Thursday, March 17, 2011

NPR isn't in danger, it's the rest of public broadcasting

You've no doubt heard by now of the U.S. House vote to cut funding to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The focus has mostly been on National Public Radio. However, the risk isn't to NPR itself, it's to scores of small radio and television stations.

The cut would take $50 million out fo the CPB budget. A bit number. However, the CPB underwrites less than two percent of NPR's budget. The national network actually could shrug that off with no problem. It would hurt, but they could deal with it. As could Public Broadcasting System, the television version of public broadcasting. But their not the only recipients of that money. Every public radio and television station in the country also gets a bit of that pie, even it's just a little bit. And THAT's the big problem.

The stations in cities like ours here in Chicago will probably okay. They have enough support from local listeners and corporations to get by. It would hurt them more than the national networks, but they'd get through. But smaller cities and rural areas, it's a different story.

Across the Web:
CNN: House votes to stop NPR funding
MSNBC: House votes to cut NPR's federal funding
Chicago Tribune: House votes to cut funding to NPR
Fox News: House Votes to Defund National Public Radio

For example, just across the state line from Chicago is WYIN. It's a public television station with studios in Merrillville, Ind. It is also the ONLY locally based broadcast television news service for a four county region of Indiana. Every other station that can be received in the area is based in Chicago. The stories covered by those stations are, by and large, focused on Chicago and its Illinois suburbs. That's it's core audience, so it's hard to blame them. The Nortwest Indiana region about a sixth of their viewing audience. It makes sense from an economic standpoint.But that means about 900,000 people have ONE source for local television news. Indianapolis is 150 miles away and a completely different market. South Bend and Lafayette? Much smaller stations and even then we're talking 100 miles away from the concerns and communities of NWI. WYIN is it for television news. For radio, they're relatively okay. But only because Chicago's public radio station has expanded and opened bureaus in the area. Otherwise, nada. They're lucky to at least have two daily newspapers.

And what of areas further away from large cities? They're SOL. CPB funding is proportionally a much larger share of their funding. And they don't have the audiences to completely make up the shortfall on a sheer number basis. And the new law means that what federal funding they still get can't be used for NPR or American Public Media (the other big network) programs. Sure, I will grant that "Car Talk" isn't vital programming. The six hours of national or international news on the other hand? That might be important. And what is there to replace it? Anyone? And commercial news services charge a lot more for a lot less. Five minute news briefs instead of two hours of in depth reporting.

The information that people in smaller cities and rural areas will go down to a trickle. Cable can't take up the slack, especially in rural areas which don't have cable. Modern media economics also means that newspapers can't always take up the slack. The smaller the community, the less likely they have a five-day daily paper, much less anything approaching the Chicago Tribune or New York Times. A weekly newspaper and sound bites do not lead to fully informed people.

Despite claims to the contrary, public broadcasting actually is the least biased source of news in this country. Fox is biased to the right, MSNBC is biased to the left and CNN is biased to whoever controls the checkbook. Public broadcasting isn't perfect. But they do better than anyone else in get the WHOLE story out. The White House will likely veto the bill, which keeps public broadcasting safe for now. And while it may not be the government's job to keep people up to date on "Lake Woebegone," it does have a moral responsibility to make sure they know what's going on in the rest of the world.

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