The Magazine

Time for National Private Radio

From the February 28, 2005 issue: The death of classical music on Washington's NPR station.

Feb 28, 2005, Vol. 10, No. 22 • By ANDREW FERGUSON, FOR THE EDITORS
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Public radio hasn't sunk so low, not yet, and in fairness it probably won't. The present generation of public radio station managers take their market reasoning only so far, just to the point where it coincides (amazingly enough) with their own preferences in programming. As mostly white, affluent baby boomers, proud of their advanced educations and utterly ignorant of the arts, they share the tastes of the audience of doppelgängers they hope to attract: an indifference to forms of non-popular music and an endless appetite for chatter. We're disheartened to admit that the market strategy is working; these programmers may be tasteless but they aren't stupid. Today the public radio system has grown into a colossus of the American media landscape. NPR's two signature news shows, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, are the nation's second and third highest-rated nationally syndicated radio programs, after Rush Limbaugh. Several of its other shows, such as Car Talk and A Prairie Home Companion, routinely win their time slots in markets across the country. NPR has become, as its marketers like to say, a hugely successful brand, aimed straight at the nation's most affluent demographic cohort.

Congress has tried before to tamper with the subsidy to federally funded radio. The attempt stands as one of the signature failures of the fabled Republican-revolution-that-wasn't, away back there in the dreamy days following the election of 1994. "If the Corporation for Public Broadcasting still exists in two years," Newt Gingrich said then, referring to the government agency that funds public radio, "then we will have failed." Ten years later, Gingrich is gone but NPR survives, as one further indication of who really wears the pants in the great big family that is the federal government. A chief reason for the failure was the bureaucratic flow chart of public radio--a system of funding that would have puzzled Rube Goldberg. National Public Radio itself receives no direct subsidy from CPB; the money is instead laundered through local stations, who return the money to NPR in payment for the programs it produces. The intricacies and indirections of the system might lead a skeptic to think they were designed precisely to frustrate any congressional attempt at privatization.

But as our friends in the White House constantly remind us, we live in a transformational era--a time for trying the impossible. And public radio's continued success, measured in purely commercial terms, provides an excellent justification for removing the subsidy. Already the country is awash in news and talk and "informational programming." Is it fair to those commercial broadcast companies--who really are forced by the market to draw large audiences--to compete with government-subsidized stations aiming to fill the same market demand? Most public radio programmers are happy to boast of their success. Indeed, if you pump them with enough Chablis, they will even acknowledge that their strategy of eliminating arts programming has been so successful, and revenues to NPR's member stations have risen so high, that the $80 million in federal money is probably no longer essential to the system's survival.

Let's see if they're right.

--Andrew Ferguson, for the Editors