(Note: The following was published as a letter to the editor from Tom Rieland in the Columbus Dispatch on Sunday, March 13)
The recent controversy at NPR, including the resignation of its CEO this week, has resulted in a range of editorials from pundits who have little understanding of how the public broadcast system has worked in America for over 42 years. Such is the case of Thursday’s national editorial in the Dispatch from Michael Barone of the Washington Examiner. Barone’s call to “get NPR off the public payroll” and defund the radio news organization misses the mark.
The vast majority of federal funding from the nonprofit Corporation for Public Broadcasting is mandated to come directly to public TV and radio stations with the majority of those funds designated for public television use. Stations like WOSU use these funds to pay the utility bills, produce local news and arts programming and support our classical music service. Some of the funds pay for national programs from PBS, NPR, BBC and other providers, though member contributions also pays for programming.
At WOSU, our largest revenue source is from membership, but in rural stations federal funds comprise as much as 30-40 percent of the budget. There is little doubt many small stations will go dark with the loss of federal support, while stations like WOSU will see major cutbacks in programming and services. This federal funding decision is not about NPR. Instead, it’s about whether we believe in the value of locally licensed, governed, and staffed noncommercial TV and radio stations, whether we see public media as an important alternative to commercial broadcasting, and ultimately whether it’s worthy of the cost: $1.35 annually per citizen. Those are the critical questions that should be driving this national conversation.
We believe the elimination of federal dollars to local stations would have a cascade effect that would be catastrophic to the many services provided by the 1,200 public stations in America.