If you want a new Cadillac, you can’t go to the General Motors website and order one from the factory. You have to go to a franchised dealer.
And if you are driving your Cadillac on a lonely stretch of Interstate and you want to get your evening news from National Public Radio’s All Things Considered, you can’t tune your satellite radio to its NPR channel and listen. Satellite offers only the B-list NPR shows. To get the top sellers on your radio, you need to tune to a nearby public radio station. Those local stations (often organized into statewide groupings) are NPR’s franchised dealers.
Though things were different long ago, nowadays these arrangements are a lot more important to the franchisees than to the name-brand producers. Recall, for example, the political furor that erupted when GM and Chrysler pared their dealer lists during their 2009 bankruptcies. A more current example is the political battle over funding for public broadcasting, especially for NPR.
Local public broadcasters rely on big-name national programs to attract listeners, contributors, advertisers (pardon me, “underwriters”) and state and local funding, though that last component is in short supply these days. The local stations produce some interesting, informative programming. I particularly enjoyed a recent Vermont Public Radio segment on the technical workings of the power grid, but this is not the sort of thing that induces large numbers of people to sign up for annual memberships. I suspect it actually induces large numbers of people to tune to another station.
If I am one of a small minority who want to hear a program about the power grid, why should you have to pay for it? Why should Wyoming taxpayers subsidize a national producer whose programming could easily be financially self-sustaining, but whose major role is to deliver an audience to Vermont Public Radio so it can afford to air programs about the power grid?
The House of Representatives voted last month to reduce contributions to the federally funded, but private, non-profit Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which provides financial support for television’s PBS and to various public radio producers, including NPR. More recently, it passed a separate bill to prevent local public radio stations from using government money to pay NPR dues or buy programming produced by NPR. Forty-three percent of NPR’s money comes from programming fees paid by stations, compared to only 3 percent from direct federal grants. Thus the restriction could, if passed, lead to a significant drop in revenue for both local stations and for NPR.
The congressional battle over federal funding for public broadcasting is portrayed as a conservative Republican vendetta against broadcasters with a perceived liberal Democratic bias. Some opponents undoubtedly do believe that a score-settling is in order. But this fight is ultimately not about the survival of popular national programming that already has a large and well-heeled audience. All Things Considered is not going away. But some stations that currently air ATC might be, if they lose their privileged access to it.
The federal subsidy for public broadcasting has always been a problem for journalists and commentators, because it gives public officials a license to become critics who also happen to hold the power of the purse. Politicians’ complaints, valid or not, get attention and create suspicion that, indeed, public broadcasting is not free to ignore the wishes of its government paymasters.
“The problem is we've seen NPR and its programming veer far from what Americans would like to see as far as the expenditure of their tax dollars,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Va., said on the House floor before the vote to cut off NPR’s federal funding.
A week before that vote, NPR’s head fundraiser, Ron Schiller, resigned after he was caught on tape making disparaging comments about Republicans, and, specifically, Tea Party members. He also commented that NPR would be better off without federal money. Then-CEO Vivian Schiller, who is not related to Ron Schiller, resigned a day later, after the comments became known. The tape scandal added to earlier concerns about her political neutrality, raised after she fired “news analyst” Juan Williams for comments he made on Fox News.
Regardless of NPR’s bias, or lack thereof, independent news coverage requires independent broadcasters. I, for one, have no interest in getting my news, commentary or entertainment brought to me by my elected representatives in Congress or by whoever happens to occupy the White House.
Requiring public producers and broadcasters to rely on individual contributions, sponsorships and product licensing would inevitably make them beholden to new interests. But it is a mistake to believe that these producers and stations are now independent because they rely on the government instead, when politicians are, in fact, the people most likely to be interested in controlling programs’ political content.
Audiences, not taxpayers, ought to be responsible for ensuring that the content they enjoy continues to be produced. Those of us who want to know how the power grid works will have to pay up to find out. The rest of the country shouldn’t have to.