Would NPR be better off without federal funding?

March 9, 2011

Today’s resignation of NPR’s CEO Vivian Schiller raises an important question that the beleaguered network should now consider answering. Would NPR be better off without the federal support it receives each year from taxpayer dollars?

That very question rests at the heart of Schiller’s resignation, which comes on the heels of a sting operation in which NPR’s top fundraiser, Ron Schiller (no relation to Vivian), was caught suggesting that federal funding confuses private and institutional donors who wrongly believe that their private dollars are unwarranted because of large-scale public support.

This public disclosure threw new meat to NPR’s critics, who, with budget battle axes at their ready, seized this as fresh evidence for ending federal funding.

Would that be such a bad thing? NPR claims that 2 percent of its revenue and 10 percent of its member stations’ funding flows from federal faucets through grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, yet it says that this money is vital to program development and the overall health of the stations that comprise NPR.

I admit, I am a big fan of NPR, and a regular listener to “Wait, Wait … Don’t Tell Me!,” “Car Talk,” and World Café. And I do believe this and other programming fulfills its original mandate of providing cultural-based programming unavailable through other media outlets.

However, within NPR programming, I also see plenty of evidence that fuels the fires of criticism through left-leaning reporting and commentary on issues both large and small. Last year’s firing of less-liberal commentator Juan Williams raised an even more serious specter of intolerance.

It’s that tension that has cast NPR in such a precarious position. Its voice and narrative are distinctively liberal, but it has become a voice well-tuned through the quality of its storytelling and production value. Simply put, NPR is the best-produced radio in America, and should be commended for it.

It’s also a voice that you can’t help but feel has been muted because of its reliance on federal funding. Eliminate those funds, and NPR would be free to produce even more programming that provides a counter voice to conservative radio.

Wings now clipped, I can’t help but wonder whether NPR is only realizing half of itself. Ron Schiller, through his indiscretion, might have done NPR a service over the long run. If Congress believes him, and his assertion that fundraising would be enhanced if federal funding went away, then NPR might once and for all gain its real voice and place in the American media scene.

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