Tax Payer Funded NPR Brings Rock Stars to Swanky Washington Party

Is promoting new recordings of musicians something the government should subsidize?

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In the aftermath of the admission by former National Public Radio (NPR) executive Ron Schiller that NPR would not only survive an end in federal funding but “be better off in the long run” there was a common refrain from NPR supporters to ignore that man formerly behind the curtain, that public subsidies of NPR must remain in place because of the quality of the programming and the alleged need for it in rural areas.

[Read NPR's response: NPR is not 'tax-payer funded.']

While most know of what have been the traditional NPR flagship programs--Morning Edition, All Things Considered, etc.--in the past few years, it has been another NPR program, the music-focused All Songs Considered that has gained the network’s most loyal following and made the most significant impact on its subject matter (yes, even more than Car Talk has on auto sales). [Vote Now: Should NPR lose funding after Schiller-O'Keefe controversy?]

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For the uninitiated, All Songs Considered is NPR’s new music portal, featuring music from up and coming artists like Josh Ritter, the world music emphasis one would expect from an NPR program, and long established artists like Bob Dylan, Elton John, Brian Wilson and R.E.M. All Songs Considered gives exhaustive coverage of music centric events such as the SXSW conference and the Bonnaroo festival, while featuring a 24/7 online music station and an archive of concerts (full disclosure: I am listening to a 2005 Son Volt concert posted on their site while writing this.)

The Pabst Blue Ribbon-sponsored site bills itself as “the place to discover music.” It’s not a claim without merit. Last month, R.E.M. manager Bertis Downs was quoted as saying that for promotion of R.E.M.’s latest album, Collapse Into Now, All Songs Considered is “at the top of the list.” The program’s promotion of Adele’s 21 has been credited as an “important piece” of her album’s success in topping the Billboard charts.

Meanwhile, as Washington prepares to celebrate, well, itself at the annual White House Correspondents’ Dinner, where media organizations try to out-do each other by planting celebrities at their $2,500 tables, taxpayer-subsidized and donor-supported NPR is no exception. Joining NPR staff will be Ambassador Susan Rice as well as three All Songs Considered favorites, Annie Clark, who records under the nom de plume St. Vincent, Talking Heads founder David Byrne, and R.E.M. frontman Michael Stipe. [Read Mary Kate Cary: What Congress needs to know about funding PBS and NPR].

Which raises the question: In a time when, NPR’s budget is under scrutiny, is hosting rock stars at a swank dinner the sign NPR officials want to send? And, is promoting new recordings of musical artists--be they starving or sated--something the government should even subsidize in the first place?

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Over the past few months we’ve seen little from NPR other than unforced errors and embarrassments, such as the Juan Williams firing and resignation of top staff due to admissions of anti-conservative bias. Those alone have made the selling of future NPR funding to a Republican Congress intent on cutting unnecessary spending a hard sell. But as NPR lobbyists make their case on Capitol Hill in the coming weeks and months, perhaps they’ll have a harder time explaining how promoting music artists is in the public interest (All Songs Considered-related sales spikes have been compared to those of Starbucks, who does not take government subsidies) and why the company has the largess, in a time of austerity to fete those artists it promotes.

Read NPR's response: NPR is not 'tax-payer funded.'

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