March 10 2017
“Don’t let them destroy us!” That was the plea from Brian Lehrer, a morning host on New York’s public radio station, WNYC, last week. It was pledge drive week and the rhetoric on air always gets a little dramatic. It was ramped up this time because the station wanted to raise the same amount of money in one week that it usually does in two. Generally, the hosts restrict themselves to guilt trips about how they know you’re listening every morning and free-loading is wrong. Or they know how much you spend each day at Starbucks and if you gave some of that to your public radio station, the world would be a better place.
But that was all before the election of Donald Trump. Now public radio is more important than ever because, as they repeat regularly, facts are important and other people don’t care about facts anymore. It’s like listening to a 24-7 commercial for the New York Times now. The truth is hard. Yadda Yadda Yadda. We get it. Lehrer went on to say that he couldn’t remember a time “when journalism was under attack more than it is today.”
As evidence for this, Lehrer cited the fact that the White House has proposed eliminating funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting from the federal budget. Is it surprising that a president who nurses personal grudges would want to defund a news organization that has done little but bash him for the past year? No. And public radio has long had a notoriously liberal bent; there are few conservatives in Washington who would cry if their funding disappeared.
The problem is that public radio hosts have for years been emphasizing to listeners that their support is vital because tax dollars represent such a small part of WNYC’s budget. As of a few years ago, NPR received only 2 percent of its funding from public sources and WNYC got 6 percent from public sources
So on the one hand Trump is trying to destroy “independent news” by defunding public radio, but on the other hand, we should give to public radio because we are not really dependent on the federal government at all.
WNYC hosts also love to explain that they are not dependent on advertising the way that, say, cable news might be. It’s true that their advertising is significantly less painful to listen to than commercials on FoxNews or MSNBC. Each segment is brought to you by a clean energy company or a New York City prep school rather than some crazy guy who wants you to convert your savings to gold or sell you a nutritional supplement to aid the health of this rapidly aging audience.
But that doesn’t mean that corporate advertising doesn’t make up a significant portion of public radio’s budget. Business and Industry sources provided $6.6 million in income in 2016 to WNYC, compared with $3.2 million from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. And I’m pretty sure that if a large corporation offered them more money, WNYC wouldn’t turn it down on the grounds that it would hamper their independence. At least with cable news, it’s pretty clear where the money comes from. It’s hard to find a system more transparent than programming with commercial breaks.
For the purposes of fundraising, public radio hosts would most like us to believe that it is we, the listeners, who are the ones running the show, which is why we are urged to become “members.” Indeed, once you do away with all of the ridiculous rhetoric about the government shutting them down or the dangers of corporate advertising, it is true that public radio is beholden to listeners—just like any other news source. (Advertisers won’t pay for spots on shows if no one is watching.)
But it may be difficult for public radio to be both independent and beholden to members. After all, New Yorkers tune into public radio to hear a particular point of view. They don’t want to find out if Trump has done anything right. They want to hear how Americans in flyover country are intolerant rubes. They want to know how their constitutional right to abortion is being trampled by Republicans, how charter schools are threatening quality urban education, and how the only problem with their mayor is that he’s not liberal enough. As long as WNYC keeps up these messages, they will continue to raise all the money in half the time—even without a free tote bag.