How the CPB Subsidizes National NPR

I think the case for getting the federal government out of the public broadcasting business is pretty straightforward—a given sum of money could be given to public radio or it could be going to preschool—so I’m not sure why National Review has come up with this somewhat misleading editorial on the subject:

NPR’s supporters argue that what it provides is not “media,” but news and journalism that consumers would otherwise be unable to find anywhere. NPR itself does not receive any direct federal funding, but its supporters howl whenever Republicans try to defund the CPB, because 40 percent of NPR’s revenues come from station programming fees, and many of its member stations, especially in rural areas, are dependent on CPB largesse. In this sense, NPR is sort of like Amtrak: Self-sufficient in urban areas where it has lots of listeners but dependent on taxpayer subsidies to broadcast its programming nationwide.

If listeners in Dubuque want NPR content, let them pay for it. We are tired of kicking in contributions so that coastal liberalism may find an audience in Ogallala. NPR offers many fine programs, but it is towering arrogance to imply, as some supporters of public funding do, that residents of Big Sky would be left stranded on an island of ignorance if forced to do without Morning Edition. If it’s really that important to them, they can increase their yearly contributions to Yellowstone Public Radio. If not, why should taxpayers in other parts of the country make up the shortfall?

This tries to make it seem like eliminating federal funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting would have no impact on NPR listeners in New York or Chicago or Los Angeles or whatever other enclaves of decadent coastal liberalism you care to name. But if the only thing at issue were the availability of NPR programming in rural areas, the whole thing would be almost totally a non-issue. The point, however, is that not only do rural stations depend on CPB largess to keep broadcasting, but they kick some of that money back upstairs in fees to the producers of NPR (and PRI) shows. Thus, the CPB’s subsidies to rural stations are, in part, subsidizing the creation of some of the programming that big city NPR listeners hear.

Meanwhile, over at Reason Jesse Walker has an excellent piece about why the CPB never actually gets de-funded—conservatives just like to wield this threat in order to intimidate public broadcasters into changing their programming decisions.

Note that conservative politicians lacked principled opposition to the CPB during the Bush years when they were in a position to do something about it. After all, that coincided with their period of maximal influence over the system. Then, once Juan Williams got fired conservatives rediscovered their principled objections as part of one of their periodic fits of anti-anti-racist passion. At the end of the day, this repeating farce and the leverage it gives the right over NPR mostly strikes me as reason to favor moving toward privatization. NPR is a major 21st century media success story and I think that if given a reasonably scheduled phase-out of government support could certainly find a way to keep operating and then be free of political interference.