like NPR. All things considered, though, it may be time for a new approach.
The sting video that caught NPR’s chief fundraiser criticizing Tea Party activists would never have led to the ouster of the CEO of a commercial media organization. But NPR is held to an almost unattainable standard of objectivity and must appeal regularly to a coterie of legislators whose animosity toward it is deep. Nevertheless, its audience for news shows including “Morning Edition” is well over 20 million a week, larger than that of any cable TV program and all but a handful of hit network shows.
The portion of NPR’s budget that comes from the federal government is quite small. But that’s hardly the point. Almost any funding source for public broadcasting — taxpayers, corporate underwriting, listener pledges — comes with strings attached. In this case, a political string pulled the CEO out of her job. The irony of the scandal is that the NPR executive involved was caught saying, rightly, that the broadcaster would be better off without federal funding.
One way to rework NPR’s finances while keeping its appeal would be to set up an endowment like those at big universities. The operation’s latest annual expense tab was $193 million. Suppose it could be slashed to $150 million by consolidating stations and other steps. Assume a 5 percent return on investment, and a $3 billion fund would pay the way.
That may sound a lot. But if 20 million listeners, who must now endure lengthy and repetitive pleas for donations, kicked in an average of $100 apiece, that alone would come to $2 billion. Companies and wealthy donors could easily make up the rest. This simple math doesn’t address potentially complex measures needed to ensure NPR’s continued independence. But those difficulties are surmountable, too. The trouble is, public radio executives and elected officials alike have been too entrenched in politicized positions to bother working out a real solution.