Hey NPR: Leave the money, and run
The psychologists will tell you: Don’t try to interpret every little thing. Examine your collective behaviors to see what outcome you’ve engineered through a series of seemingly unrelated acts, including some which seem entirely self-destructive.
Which brings me to NPR.
With the messy firing of commentator Juan Williams last October and this past week’s even messier video uproar, NPR seems to be screaming to re-invent itself.
Full disclosure: I am a donor to National Public Radio, and while that has not always been the case I must also say that non-commercial programming has provided me with some of the most memorable experiences I have ever had. This force is vital to the broadcast eco-system in the way that pay TV has both pushed boundaries and influenced its predecessors.
Which is why I think I’m just the guy to say that NPR should simply decline all further government assistance and embrace an admittedly uncertain future driven entirely by how to best serve a large constituency in the digital age.
Public radio should, in the parlance of The Street, go private.
I say this knowing it aligns me with strange bedfellows and endorses the loss of 10 percent of operating income. I know it would mean the loss of jobs and programming and the likely shuttering of stations.
So let’s take a look at that last part.
There was a time that radio stations were the driving force for innovation, when signals could not travel far and broadcast constituencies were bound by geography and physics, when networks existed to bring the local goods from one place to another, far, far away. That’s simply not the dynamic in the age of the Internet.
Go to the web or start the NPR app and you’ll have the opportunity to listen to “All Things Considered” live on a plethora of “stations.” Which one will you chose? It makes no difference whatsoever. Looking to listen to “Morning Edition” in the evening? Does it matter who recorded the podcast?
More importantly, do the economics — member stations pay hefty fees to help produce these programs, which are then used by the stations to raise money — make any sense any more? Is this inter-dependency important enough (for example) to keep these two flagship programs off satellite radio? Why does my donation go to a station, and not “public broadcasting?”
NPR, under now-former CEO Vivian Schiller’s skillful leadership, hastened the day when “local station” would seem absurd to the point of indefensible at an organization with no profit motive. That might not have been Schiller’s deep-seated intention but her abrupt departure as collateral damage in what NPR called a “sting video” means that transformation could become undone.
This is a golden opportunity to shed the compromised lifestyle of being at the public trough. It is time to accept that getting by with less is a fair price to pay for freedom.
Yes, I know NPR’s finances are complicated. I know that there are many stations that do considerable original programming and stand to lose proportionally more than NPR in a world without tax dollars. But the needs of NPR, member stations and listeners may not be perfectly aligned. Fate, shall we say, has interceded, and it would be wrong to assume that it is a bad thing.
Ron Schiller spoke a truth in that unfortunate video when he said NPR didn’t really need federal funds. Whether it was an unwittingly loose remark from an executive who was just marking time until he started his next job (which he also lost in this mess) we’ll never know. It did play right into the hands of those politicians who have made a meal of demonizing NPR — but it just may turn out to be a fantastic Freudian slip.
It’s time to take the initiative and grab victory from the jaws of defeat. Prove the pandering pols wrong, NPR. Make a splash of renouncing all tax money, and make it sound like the best thing that ever happened for you. Anyone can be a broadcaster now, but we have only begun to see the extent to which the Internet’s democratization of communication will be a force multiplier for established media operations. You’ve begun this work. Throw off the yoke and plow on.
Public broadcasting has been a political pinata since the days of Richard Nixon, 40 years ago. It would be very fitting to take a page from Nixon now and walk off this stage saying, “You won’t have NPR to kick around anymore, gentlemen, because this is the last tax dollar we will ever take.”
James Ledbetter: NPR needs new funding model
Photo: Radio towers, Buyukada, Istanbul, by saragoldsmith/Flickr