A Debate on NPR about the Future of NPR

by on February 15, 2011 · 8 comments

It was my pleasure today to debate the future of public media funding on Warren Olney’s NPR program, “To The Point“.  I was 1 of 5 guests and I wasn’t brought into the show until about 29 minutes into the program, but I tried to reiterate some of the key points I made in my essay last week on “‘Non-Commercial Media’ = Fine; ‘Public Media’ = Not So Much.”  I won’t reiterate everything I said before since you can just go back and read it, but to briefly summarize what I said there as well as on today’s show: (1) taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize speech or media content they find potentially objectionable; and (2) public broadcasters are currently perfectly positioned to turn this federal funding “crisis” into a golden opportunity by asking its well-heeled and highly-diversified base of supporters to step up to the plate and fill the gap left by the end of taxpayer subsidies.

Just a word more on that last point. As I pointed out on the show today, it’s an uncomfortable fact of life for NPR that their average listener is old, rich, highly-educated, and mostly white.  Specifically, here are some numbers that NPR itself has compiled about its audience demographics:

  • The median age of the NPR listener is 50.
  • The median household income of an NPR News listener is about $86,000, compared to the national average of about $55,000.
  • NPR’s audience is extraordinarily well-educated.  Nearly 65% of all listeners have a bachelor’s
    degree, compared to only a quarter of the U.S. population.  Also, they are three times more likely than the
    average American to have completed graduate school.
  • The majority of the NPR audience (86%) identifies itself as white.

Why do these numbers matter? Simply stated: These people can certainly step up to the plate and pay more to cover the estimated $1.39 that taxpayers currently contribute to the public media in the U.S.  But wait, there’s more! There are plenty of other existing corporate and foundational supporters out there who already make sizable contributions to NPR. Down below, I have attached a list that appeared in the NPR’s 2008 annual donor list of just the corporations who currently support NPR and it includes only those companies who support at a level greater than a half million per year. There are many others who offer annual support for less than that and then there are the hundreds of foundations and wealthy families who give major gifts of varying amounts.

Again, these individual benefactors could all probably be prodded to give a bit more, and plenty of others out there would likely step up to the plate to meet the challenge of filling the small gap left by ending taxpayer support.  For God’s sake, just look at that list of current top-dollar corporate supporters for NPR down below!  It reads like a “Who’s Who” of the Fortune 500 giants and it must leave all of NPR’s competitors stinging with jealous about how smart it was for non-commercial media to diversify its base of philanthropic support so long ago.

Thus, there’s no reason that public media operators can’t take the next step and find alternative means of support to fill the 16% of their budgets that currently comes from taxpayers.  In these tight fiscal times, it’s only fair.

$1 Million + Supporters of NPR in 2008

  • Angie’s List
  • CITGO Petroleum
  • Corporation CSX Corporation
  • Feeding America
  • Fox Searchlight Pictures
  • General Motors Corporation
  • Institute for Supply Management
  • Insurance Company
  • Intel Corporation
  • Johnson Controls
  • Kashi Company
  • Lindamood-Bell Learning Systems
  • Lumber Liquidators
  • MasterCard
  • MGM
  • National Association of Realtors
  • Netflix
  • Northwestern Mutual Foundation
  • Novo Nordisk
  • Overture Films
  • Pabst Brewing Company
  • Paramount Home Entertainment
  • Paramount Pictures
  • Prudential Financial
  • PBS Raymond James Financial Services
  • Philips Healthcare
  • POM Wonderful REI
  • Progressive Casualty Insurance
  • Scotts Miracle-Gro Company
  • State Farm Mutual Automobile
  • Travel Guard
  • U.S. Bank Vestas
  • Universal Pictures
  • Visa Warner Home Video
  • Walden University Yahoo!
  • Wind Systems

$500,000-$999,999 Supporters of NPR in 2008

  • Cargill
  • Citibank
  • Constant Contant
  • Constellation Energy
  • Focus Features
  • iShares
  • Leanding Tree
  • Lenovo
  • Lionsgate
  • Entertainment
  • CNetApp
  • Pajamagram Company
  • Saturn
  • Sit4Less.com
  • Subaru
  • T. Rowe Price
  • UPS
  • Vanguard Group

[Read rest of the list of this impressive list of NPR corporate and foundational supporters here.  Has there ever been a more well-diversified base of support for any media operation in American history?  I think not. As Jill Lawrence points out on Politics Daily, public media's extremely loyal -- and rich -- fan base are not about let NPR and PBS die.]

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  • Oscar

    Agree. It’s in NPR’s own interest to wean itself off government subsidies. The stations all profess to be listener-supported. So should NPR.

  • Steve Crowley

    I generally agree. Public broadcasting should be on more solid financial footing, and I think donors would step forward to help fill the gap.The political squabbles are unseemly. Stations face difficulty planning capital expenditures not knowing what Congress is going to do each year.

    Stations could also run commercials, if the Communications Act were amended. Since 1984 the FCC has allowed stations to conduct “enhanced underwriting” to attract more financial support. A lot of those underwriting announcements sound like commercials to me, but stations are not allowed to use qualitative or comparative language. If the Act can’t be amended in a timely manner, the FCC might consider an “enhanced interpretation” of its underwriting policies.

  • Doug

    Overall, I also agree and I would like to point out that the demographics of NPR’s audience are largely irrelevant. Now if only we could eliminate taxpayer subsidies for major league sports.

  • http://www.freelinereport.com/ Brad Fallon

    What was your favorite aspect of the Democratic Presidential debate on NPR yesterday?

  • http://www.freelinereport.com/ Brad Fallon

    What was your favorite aspect of the Democratic Presidential debate on NPR yesterday?

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