These days, I’m frequently asked, “Can public broadcasting survive without federal funding?” I understand the reason for the question — we all understand the terrible burden of our national debt — but the real question is, “What’s the cost to the nation of defunding public broadcasting?”
Eliminating federal funding would seriously damage public broadcasting and harm millions of Americans who rely on us. Period.
It will mean fewer stations, fewer programs, and less news produced — especially locally. If stations go dark, that hurts us at NPR, but it hurts local listeners more. At NPR, our mission is to reach and inform as many people as well as possible about what’s going on in the world and in their communities. A weakened, smaller public broadcasting economy will deeply damage our ability to deliver on that mission.
Defunding public broadcasting would eliminate thousands of jobs in public radio alone. It would cause a significant number of small NPR member stations to turn off their microphones, shut down their transmitters and close the door permanently.
NPR is successful not because we’re smarter than anyone else — we aren’t. And it’s not because we don’t have to worry about the bottom line. Believe me, we do.
But we are successful partly because of the investment that Congress and the American public have made in public media over 40 years and the way in which we’ve gradually been able to leverage that investment to build other sources of support.
Those sources include:
Listeners: whose contributions make up the largest share of station revenue.
Corporate underwriters: whose support isn’t simply a transaction; they want to be associated with the credibility and value of the NPR name.
Philanthropic individuals/ institutions: all of whom believe in the value of an informed citizenry.
Continued government funding: grants to stations from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting represent 10 percent of the public radio station economy. It’s not the largest portion of the revenue, but it is a critical cornerstone of public media.
Federal money is particularly important for stations in rural areas because it makes up a larger share of their revenue. One in five NPR member stations receives 25 percent or more of their total funding from the CPB. These stations tend to be in areas where listeners may have limited or no other access to free over-the-air news and information.
And we are not talking billions here — the federal contribution for public radio funding is less than $100 million annually. That funding is critical because it’s seed money — it allows taxpayers to leverage a small investment into a very large one. Station managers tell us that seed money plays a critical role in generating the other funding that makes their service possible.
Let me share some additional facts that most may not realize:
NPR is a communications lifeline during natural disasters and emergencies, especially when the power grid is down. In recent years, many commercial broadcasters have eliminated expensive activities (like news reporting and emergency communications) and replaced them with automated systems that supply outside news programming. Likewise, many commercial television stations have ceded their role in the FCC’s Emergency Alert System to public TV. With federal funding, NPR member stations have actually expanded their role in emergency communications during crisis situations. In several regions, the local NPR station is the only source of this important emergency information and the only place to which rural residents can turn for reports that could save their lives and protect their families.
NPR is also one of a handful of authorized AMBER alert redistributors in the nation and the only broadcast network so designated. What does that mean? When a child is abducted, an alert is issued to law-enforcement and distributed to the media. Starting this summer, NPR will not only be able to broadcast that information on-air, we will be able to send a picture of the child and the car used in the abduction to all vehicles equipped with radio consoles capable of showing images and/or text. Getting information to those most likely to spot a kidnapper’s car and alert police in the hours following a child’s abduction is critical.
Americans believe in federal funding for public broadcasting. Last month, a bipartisan national survey showed that 69 percent of Americans oppose the elimination of federal funding for public media.
With the nation facing continuing economic uncertainty, it is both right and necessary to scrutinize all federal spending. But if the public value for the money spent is the prism through which spending decisions are made, public broadcasting is a strong investment in America’s future.
Slocum is the interim CEO of NPR.