Internet Killed The Radio Star: Let NPR “Go Dark”
National Public Radio is facing the threat of losing its federal funding and having member stations lose their programming. But would this really be a bad thing?
Today, Republicans in the US House of Representatives are going to vote on the elimination of federal funding of National Public Radio as well as prohibit local public radio stations from using federal funds to pay NPR dues.
If you’re reading this article and you don’t know what NPR is, essentially it is the radio equivalent of PBS, the network of public television stations that carry popular public TV programs such as NOVA, Frontline, American Experience, Masterpiece Theater, Antiques Roadshow and Sesame Street.
In addition to its newscasts, NPR is probably best known for All Things Considered, a two-hour weekday program that covers a variety of news and cultural subjects that has been on the air since 1971.
Both of these systems were formed in the late 1960s and the early 1970s by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) which is a not for profit organization that is directly funded by the United States government.
CPB provides some funding to PBS and to NPR, but a substantial amount of funding to PBS and NPR also come from private sources via fundraising efforts and endowments by charitable organizations.
The Republicans in the House are livid and are on a de-funding warpath because of a release of a video last week where prominent fundraiser for NPR, Ron Schiller, was secretly taped making reportedly anti-conservative, anti-Republican, anti-Tea Party comments by political activist James O’Keefe during a private meeting with a fake front group for the Muslim Brotherhood, organized by O’Keefe.
[EDIT:Per reader requests, I am posting the unedited, uncut version of the O’Keefe video below so readers can make up their own minds about the context of Ron Schiller’s comments.]
To say that Schiller was “Punked” by O’Keefe is an understatement. There has been some concern that the video(s) which he has posted have been selectively edited in order to put the worst face on Schiller’s comments, which could be taken out of context.
Still. the fallout from the release of this video has been considerable. Schiller was fired. Shortly thereafter, the Board of Directors of NPR has also fired the not for profit’s Executive Director, Vivian Schiller (no relation).
That being said, I do not wish to get into the finer points of partisan politics. That’s not the role of this blog, which is to focus on technology. My own political leanings are what could be described as “Right Centrist Libertarian”. You can interpret that any way you like.
I call myself middle of the road, with very liberal social leanings — I’m pro gay marriage, pro-choice and pro marijuana legalization. I’m pretty much pro-everything that most conservatives and right-leaning politicians hate. On the other hand, I believe in having a very conservative economic policy (meaning we should be very careful how we spend government money) and a strong defense of our nation and our allies around the world.
At the same time I am also of the opinion that the government should be hands-off from just about everything as it concerns regulation and intervening with our capitalist system unless it becomes absolutely necessary to do so.
While I cannot say I am in general alignment with much of the legislation the Republicans and their Tea Party and other conservative-aligned supporters bring forth in the House and the Senate, I do have to agree that it probably no longer makes sense to spend federal money on supporting terrestrial radio broadcast infrastructure for NPR.
There are a number of reasons for this, but I’ll state this plain and simple — NPR should become an Internet-only radio station, where practical.
This morning, where I awoke to the news that NPR would be facing possible legislation in the House that could severely curtail funding from the federal government and prevent local radio stations from paying for NPR re-broadcast using government funds, the first thing I did was see if I could access NPR over the Internet.
More accurately, as I was lying in bed and watching CNN, what I actually did was grab my iPad 2 and go to the App Store to see if there was an iOS application to stream NPR from my device. There indeed is one, for iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch, and as a matter of fact, it is an EXCELLENT application. Not only can you live stream NPR from dozens of radio station affiliates, but you can also listen to pre-recorded podcasts and view news stories.
On the Android platform, there is an equivalent application, and my wife installed it on her Droid and it works perfectly. It should also be noted that any PC or Mac (Including the Linux system I am writing this article from now) can listen to NPR via live stream using their web-based player application. If you don’t listen to NPR today via these mediums, I highly encourage you to do so.
Now, it could be argued that if NPR stops working with the large majority of public terrestrial radio stations who pay dues to carry their programming, it will lose a significant source of income. This is true.
Like PBS, NPR is a membership corporation, composed of public, non-commercial radio stations. As of 2009, NPR’s income was approximately $160 million, with most of its revenue coming from programming fees it charges to stations which carry its programming (roughly 40 percent of its income) grants, contributions and sponsorships.
On the average, member stations that carry NPR content derive about 10 percent of their revenue from federal government funding, which comes in the form of grants from the CPB. NPR itself does not receive direct funding from the federal government. Rather, in addition to the CPB providing funds to the member stations which pay dues to NPR, it also provides funds that equal approximately 1.5 percent of NPR’s revenues directly to the organization in the form of grants.
So if the legislation by the Republicans in the House (and eventually the Senate) passes, these radio stations which receive government money will not be able to use it to pay for NPR programming. Additionally, the CPB itself will not be able to issue grants directly to NPR.
This does not mean that public radio stations will “Go Dark”. People will still be able to get local news, traffic, music, and other programming on those stations as they do now.