Commentary: GOP's NPR defunding is more about ideology than money

The Rock Hill HeraldMarch 18, 2011 

I long ago decided I like the sound of droning voices on the radio better than music while I'm driving. That's why my car radio stays set most of the time on National Public Radio.

But I might have to make adjustments. Republicans in Congress would like to take the "public" out of NPR and make it sink or swim on its own.

On Thursday, the House of Representatives voted 236-181 to defund NPR. The vote was along party lines with only seven Republicans breaking ranks to vote against the bill.

Republicans have been after NPR for years, claiming it has a distinctly liberal bias. But the rationale in Thursday's debate was that, in these difficult economic times, the government has no business subsidizing noncommercial public broadcasting that can be found on other news and entertainment sources in the open market.

There is a question as to how much the federal government props up NPR and how important that contribution is to NPR's overall operation. NPR officials like to say they receive only about 2 percent of their funding from the government.

But that's a bit disingenuous.

It is true that the government provides only a small amount of direct financial support to NPR. More than half of NPR's money comes from pledge drives and corporate sponsorships.

But the remaining 40 percent comes from dues paid by the more than 700 member stations to buy programming and content. While Congress doesn't give much money directly to NPR, it provides most of the funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which, in turn, gives money to member stations to buy programming from NPR.

So, in the end, taxpayers are funding a significant share of NPR's budget.

If that money goes away, stations in larger cities probably would have little trouble getting donors to replace it. It is the smaller stations in the rural, less densely populated areas - and their listeners - who would suffer the most.

I'm not as convinced as House Republicans that the programs broadcast on NPR can be found elsewhere in the commercial market, especially if you hope to find them on one station. If commercial radio could have given birth to the equivalent of "Car Talk" or "This American Life," it already would have - and it hasn't.

I also dispute the notion that NPR has an overwhelming political bias. It certainly is not the rabid progressive counterpart to Rush Limbaugh.

What it is, mostly, is elitist.

It is designed to appeal to intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals around the nation who share a fondness for goofy humor, classical music, lattes, L.L. Bean, wine and Labrador retrievers.

NPR is for people who live in Seattle, Austin, Boston and Montpelier - or people who wish they did.

"Public radio" is 44th on the list of "Stuff White People Like," (www.stuffwhitepeoplelike.com) a compendium of things that help define a certain segment of upper-middle-class, educated Americans who shun displays of conspicuous wealth. No. 1 on the list is "coffee"; No. 2 is "religions their parents don't belong to."

By the way, if you don't want to be lumped in with this stereotype, it helps not to like NPR too much. I listen to it only while driving, and I am very ambivalent about Garrison Keillor and contemporary Irish music.

But it is surprising to me how much good information you can pick up from shows such as "Fresh Air," "The Splendid Table," "Here and Now" and "All Things Considered" even on a short hop to the grocery store.

"The Splendid Table," to pick one, is about food, as the name would imply. It offers cooking tips, locations of good diners, wine recommendations and other gustatory tidbits.

Political rants are not on the menu. And that's the case with most NPR programming.

Maybe the critics are right, and it's finally time for NPR to walk away from the public trough. Maybe it should even consider turning to paid advertising as a source of income, though I dread that.

But, ultimately, we're not talking about much money by Washington standards: about $430 million a year. Cutting federal funding for public broadcasting wouldn't even put a scratch in the deficit.

This fight is not about money; it's about ideology. Republicans prevailed Thursday, but the bill is not likely to survive in the Senate.

And as this debate progresses, Republicans might want to ask themselves this: Can't I put up with a little liberal bias if I still get to listen to "Car Talk"?

ABOUT THE WRITER

James Werrell is the Rock Hill Herald's opinion page editor. He can be reached by e-mail at jwerrell@heraldonline.com.

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