‘Free’ Public Radio Is Anything But

Published February 25, 2011

National Public Radio listeners are being inundated with warnings that they soon may have to drive to work every morning without the sonorous intonations of Morning Edition’s Corey Flintoff, Steve Inskeep, and Renée Montagne, and may be forced to drive home without the narrative drone of All Things Considered’s Robert Siegel, Michele Norris, and Melissa Block.

Just this morning, I received a panicked e-mail from the director of broadcasting at an NPR affiliate in my home state, Michigan. You know, one of those state-based public-radio operations that just last October received a portion of George Soros’s $1.8 million Open Society Foundation gift to hire two government reporters in each of the 50 states; one of the same group of radio stations benefiting from the Joan Kroc Foundation’s $200 million endowment in 2003; one of the same stations that host interminable on-air fundraisers at least twice a year.

They are warning that Congress may eliminate taxpayer subsidies to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the entity that heaps money on 900 NPR affiliates across the country.

The warnings reek of disingenuousness.

After all, crying poverty is public broadcasting’s modus operandi. If it didn’t do it extremely well, no one would donate during those radiothons, corporations wouldn’t spend huge sums of money to sponsor programming, and “people just like you” wouldn’t forgo paying the cable bill so they could help meet a challenge grant from their neighbors and co-workers.

As an example of how much begging public radio does, Wisconsin Public Radio — a network of 32 stations programmed by seven regional stations – reported that 13 percent of its total budget in 2009 was used for fundraising. Additionally, the network’s website reveals that 25 percent ($1.94 million) of the revenues garnered from listener and corporate donations ($6.25 million and $1.58 million, respectively) are directly allocated to fundraising.

So it came as no surprise when I received the director’s e-mail, which warns, “I believe this is one of the most serious challenges to public broadcasting that we have ever faced.”

Not mentioned in his emotional appeal are the substantial costs American taxpayers are stuck with.

According to dedicated public-broadcasting professionals at several stations in Michigan with whom I’ve had the pleasure of speaking without a single Freedom of Information Act request, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting allocates federal tax dollars every year to state NPR affiliates. Station personnel I interviewed this past week said that the sums granted to affiliates range from $258,000 to approximately $450,000 annually.

Why, that’s “only $1.35 per American per year,” according to the e-mail. But not every one of the 300-plus million people in the United States is forced to pony up that buck thirty-five. If we hypothetically assume that 150 million people file federal tax returns and that half of those receive substantial refunds, that makes NPR’s share more like $5.40 per person. That’s still relatively insignificant for enlightened fans of Terry Gross and Diane Rehm — but it’s $5.40 more than most of the people who don’t listen to public radio would pay if they had a choice.

Moreover, the public “donations” don’t stop at direct coercion by the federal government. State taxpayers cover a big chunk of public radio’s bill through subsidies to state universities and colleges that house transmitters, offices, studios, and utilities. One publicly supported station in Michigan told me that this arrangement amounts to 12 percent ($405,159) of its annual budget. Wisconsin Public Radio has a similar 10 percent ($1.6 million) “indirect/in-kind” arrangement.

In addition, there is often direct support from the colleges and universities, which again are supported by taxpayers. In many cases the college’s board of trustees owns the broadcast license of the station nestled on its campus, so a line-item designation is included in the college’s annual budget. The Michigan public university referred to above bestows $1.1 million on its public-radio station (that’s 32.8 percent of the station’s total annual revenues). Likewise, Wisconsin colleges contributed 23 percent of Wisconsin Public Radio’s $16 million revenues in 2009.

There are plenty of other arguments for defunding public radio (and public television as well), but the basic one is this: Taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to support the luxury of public radio.

Bruce Edward Walker ([email protected]) is managing editor of The Heartland Institute’s InfoTech & Telecom News. This essay originally appeared on National Review Online.