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The House swings at NPR, hits every radio programmer

March 17, 2011 |  3:14 pm

The drive by House Republicans to eliminate the ocean of federal debt one contentious spoonful at a time took another step forward Thursday when lawmakers voted 228 to 192 for a bill (HR 1076) to bar federal dollars from flowing, directly or indirectly, to NPR. Talk about raising the cost of Juan Williams' severance!

Although the bill has been widely covered, the focus has been limited to the effect on NPR. The measure, though, would bar public radio stations from using federal funds to acquire programming from any source -- left, right or center. That could be a severe blow to programmers and to small stations that rely on federal dollars for at least part of their content budgets.

One example of the former is Minneapolis-based Public Radio International, which distributes "This American Life," "The World" and the "BBC World Service," among other programs. "About 50% of our revenue comes from station fees, so that would be difficult for us from a financial standpoint," said Julia Yager, vice president of brand management and marketing strategy for PRI.

Of course, money is fungible. Stations could arrange their ledgers to show federal dollars going to salaries, utilities and fundraising, with private dollars being used to buy programs from NPR, PRI and other sources. It's not clear how the feds could stop that even if HR 1076 became law.

That's why the most likely effect would be on the little guys. "Many, many public broadcasting stations are small stations that only have a couple of staff and volunteers," Yager said. Those are the outlets that are most dependent on federal dollars to fill their airwaves with programming.

Jennifer Ferro, general manager of KCRW in Santa Monica, agreed. Because the station has a large audience that supports it financially, Ferro said, federal dollars make up only 8% of its budget. But small stations don't have the same "economic diversity," she said, adding, "There's not the wealthy major donors ready to step in and pay more."

Public radio programmers such as PRI and American Public Media, whose programs include the business-oriented "Marketplace," typically charge KCRW and other large stations higher fees than they do small stations. And the large stations' ability to keep paying for shows without federal funds could mitigate the effects on those programmers should HR 1076 become law.

All of this discussion dances around the issue of whether federal tax dollars should be used to pay for programming, period. I'm torn on that one. I think the current system does a good job of removing politics from funding decisions -- the Corp. for Public Broadcasting's dollars go to local stations, which are free to choose the flavor of (non-commercial) programming they think their communities want to hear. But there's a slippery slope from government-subsidized broadcasters to government-sanctioned speech.

I also admire much of the work done by the reporters at NPR and "Marketplace," just to single out a couple of public radio mainstays. It's reassuring to have news sources of this caliber that don't rely on advertisers to stay on the air. Yet the distinction between the advertisers on commercial stations and the underwriters used by public radio programmers is blurry at best.

All the same, it's not clear from the debate that Republicans recognize just how sweeping HR 1076 would be. And before they go any further, they need that reality check. As Bill Gray of American Public Media put it, "The bill would affect the entire public radio system, and not just NPR as it is being presented."

RELATED:

Op-Ed: NPR needs a backbone

-- Jon Healey

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