What Congress Needs to Know About Funding NPR and PBS

NPR, PBS, provide thoughtful, diverse programming in a world where so many of us are tired of the daily shoutfest.

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I appear fairly regularly as a political commentator on NPR, most often on Tell Me More, which is hosted by Michel Martin and produced in association with the African-American Public Radio Consortium. We often talk about current headlines and political developments that other news outlets are missing, and many times have gotten into what the impact will be on minority voters. The nice thing about NPR is that the culture there is one of respect, intellectual curiosity, and above all, thoughtful listening. There’s no shouting and no interrupting. This is not cable TV.

And so I’ve been following the controversy with NPR this week that resulted in the resignation of CEO Vivian Schiller, and I’ve got some advice for those in Congress who are using this as an excuse to call for cutting NPR’s funding. [Vote Now: Should NPR lose funding after Schiller-O'Keefe controversy?]

First, members of Congress should be aware that over the last decade, NPR’s audience has been growing, which is pretty remarkable when you consider that we all have hundreds of choices on commercial and satellite radio these days. Take a look at this:

  1. The fall 2010 ratings show that NPR listenership hit an all-time high in the top 50 U.S. markets; fall was the fourth record-setting quarter in a row for NPR.
  2. Approximately 27 million people listen to NPR every week, and about 93 percent of the U.S. population can hear at least one station that carries NPR programming.
  3. NPR reaches more people than the total circulation of the top 67 national newspapers.
  4. Over 22 million NPR-produced podcasts get downloaded monthly, and the downloaders have an average age of 33 and make $75,000 a year; 4 out of 5 of them are college grads.
  5. In addition, 70 percent of NPR listeners vote.
  6. I’ve been told by NPR executives—after I expressed surprise that so many of my conservative friends tell me they listen to NPR—that their audience is one-third liberal, one-third independent, and one-third conservative.
  7. In addition, Congress should know that the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, under which NPR and PBS operate, has a board comprised of six presidentially-appointed members: three Republicans and three Democrats. The corporation is legally charged with “strict adherence to objectivity and balance in all programs or series of programs of a controversial nature.” [Read more about the national deficit and debt.]

    Knowing all this, why would Congress want to walk away from NPR? Here’s my advice: Rather than cutting NPR free from federal funding—and any control and balance that should go with it—Congress should support continued funding for all perspectives to be heard on public radio. According to the public broadcasting corporation, “diversity in programming” is one way that it ensures a wide range of perspectives is available to PBS viewers and NPR listeners. If federal funding ends, presumably having that wide range of perspectives will end too, because there won’t be a federal mandate for diverse programming anymore.

    Overall, NPR’s audience is made up of educated, loyal listeners who also vote. (And they’re getting younger, thanks to the popular NPR iPad app.) Many NPR stations serve rural communities, some of which are underserved by local television and radio stations. For many Americans, they’re the only game in town—not just for cultural events and new music, but for news coverage and political analysis. I suspect the fact that NPR programming is mandated to be balanced brings a lot of listeners who are turned off by talk radio and cable TV. In a world where so many of us are tired of the daily shoutfest, there’s a role for thoughtful, diverse programming on public radio and television. [Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

    Members of Congress shouldn’t be looking to cut the funding—they should be calling the NPR bookers and volunteering to go on every program they’ve got. In the contest of ideas, why would anyone not want to be in front of that huge audience, making one’s best case on the issues of the day? 

    • Vote Now: Should NPR lose funding after Schiller-O'Keefe controversy?
    • Check out a roundup of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.
    • See a slide show of the best cities to find a job.