End Federal Funding for NPR

National Public Radio has a wealth of private funding and may not actually need government support.

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As promised on its “You Cut” website, where ordinary Americans can vote online or by cell phone “on spending cuts that you want to see the House enact,” the House GOP continues to move ahead on ideas to cut spending.

For those unfamiliar with the site, each week the proposal that has received the most votes is taken to the House floor, where the GOP attempts to offer it to the full House for an up-or-down vote.

The concept has proven popular with the American public. According to the website, Americans have cast nearly 2.5 million votes on various proposals since the site went live earlier this year.

The latest proposal to move forward was an idea suggested by Colorado GOP Rep. Doug Lamborn to cut off the federal taxpayer subsides to National Public Radio, an idea that has been much in the news since senior NPR management handed commentator Juan Williams his walking papers earlier this year.

As the GOP explains it, “NPR receives taxpayer funding in two different ways. First, they receive direct government grants from various federal agencies, including the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, the Department of Commerce, the Department of Education and the National Endowment for the Arts.”

[See who donates the most to Lamborn.]

Over the last two years, the GOP says, the direct funding has been approximately $9 million. But that is only part of the equation as NPR also receives indirect taxpayer funding, such as the grants the CPB makes to public radio stations.

“While some of these grants can be used for any purpose,” the GOP says, “some can only be used to acquire and produce programming. Often this programming is purchased from NPR. Indeed programming fees and dues paid by local public radio stations to NPR account for approximately 40 percent of NPR's budget or about $65 million last year. A portion of these funds were originally federal tax dollars provided to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting to the local public radio stations.”

Does it make sense yet? To many people it doesn’t, which is why—even though in the aggregate it’s not a lot of money—the labyrinthine ways the funds ultimately find their way through the system makes it important symbolically.

This is especially true to those who wonder in the first place why the federal government is in the business of subsidizing news programming for domestic consumption when there are so many private alternatives available on terrestrial radio, satellite and on the Internet.

Moreover the stations and the programming may not actually need government support. National Public Radio has a wealth of private funding on which it already relies, including significant funding from private organizations, individuals and endowments that donate funds and sponsor specific programs.

“In 2008, NPR listed over 32 separate private donors and sponsors who provided financial support in excess of half-a-million dollars that year,” the YouCut says, adding that “NPR officials have indicated that taxpayer funding makes up only a small portion of their overall budget.”

[Read more about the deficit and national debt.]

“Make no mistake,” the folks at YouCut say, “It is not the role of government to tell news organizations how to operate. What is avoidable, however, is providing taxpayer funds to news organizations that promote a partisan point of view. Eliminating taxpayer funding for NPR is precisely the kind of commonsense cut that we have to begin making if we want to fundamentally alter the way business is conducted in Washington.”

The vote, Politico reported late Thursday, failed by a vote of 239 to 171 when the Democrats moved to cut off debate on an underlying measure and move forward without taking up the proposal—even though there are those who will say the vote to cut off debate was, in effect, a vote on the idea.

Predictably, NPR cheered the news, saying in a statement, “The proposal to prohibit public radio stations from using CPB grants to purchase NPR programming is an unwarranted attempt to interject federal authority into local station program decision-making. Furthermore, restrictions on the authority of CPB—a Congressionally chartered, independent non-profit organization—to make competitive grants to NPR, or any other public broadcasting entity, is misguided.”

If some members of Congress are really serious about getting the U.S. government out of the radio news business, there are other ways they could approach the issue. It’s legally complex and could spend years in court, but it is something.

It has to do with the stations themselves, many of which are not-for-profit entities operating under government license. One idea is to remove the tax deductibility of contributions to public broadcasting in general—forcing them to compete for dollars in the marketplace with everyone else. The time has long passed since these programs were “commercial free”—with the commercials now being sponsorship announcements instead of a hard pitch for goods or services.

Another idea, and one that would not only save the estimated $65 million a year in subsides but might also generate generous revenues for the federal government, at a time when they are sorely needed, would be for Congress to take up the idea of stations’ licenses themselves. It could, if it wanted to, find a way to revoke them and then repurpose the space they occupy on the spectrum for mobile use and sell it at auction.

It is, as I indicated, legally complex and could be in the courts for years. It is nevertheless true that private companies need more spectrum as Internet-based and mobile communications technologies continue to expand. They would probably pay handsomely for the space on the spectrum now occupied by NPR stations, which could stay on the air as Internet broadcasters. Some of the programming would, not doubt, easily find a new home on satellite radio. This would create the opportunity to turn a permanent subsidy into a revenue-generating activity that might help get the U.S. government out of a business the private sector has shown it knows quite well how to operate.

  • Read more about the deficit and national debt.
  • Follow the money in Congress.
  • Check out a roundup of this month's best political cartoons.