We still need help, NPR tells its listeners
A huge gift to NPR may mean fewer donations for its member stations.
Los Angeles resident Oliver Kendall admits that he hasn't renewed his subscription to his local National Public Radio affiliate, KCRW. Although the medical student cites financial difficulties as an excuse for not contributing, the fact that he tuned out KCRW during its 10-day pledge drive last summer certainly didn't help. "I resent KCRW pledge drives and I avoid them at all cost," says Mr. Kendall.Skip to next paragraph
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So one can imagine the rejoicing of Kendall and other KCRW listeners when their hometown newspaper, the Los Angeles Times, declared that the "days when National Public Radio is forced to ask member stations to hold fundraising drives just so it can stay on the air are over."
In that Nov. 7 front-page article, the Times reported on the more than $200 million gift NPR would receive from the estate of the late Joan Kroc, widow of Ray Kroc, the founder of the McDonald's fast-food empire.
But at least one public radio listener, KCRW's general manager Ruth Seymour, reacted differently. "I just about flipped," says Ms. Seymour, who remembers standing on a busy street corner in Manhattan when she read the Times story. "I was screaming into the telephone: 'You have to get me through to the editor!' "
The truth is that the Kroc gift will have no effect on the financial needs or the fundraising efforts of NPR's 750 member stations.
Instead of receiving financial support from NPR, these stations have to pay for NPR programming
In the case of KCRW, the cost is nearly $1.2 million a year. In addition, the stations are solely responsible for their own operating costs, which is the bulk of their yearly budget.
Also, since it takes about $800 million a year to run NPR and its member stations, the $200 million gift is "not the savior of public radio," says NPR spokeswoman Jessamyn Sarmiento.
The Times ran a correction and, a week later, a second piece that clarified the situation. However, the second piece was deep in the paper on page 12 - where it was likely to be viewed by many fewer potential donors.
But if the Kroc gift was able to confuse the Times, clearly much of the public had already been confused long before they read the story.
"No doubt we have a lot of ground to cover to inform the public about the differences between NPR and its member stations," says Ms. Sarmiento, "and where the money will go."
(The money will go entirely to NPR's endowment fund, which will yield about $10 million a year.)
But according to Bill Davis, president of Southern California Public Radio, damage was done to an already off-the-mark public perception.
"Clearly, a lot of people think that when they're sending their support to their public stations, they're writing a check to NPR," says Mr. Davis.
That was partly responsible, says Mr. Davis, for the poor pledge-drive performance of his KPCC station, which serves the large Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. In December KPCC missed its $1.3 million goal by nearly 25 percent, the largest disappointment in the station's pledge-drive history.