Founded fifty years ago as National Public Radio, NPR — as it now always refers to itself — is a nonprofit media organization created by the federal government to replace the National Educational Radio Network (NERN). NPR, which is headquartered in Washington, D.C., functions as a membership organization of separately licensed and operated public radio stations across the United States, manages the Public Radio Satellite System, and produces and distributes news and cultural programming.
Two of the most popular radio programs in the country, Morning Edition (1979) and All Things Considered (1971), are produced and distributed by NPR. They each attract a weekly audience of more than 14 million people.
According to an NPR “Fact Sheet,” NPR has 1029 employees, 1076 stations broadcasting NPR programming and newscasts, 1011 member stations, 17 international bureaus, and 18 domestic bureaus. Its mission is “to work in partnership with Member Stations to create a more informed public — one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.”
Although NPR has an endowment of more than $250 million and annual revenues of more than $283 million, it has suffered financially from the effects of the economic collapse due to the government response to the coronavirus pandemic. CEO John Lansing is projecting that “NPR would fall $12 million to $15 million short of the amount it had expected to receive from sponsors this year.” He is taking a 25 percent pay cut, while other NPR executives are taking a 10 to 15 percent pay cut. “He described the pay cuts as a way for NPR to avoid layoffs.” To further cut expenses, NPR will institute a freeze on hiring, bonuses, and raises, as well as scaling back travel, conferences, and promotions.
NPR is funded by station dues and fees (35%), corporate sponsorships (33%), contributions (13%), other revenues (7%), distribution and satellite interconnection (6%), distribution from endowment and support operations (5%), and return on investments (1%). The vast majority of its expenses “are devoted to producing and presenting news, technical support for radio programs and journalists, the distribution of programs to stations and digital media services like NPR.org.” NPR likes to point out, “On average, less than 1% of NPR’s annual operating budget comes in the form of grants from CPB and federal agencies and departments.”
The CPB is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, “a nonprofit corporation created by Congress in the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967.” The CPB “does not produce programming and does not own, operate or control any public broadcasting stations.” Instead, it distributes “more than 70% of its funding to more than 1,500 locally owned public radio and television stations.” The CPB is “the largest single source of funding for public radio, television, and related online and mobile services.” Its fiscal year 2020 operating budget was $449 million.
So, yes, NPR gets 1 percent of its funding directly from the CPB, but the CPB indirectly funds NPR through its member stations that pay for the privilege of broadcasting popular programs such as Morning Edition and All Things Considered. As NPR explains,
Public radio stations receive annual grants directly from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) that make up an important part of a diverse revenue mix that includes listener support, corporate sponsorship and grants. Stations, in turn, draw on this mix of public and privately sourced revenue to pay NPR and other public radio producers for their programming.
Member stations are funded by individuals (38%), corporations (18%), investments and other (11%), colleges and universities (11%), foundations (9%), federal appropriations from CPB (8%), and federal, state, and local governments (4%).
It sure seems as though NPR and its member stations get a small amount of their total funding from the federal government. Yet, according to an NPR statement on public radio and federal funding, it can’t survive without it:
Federal funding is essential to public radio’s service to the American public. Its continuation is critical for both stations and program producers, including NPR.
These station programming fees comprise a significant portion of NPR’s largest source of revenue. The loss of federal funding would undermine the stations’ ability to pay NPR for programming, thereby weakening the institution.
Elimination of federal funding would result in fewer programs, less journalism — especially local journalism — and eventually the loss of public radio stations, particularly in rural and economically distressed communities.
The federal government should not just cut NPR’s funding, it should sell NPR to the highest bidder. It is certainly worth a lot of money. NPR has highly-rated programs. Its journalists and programming have won hundreds of awards. It has 18.2 million weekly website visitors. It consistently ranks above the major television and cable news networks and media outlets in market research polls. It reaches a weekly audience across all of its platforms of 52 million people.
Republicans sometimes say they want funding cut for NPR (and the CPB) because of its censorship of conservative views and its liberal bias. Yet when Republicans had control of both Houses of Congress and the presidency for more than four years under George W. Bush, they continued to fund NPR (and the CPB). And Republicans in Congress have no problem funding other government radio such as Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty (RFE/RL), the Office of Cuba Broadcasting (OCB), Radio Free Asia (RFA), and the Middle East Broadcasting Networks (MBN).
That brings us to the real reasons why the federal government should sell NPR to the highest bidder.
Does the Constitution authorize the federal government to have a nonprofit media organization? Does it authorize the federal government to fund journalists and broadcasting? Of course it doesn’t. Just as it doesn’t authorize the federal government to allocate the broadcast spectrum, license stations, or regulate communications by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
Is it the proper role of government to engage in “public broadcasting”? Once it is accepted that the government can legitimately do so, no reasonable or logical argument can be made against the government’s providing electric service, phone service, Internet access, website hosting, or almost anything else.
And in this digital age of cable television with hundreds of channels, satellite radio, streaming services such as Netflix, and the Internet, it is laughable that anyone would make the case for the necessity of NPR instead of letting the free market provide all communication services.
The problem with NPR is not conservative censorship or liberal bias. The problem with NPR is that it exists. Sell it to the highest bidder.