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America's National Public Radio turns 40: BBC take note

National Public Radio in the US celebrates its 40th anniversary this month. The bottom-up approach of the NPR is democratic, cost effective, and encourages variety. BBC radio has much to learn
David Elstein
28 May 2011

Whilst openDemocracy is celebrating its tenth birthday, the public service radio system in the US celebrates its 40th anniversary this month.

NPR (which is how it styles itself) has had a difficult 2011, suffering from a combination of blogger ambush, corporate caution and renewed Republican hostility in Congress.  A smaller and better-rooted organisation than its TV sibling, PBS, NPR offers an interesting contrast with BBC radio: more of that below.

NPR’s current run of problems started last year, when a black commentator, Juan Williams, was dropped after revealing (in an interview with Fox News) that he was nervous of boarding planes along with identifiable Muslims.  A senior manager was also fired.

Then an advisor on fund-raising, Ron Schiller, incautiously fell for a sting in March set up by a right-wing activist, James O’Keefe, famous for the video “gotchas” his Project Veritas plasters online.  Schiller was already preparing to leave NPR, but was lured to a Georgetown restaurant in the belief that he would be offered a $5m donation by a couple of Muslims keen to spread sharia law around the world.

Given that the Tea Party’s favoured members of the House of Representatives were actively campaigning – again – for NPR’s federal funds to be cut off, Schiller was understandably tempted by the scale of the possible donation: so O’Keefe’s claims that Schiller displayed amusement at the notion of wider application of sharia, and described Tea Party activists as racists, were damaging.

Or, at least, that is what O’Keefe’s editing of the secret audio seemed to show.  Bizarrely, an associate of Glenn Beck (darling of the Tea Party but no friend of O’Keefe’s) analyzed the unedited audio, and showed that Schiller had primarily been quoting Republican contacts who had characterised Tea Party activists as “racist”, rather than offering his own opinion; and the laughter in response to the sharia aspirations was actually edited in from another point in the tape.

But the harm had been done.  Ron Schiller apologised and accelerated his planned departure.  NPR’s chief executive, Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron), also stepped down.  Republican congressmen – thus encouraged – amplified their routine calls for federal funds to be withdrawn altogether from NPR: a posture as reflexive as that to “end Obama-care” and cut $2 trillion from the federal budget.

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Yet the fact is that NPR itself receives almost no federal money.  Most of the $420m distributed by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting last year went to TV stations, not radio stations; and almost none went to NPR (the central body which is actually controlled by the 797 public radio stations, who nominate 10 of the 15 members of the NPR board – the others are members of the public: the chairman comes from the NPR Foundation).  

The stations derive about 10% of their budget from the CPB, and another 6% from other government grants.  32% comes from individual donations, 21% from business sponsors (there are no advertisements as such: rather, company announcements), 14% from universities (most public radio stations are owned by colleges) and 10% from foundations.

Some stations – including those, like WMMT in Kentucky which are not even affiliated to NPR – would suffer almost certain closure if their CPB grant (about a third of WMMT’s $250k annual budget) were cut off by the Republicans.  But even Ron Schiller, in his secretly recorded interview, pondered whether NPR as a whole might be better off without federal money, and so without the constant political hassle.

It is true that NPR obtains 34% of its income from affiliated stations (and so, indirectly, 3.4% from the CPB); but 22% comes from sponsors, and 19% from distribution services.  Perhaps most interesting – by comparison with the BBC – is the competitive programme supply market.  NPR itself offers a core of available content for its affiliates, but they can also choose from other suppliers, such as American Public Media, and stand-alone independent producers.  Even top-rating shows do not reach more than 60% of all NPR stations, as individual station managers compile their own schedules and commission their own local content.

Even so, some outstanding radio brands have been established over the years, such as Garrison Keillor’s “A Prairie Home Companion”, the flagship news programmes “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered”, “Fresh Air” (based in Philadelphia), “On Point” (from Boston), Robert Krulwich’s “Radiolab”, Ira Glass’s “This American Life” (from Chicago), “Studio 360”, “To the Best of our Knowledge” (from Wisconsin) and “Encounters” (from Alaska).

Indeed, you can compile your own NPR schedule from the Public Radio Exchange, at PRX.org, or find thousands of NPR programmes (free) on iTunes.  Or you could just log on to npr.org, where you can judge its online news offering, as well as listen to live output.  1.4m people follow NPR on Facebook and Twitter.

NPR enjoyed a major boost in 2003 when the widow of Ray Kroc (founder of McDonald’s) left $225m to the NPR Foundation, which allowed a 50% increase in the volume of content from NPR itself.  Last year, the Open Society Institute gave $1.8m to boost NPR journalism.  Given that a weekly programme can cost as little as £220k a year to produce, this amount was enough for 100 extra journalists to be hired.  Total staff throughout the system grew by 8%: eat your heart out, BBC.

And the effects are very visible.  Not only is NPR (according to a poll by Harris in 2005) regarded as the most trusted news service in the US, but according to this year’s Pew Project State of the Media report, NPR is almost unique amongst traditional news organisations in building its audience: up 3% in 2010 to 27.2m weekly listeners (and up 58% since 2000).  The website increased its monthly visitors by 50%, to 15.7m.  The second and third most popular shows in the highly competitive radio market are from NPR: “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered” (shock jock Rush Limbaugh is slightly ahead of them).  Their audiences – 13m unique listeners each week – are far larger than those for any network news broadcast, let alone any cable news programme.

Interestingly, some people in US public radio envy the British and Australian systems, with their strong centre and top down command structures.  That would deliver 100% take-up of the best programmes, and bolster NPR in its dealings with politicians.  But I wonder if they are right.

The bottom-up approach seems to me attractively more democratic.  It allows power to be distributed, and local stations to build very specific identities and strong relationships with their listeners.  It is also cost effective – NPR’s budget is just £100m, compared with the £600m annual budget for BBC radio (admittedly, covering a multitude of national and local stations).  Most importantly, it allows greater resilience in the face of powerful ideological attacks (to which the BBC is also regularly subjected) – and no capacity for government to impose massive cuts in spending in a single negotiating session.

Of course, the internal market for radio programmes is inherently wasteful, but it is also creatively hugely stimulating.  Without it, the precious independence of the individual stations would quickly wither.  For some people, the perceived blandness of NPR’s news output is a disappointment: listen for yourself to see if you agree.  But the wealth and variety of non-news content is hugely encouraging; and I find the structure of NPR a profound comment on our centralised systems.

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