NPR Shouldn’t Exist But I’m Glad It Does

Many of us who have philosophical objections to public radio nonetheless like the results.

E.D. Kain, reacting to a snark from NRO’s John Miller on news that National Public Radio is rebranding itself as simply “NPR,” expresses a conflict that many of us share:

I enjoy having a radio station that isn’t devoted to shouting matches or extremely partisan and that isn’t littered with obnoxious commercials. I enjoy the level, sober reporting and analysis you get at NPR. I realize all of this is made possible by tax dollars, but a big part of me doesn’t care.

The arguments against state-run media are good ones, but I worry that we’d lose a very good source of news if we got rid of NPR.

I don’t listen to NPR as much as I used to, having replaced much of my radio listening with Sirius NFL Radio.   But I agree that, despite a leftist bent on some issues, it takes a very thoughtful and unique approach to news.   Even Diane Rehm, who I find generally grating, manages to secure some excellent guests and manage thoughtful conversations with them despite her annoying and simplistic editorializing.

Still, I have philosophical objections to the public funding that goes to it.  (Although, contra Miller, it’s not “taxpayer funded” but merely “taxpayer supported.”  Most of the money comes from corporate sponsors and viewers like you.)  Not only do I not think the government should be in the news production business in competition with private enterprises, NPR and its public broadcasting cousins are cases where money is taken from the masses to subsidize the elites.

From time to time, there are moves to kill these subsidies but, because the costs are trivial and the supporters are well connected, they go nowhere.   And, as far as government’s acting against my philosophy goes, this is a minor infraction, indeed.   So I’ll listen to NPR so long as it’s around in its present format.   And, if by some happenstance the “kill the subsidy” forces win, I’ll support private means of supplanting the government portion through subscription, advertising, or whathaveyou.

FILED UNDER: General, ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Michael Reynolds says:

    Would it help if all taxpayers got a tote bag?

  2. john personna says:

    If it “shouldn’t” be needed, but is, then it is time to revisit one’s philosophy.

  3. “I realize all of this is made possible by tax dollars, but a big part of me doesn’t care.”

    Wrong. 16% of it is made possible by tax dollars – with only 10% of that coming through direct taxpayer funding.

  4. Ooops! I see you addressed that in your post. As grating as you find Diane Rehm, I find it even more grating when people perpetuate the myth that NPR is state-run media.

    By the way, the CBC in Canada, and the BBC are two of the finest media sources in the world, in my opinion.

  5. James Joyner says:

    If it “shouldn’t” be needed, but is, then it is time to revisit one’s philosophy.

    It’s hardly inconceivable that something is simultaneously bad public policy and of benefit to someone who recognizes it as such. I gladly take my mortgage interest deduction, for example.

  6. giantslor says:

    The fact that NPR and PBS don’t have to cater to the lowest common denominator in order to survive (unlike the broadcast networks and many cable networks) is the reason they are so good.

  7. Franklin says:

    I’d have to agree with Demmons on at least one point: contrast the BBC, CBC, or NPR with the for-profit news stations like MSNBC or Fox News, it’s simply no contest for where you should go for reliable, factual news or considerate opinions. But it’s also apparent that’s not what most people actually want.

  8. James Joyner says:

    The fact that NPR and PBS don’t have to cater to the lowest common denominator in order to survive (unlike the broadcast networks and many cable networks) is the reason they are so good.

    and

    contrast the BBC, CBC, or NPR with the for-profit news stations like MSNBC or Fox News, it’s simply no contest for where you should go for reliable, factual news or considerate opinions. But it’s also apparent that’s not what most people actually want.

    Right. But how far do we take subsidizing programming for the elites based on that fact that we get outvoted in the marketplace? I don’t like “Real Housewives of Wherever” or “Dancing With The Stars.” Can we get the taxpayers to make shows based on scripts that I approve?

  9. john personna says:

    I think the cognitive dissonance is in thinking something is at once good for society (in a practical sense), and bad for it. (in a ‘philosophical’ sense.).

    If the “good” is genuine, then the way to resolve the dissonance is to adjust the philosophy.

    (I think the house price thing fails on both practical and philosophical levels, so no dissonance.)

  10. MarkedMan says:

    NPR gets 1-2% of it’s funding from government sources. Exxon gets more than that. From it’s annual report:

    …A very small percentage — between one percent to two percent of NPR’s annual budget — comes from competitive grants sought by NPR from federally funded organizations, such as the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts…

    And it’s member stations aren’t exactly raking in the federal cash either (16%):

    …the average station’s revenues came from the following sources:

    * 32.1% from listeners in the form of pledges, memberships, and other donations
    * 21.1% from businesses via corporate underwriting
    * 10.1% from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is federally funded*
    * 13.6% from licensee support (including colleges and universities)
    * 9.6% from foundations and major gifts
    * 5.8% from federal, state, and local governments
    * 7.6% from all other sources.

  11. MarkedMan says:

    An interesting history lesson here. During the Reagan years, the Republican Right went ape-sh*t over the government funding of public radio because they hated All Things Considered. At that time, ATC was (I think) one hour a day. The vast majority of what was left was Classical music or Jazz or even Bluegrass (in DC anyway). The GOP managed to get NPR and general Public Radio funding cut dramatically (I happen to agree with this – the government shouldn’t be funding news shows directly or indirectly. I’d have to think about whether they should be funding music shows.) But the unintended consequence was to vastly expand the number of stations carrying NPR and in turn, for NPR to vastly expand it’s number of programs and hours. Because all those classical stations found that their pledge drives only made serious money when NPR was on.

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    That’s the problem isn’t it Jim? A heck of lot of stuff one might have “philosophical objections” to actually advances the public good while market driven rubbish like that from Murdoch or NBC operates against it. The same is true of SS, Medicare and a host of other things. It’s where real life comes into contact with theory. And I have to laugh at your dismissal of elites when you’d fit the definition of an elitist exactly. The fact is popular opinion is a very poor guide to good policy making in either the public or the private domain and American and European history is littered with examples from prohibition to nazism of how true this is. I’m completely in H. L. Mencken’s camp when he said no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the American people. That’s why you need a competent and credible leadership cadre!!

  13. giantslor says:

    Broadcast networks are supposed to operate in the public interest. The marketplace is one way to determine what’s in the public’s interest, but clearly it’s doing a miserable job, giving the public all the junk food it wants while withholding the health food it needs. PBS and NPR’s alternative funding sources allow it to provide this healthier fare without worrying that not enough people are watching or listening. Public subsidies aren’t its only source of funding, but they help a great deal.

    I anticipate you may try to extend the nutrition metaphor. The marketplace allows healthy food to exist without the need for subsidies, so why couldn’t NPR and PBS also exist without subsidies? Well, perhaps they could, but they would take a hit financially and in terms of their independence. They would have to seek other sources of funding to maintain their level of quality, but paradoxically they would become more beholden to whichever donors might fund them and it might affect the quality of their programming. Increased and more visible corporate sponsorship has already had a deleterious effect on PBS programming, as has the increased pursuit of viewer pledges. My PBS station even periodically airs thinly veiled infomercials with spiritual and financial gurus in place of Charlie Rose and the like. None of this would be necessary if a bigger chunk of the revenue came from the government.

  14. sam says:

    I agree with most of what you say, Joe B, but not with this, or what’s implied, at any rate:

    “And I have to laugh at your dismissal of elites when you’d fit the definition of an elitist exactly.”

    I think James would include himself in (anyway, one of) the elites. He doesn’t, as a matter of principle, think the government should be in the business of subsidizing his interests. Though in this case, he’s kinda glad it does, as he said. Sort of a conservative guilty pleasure.

  15. Brummagem Joe says:

    sam says:
    Thursday, July 8, 2010 at 17:05

    OK we’re agreed he’s basically a member of an elite who enjoys elitist pleasures like listening to NPR and taking his mortgage tax reduction (who knows maybe he likes Mozart and Wagner too). This was rather my point that once philosophical objections come up against reality guess what gets dumped? The irony of all this is that there are tons of studies in Europe showing that the main beneficiaries of state sponsored programs of one sort and another are actually the elite (which over there you could roughly define as our upper middle class)

  16. tom p says:

    ***NPR and its public broadcasting cousins are cases where money is taken from the masses to subsidize the elites.***

    Funny, as a union carpenter (and long time contributor to Public Radio) the absolute furthest thing from my mind today as I was listening to All Things Considered today…

    Was that either I or Radley Balko was a F’NNN SUBSIDIZED ELITE!!!

    Yah… he was on today, still fighting the good fight against cops who don’t like their illegal actions videotaped. A man I have exchanged comments with (here) (a time or 2). He is an elitist. Right.

    Somehow or other, I have a hard time seeing Radley being invited on Fox or MSNBC (admittedly, I wouldn’t know. I don’t have TV)

    ***But how far do we take subsidizing programming for the elites based on that fact that we get outvoted in the marketplace? ***

    And James, the real problem with the “marketplace model” is that the commercial news is not funded by the people who consume it, but by corporations that think people will do whatever they are told to.

    People are sheep, but they aren’t stupid sheep… OK, maybe they are, but even stupid sheep have learned how to tune out the commercials.

  17. john personna says:

    Whether or not the elites “like” NPR doesn’t prove or disprove that it is good for American society.

    I think it’s pretty easy to see that it is, and could be better, not necessarily through more spending. (NPR, and the BBC, should be freer with their content, and not play “commercial” as much as they do.)

    BTW, Voice of America is still out there, and you’d probably find a lot fewer people who enjoy it, personally.

  18. Karen says:

    Does the word “elites” even have any meaning in your world anymore?

    I ride I go running several times a week, while some of my friends wonder why they gain another 10 pounds sitting in front of the TV overeating.

    Which one of us is elite, seeing as one of the activities makes me healthier than them but requires nothing and theirs makes them horribly unhealthy but requires a fair amount of purchasing power?

    My elite opinions on health.

  19. john personna says:

    Heh. I’m inclined to think you are “awesome” Karen, rather than “elite.” That said, the world isn’t always totally comfortable with other people exercising. At least you aren’t on a bike!

  20. tom p says:

    by the by… Radley was on Talk of the Nation, not ATC….

    One thing I am having a hard time with here…. How in the HELL can “PUBLIC” radio be “elitist”????

    I repeat JJ, “class warfare” your name is James Joyner.

  21. Juneau says:

    The 2005 budget for NPR was about US$120 million.

    From the latest annual report:

    10.1% from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which is federally funded

    5.8% from federal, state, and local governments

    = a shade under 16% = $18 Million

    That’s a lot of money. That’s my money, not just liberals money. NPR is staunchly anti-conservative. I want off the ride please…. just make it go away – or go 100% private funding.

    “Member stations that serve rural and “minority” communities receive significantly more funding from the CPB; in some cases up to 70%”

  22. James Joyner says:

    One thing I am having a hard time with here…. How in the HELL can “PUBLIC” radio be “elitist”????

    The same way a Democratic Republic can be Communist?

    But I’m not saying its elitist — which I don’t think is a bad thing, by the way — but rather aimed at and consumed mostly by an elite, highly educated audience with a particular set of sensibilities.

    As already noted, I am part of that niche. I’m an upper middle class professional with a PhD. My argument is that the taxpayer probably shouldn’t have to subsidize my preferences in media since I could afford to subscribe absent the subsidy.

    NPR and PBS both made some sense forty years ago, when there was very little choice. People in most of the country simply had no access to great news content, much less high culture. So, essentially, we were subsidizing rural Americans for the sake of education and access to elite society.

    But, with the advent of 400 channel television, cheap satellite radio, and $7 Beethoven CDs, the original purpose has been flipped on its head.