NPR's Boon and Local News

A surprise bequest exceeding $200 million was given to National Public Radio last week from the estate of Joan Kroc, the late billionaire philanthropist, and widow of McDonald's restaurant founder.

Although some $175 million of the "no strings attached" gift will go to a previously existing NPR endowment, and generate some $10 million annually, the balance will go into the network's operating reserves.

Encouragingly, NPR President Kevin Klose described the gift, in part, as "really about the needs of our membership stations." One beneficial use of the money would be to help local public radio stations.

NPR's budget is about $100 million a year. Half that money comes from dues its 750 member stations pay to carry the network (the rest comes from foundation grants and corporate underwriting).

NPR has continually increased its fees to its member stations, which carry its programming to 22 million listeners. The fees have been extremely difficult for many struggling stations to absorb. Member stations pay annual NPR dues of $7,845, plus carriage fees that can run up to $1.3 million per year, depending upon the number of listeners. Further, most stations also pay fees to NPR's rival, Public Radio International, to carry shows like "Marketplace" and "A Prairie Home Companion."

Many of NPR's 750 member stations struggle to provide local news - if they have any at all. Yet one explicit mission of public broadcasting is local news. That mission is even more critical at a time when so much of commercial radio has been "outsourced" to centralized newsrooms.

Prior to this large gift, NPR called success breaking even, as it did last year. Indeed, it lost $4 million in 2001. That meant more fundraising for stations to pay those fees, and less money for local news. While public radio listeners should not be tempted to think they can coast now that NPR has the Kroc bequest, they can encourage NPR to use some of the money to bolster public radio's presence in their local communities.

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