Don't touch that dial! National Public Radio will return after a bailout from its sponsors
Boston — From where Carol Rissman sits - in front of an angling microphone at WBUR-FM in Boston - the toughest moments for National Public Radio appear to be over. ''There were about four days not too long ago when I thought we'd lose 'Morning Edition' or 'All Things Considered,' '' says the news director at this public radio station, referring to NPR's two award-winning news programs from Washington.
But with a $9.1 million emergency loan from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) now being negotiated, NPR should be able to cover its debts and preserve both programs. The CPB, the agency that distributes federal funds for public broadcasting, is scheduled to sign the agreement by the end of this week.
Station officials such as Ms. Rissman - who depend heavily on NPR to enhance local programming - are breathing a deep sigh of relief.
At the same time, the financial static at NPR is sure to crackle for months to come. The CPB loan will cover NPR's estimated debt through the end of the current fiscal year.
NPR's deficit rekindled a smoldering debate over how public radio is funded - with the bulk of federal dollars going to a national production center in Washington and a relatively small amount trickling out to stations.
''Too many people think public radio comes from some big apple in the sky,'' says WBUR station manager Jane Christo. ''But it's Congress that appropriates the funds.''
WBUR, as one of 281 NPR affiliates, gets about 10 percent of its approximately $1 million annual budget from the federal government. Another 10 percent comes from Boston University, which holds the station's license, and the rest comes from local fundraising and donations.
Stations have been asked to put up their share of federal funds over the next three years as collateral for the CPB loan.
At the same time, it has been suggested more federal money go straight to stations, which could then buy programs from any supplier they choose - including NPR. The idea, says a CPB spokesman, is to give stations more direct control over the finances and program offerings of NPR.
While eager to guarantee the loan, many stations tune out at the suggestion of changing the flow of public radio funding.
''I want a strong NPR that produces the kind of programs they're producing now,'' says WBUR's Ms. Christo.
Some critics compare the proposed change to the decentralization of public television funding that occurred during the Nixon administration - a factor that many observers agree hindered development of a powerful news organization.
''NPR doesn't need me out here in the hinterland telling them how to run their business,'' says Larry Netherton, station manager of WMKY-FM in Morehead, Ky. But at the same time, he says NPR needs a ''higher degree of financial accountability.''
Amid objections from the stations, the proposal to shift funding has been separated from the loan agreement. Instead, NPR's acting chief operating officer , Ronald Bornstein, says any shift in funding is ''a subject of much longer discussion.''
Mr. Bornstein, who retains links to a large public broadcasting facility in Wisconsin, contends the change in funding would be good for the system, because it would ''give stations more than just an advisory voice in the system.''
Bornstein says the money would be funneled back into NPR to buy the programming NPR now offers, particularly news and public affairs.
Many larger stations, meanwhile, see the potential funding changes as the best idea since the microphone.
''What we're talking about is a new era for public radio,'' says Brad Spear, radio manager at Boston's WGBH-FM - one of the nation's foremost independent public stations. WGBH radio gets more than 10 percent of its money for local programming from Washington. In addition, it spends about $500,000 a year producing national programming.
Stations like WGBH are eager to see funds flow to stations, since they're positioned to compete with NPR in selling programs.
''It would make NPR more responsive to the stations' needs, while opening up production opportunities throughout the system,'' says Spear, who contends new technology and shriveling federal support have made the change inevitable.
Seventeen affiliates have the ability to transmit their own programs via NPR's satellite system. One of public radio's most popular shows, for instance, is ''Prairie Home Companion,'' a humor and folk-music variety show produced by Minnesota Public Radio and distributed by an alliance of public radio stations known as American Public Radio (APR).
Shifting funds to stations would also involve changes in the way the CPB pie is cut - with bigger slices going to larger stations.
Small stations argue this will widen the existing gap between themselves and the large, urban stations. Says Les Spencer, station manager of WKGC in Panama City, Fla., ''It's tough to get a concensus on more than a few programs'' when you have such sharp divisions between different size and clout of stations.
While the funding dispute grinds on, so do investigations into what went wrong at NPR. Congress's General Accounting Office has a team of auditors now sifting through NPR's books.
The House Energy and Commerce Committee - which holds the purse strings for public broadcasting - has its subcommittee on oversight and investigations looking into the deficit.