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Ron Schiller sting: Would NPR stations survive without federal money?

Ron Schiller, the executive caught in the hidden-camera sting, says NPR, which gets less than 2 percent of its budget from federal funds, would be 'better off.' But for rural stations, the figure can be 30 percent or higher.

By Staff writer / March 8, 2011

NPR executive Ron Schiller says it would be better off in the long run not receiving federal money, which he says only accounts for 2 percent of budget. But what about all the smaller stations he admits would go dark as a result?

Gingold Nicholas/SIPA/Newscom

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Could NPR thrive without federal funds? A now-former NPR executive said as much on a hidden-camera video released Tuesday by a conservative activist.

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“Frankly, it is clear that in the long run we would be better off without federal funding,” said Ron Schiller, who was head of NPR’s foundation at the time the video was shot.

Asked why that might be so, Schiller said that the loss of federal money would increase NPR’s independence and end confusion among other donors about how much Uncle Sam supports public radio.

However, he cautioned that without Washington’s cash a number of rural stations would “go dark.”

The video was shot by provocateur James O’Keefe, who specializes in trying to lure those he deems liberal over the edge into outrageous and/or criminal behavior. It shows Schiller and another NPR executive meeting with two men who purport to represent a Muslim organization that wants to donate money to NPR.

On the tape Schiller blasts tea party members as “racist” and “xenophobic,” besides arguing for federal defunding of his own organization.

Republicans eager to trim the federal budget have seized on the video as evidence supporting their drive to zero out money for public broadcasting efforts.

“Not only have top public broadcasting executives finally admitted that they do not need taxpayer dollars to survive, it is also clear that without federal funds, public broadcasting stations self-admittedly would become eligible for more private dollars on top of the multi-million dollar donations these organizations already receive,” House Majority Leader Eric Cantor of Virginia said in a statement issued Tuesday.

NPR itself released a statement saying it was “appalled” by Schiller’s comments. It noted that in an unrelated move Schiller has already left NPR to take another job.

But what about the money thing? How do top NPR executives talk about that when they’re not on hidden cameras?

The argument they make is kind of subtle: Federal funds are a small percentage of our budget, but we really, really need them anyway.

Government grants make up only about ten percent of the public radio economy, said NPR CEO Vivian Schiller (no relation to Ron Schiller) in an appearance Monday at the National Press Club. But that cash is a “critical cornerstone” of NPR funding, she said.

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