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NPR’s Weak Case for Federal Funding

Attention listeners! The House today is to debate a bill that would strip federal taxpayer funding for National Public Radio.

By 3.17.11

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The House of Representatives is set to debate today a bill that would strip federal taxpayer funding for National Public Radio. Critics of the GOP's move to defund NPR say it is built on a false foundation: an apparently doctored video in which an NPR executive appeared to call Tea Party activists racist. The bill's sponsor, Rep. Doug Lamborn, R-Colo., has a ready rebuttal. He asks, "Should something continue to be funded that doesn't need to be?"

Lamborn's key word is "need."

NPR has 34 million listeners. It raises the vast majority of its funding from private sources such as individual donors, corporate underwriters, and non-profit grant-makers. The Los Angeles Times has reported that if federal funding for NPR were eliminated, the average NPR affiliate station would lose 15 percent of its funding.

That undermines the liberal argument that eliminating the federal subsidies for NPR would destroy public radio. If the average NPR station gets 85 percent of its funding from other sources, it's hard to see how ending the public subsidies would kill the network.

In a fundraising spot for the network, one of its stars, Ira Glass, recently tried to guilt listeners into donating by citing a statistic: only one in 10 NPR listeners gives money to support the network. He then called a famous Chicago hot dog maker and asked for 10 cases of hot dogs for the price of one. His point, he said, was that no other business could survive on NPR's business model.

Glass portrayed the network and the hot dog maker as equivalent businesses, each trying to survive the competitive world of the free market. He never mentioned that NPR receives taxpayer subsidies – or that it receives them precisely because the left has always argued that NPR cannot survive by trying to compete in the free market.

His analogy raised a great point, but not the one he intended: Couldn't NPR stop taking federal subsidies if it were just a little better at raising money from its listeners? In essence, taxpayers who might or might not listen to NPR are being compelled by their government to fund the network because 9/10ths of its listeners choose to be free riders.

And that raises another question: Wouldn't more listeners give if they knew their local station really did "rely on listeners like you" instead of on the government?

In a telling shift, NPR's defenders in Congress have begun downplaying the "you'll kill NPR!" rhetoric and have begun arguing that if NPR loses its federal handouts, poor, rural stations will vanish. Perhaps without realizing it, they've conceded a major point: NPR and the majority of its member stations will survive without federal subsidies.

If the case for keeping the subsidies rests on propping up rural radio stations, then Republicans could reach an easy compromise: cut funding for all but the backwater stations that cannot support themselves. Of course, that would raise another uncomfortable question: Why does Washington need to fund them?

If public radio's fans and underwriters were truly devoted to the mission of public radio, couldn't they step forward and raise the money needed to keep the small, rural stations alive? Or are they not as devoted to the mission as they claim?

As only one in 10 NPR listeners gives money to keep his own public radio station alive, the last question answers itself. According to NPR's own data, nine of 10 public radio listeners don't find the content important enough to pay for it. If 90 percent of NPR listeners refuse to fund it, why should the rest of us?

If NPR "needs" federal funding, it's not because its work is vital to the country or it fills a void in the market. It's because its own customers don't value it enough to pay for it. That's an argument for finding more sponsors and underwriters, not for sending the bill to the taxpayers.

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Andrew Cline is editorial page editor of the New Hampshire Union Leader. You can follow him on Twitter at @Drewhampshire.