The latest round of the ongoing battle over public broadcasting has concluded, and lo and behold, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting lives. The new budget preserves funding for the CPB at $445 million for 2013, albeit with drastic cuts to smaller public media funds, and the complete elimination of the Department of Commerce’s Public Telecommunications Facilities Program.
This particular chapter of the war was quite colorful, in a nasty sort of way. It included the great Juan Williams firing brouhaha, which ultimately took with it the head of the NPR executive who dumped him. Then there was the Ron Schiller fiasco, in which the development director’s comments on the Tea Party’s alleged Islamophobic xenophobia brought down not only him but NPR’s CEO Vivian [no relation] Schiller.
Yet here we are, and NPR and NPR stations continue to get money from the CPB, which continues to exist. Needless to say, this battle will continue through the decade. The “conservative” case against NPR will thrive. People who call themselves conservatives will continue to insist that NPR has a liberal bias, and that this bias shouldn’t get money from the Federal government.
And NPR backers will counter with statistics that show that most NPR listeners either classify themselves to the center or right.
Which side do you count?
“The facts show that NPR attracts a politically diverse audience of 33.7 million weekly listeners to its member stations on-air,” declared NPR’s Steven Inskeep in a late March op-ed piece in the Wall Street Journal. “In surveys by GfK MRI, most listeners consistently identify themselves as ‘middle of the road’ or ‘conservative.’ Millions of conservatives choose NPR, even with powerful conservative alternatives on the radio.”
Sure, but you can also read NPR as a network in which most listeners consistently identify themselves as “middle of the road” (25 percent), “somewhat liberal” (19 percent), and “very liberal” (13 percent). Such was the finding of MRI’s survey of NPR listeners in 2007. That majority was the biggest, taking up 57 percent of the audience, as opposed to Inskeep’s array of columns, which in 2007 counted for only 54 percent.
Basically NPR is a liberal entity. Many of its stations broadcast to university town audiences. And in an ironic way, conservatives force the liberal label on NPR by insisting that Federal funding is an inherently liberal concept. But NPR and NPR stations do try to reach out to conservatives, albeit crudely sometimes (see interviewing David Horowitz about Howard Zinn after the latter’s death).
Bottom line: conservatives would lose out if the NPR solar system were defunded.
Core vs everybody
I’ve heard a lot of happy talk about a defunded NPR. The service only gets about two percent of its funding from Uncle Sam, it is noted, and the NPR stations only get ten. There are all sorts of creative, innovative ways these stations could get by without that money, say the pro-defunding experts.
But I know what most of the university town NPR stations will do if defunded—deemphasize or dump conservative programming. Faced with budget shortfalls, they’ll appeal to their liberal base, and their liberal base will demand changes.
Every public radio station struggles with something like the same audience problem, trying to satisfy its core, subscriber listenership, while reaching out to the broader population. The core listenership never likes that. It wants NPR to say liberal things with liberal voices. The staff know that that’s a dead end that results in bubble radio—liberals boringly talking to themselves.
Federal funding allows public radio stations to reach out beyond the core liberal audience with which public media is historically associated. Without it, NPR stations would have no choice but to move their politics to the left.
Rural stations would be the exception to this rule. Ironically, they’re more conservative and more dependent on federal funding. Many of them, especially those with CPB supported TV signals as well, would be forced to retrench beyond recognition.
Conservatives would lose out in this scenario. Maybe defunding NPR has become such a sweet goal that they don’t care. Maybe Rush Limbaugh and Bill O’Reilly and CBS AM radio are enough for them.
I hope not. It all reminds me of the old joke about a Russian farmer to whom God appears.
“I am here to grant you any wish of your desire,” God says. “But keep one thing in mind. Whatever I give you, I will give your neighbor twice.”
The Russian farmer thinks for a minute, then answers.
“Make me blind in one eye,” he says.
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