Public Radio's Future Depends On Government and Listeners

IN the cacophonous world of audio journalism, noncommercial public radio has come to occupy a special place, airing voices and opinions rarely heard in commercial broadcasting and treating complex topics with a depth and subtlety seldom found elsewhere. Growing numbers of Americans are tuning out commercial radio and television networks for which they pay nothing but often get little in return. Instead, they are paying for quality programming on local public radio stations by covering some operating expenses.

But public radio's survival depends not only on listeners but foundations, corporations, and, most important, the federal government, through the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB). Federal support may be threatened, for midterm elections swept public broadcasting's chief opponents into power.

In the quarter-century since public broadcasting was established by congressional mandate, public radio has grown substantially. It includes the National Public Radio network with 510 member stations (up from 350 in 1990), Monitor Radio, Public Radio International (formerly American Public Radio), Pacifica, and other independent networks. NPR's flagship news programs, ``All Things Considered'' and ``Morning Edition,'' reach more than 6 million listeners daily. The network's offerings draw up to 15 million listeners a week.

Nearly one-half of NPR's audience is college-educated, and one-quarter have done graduate work, figures far higher than the national norm. Baby boomers predominate. The programming assumes a sophisticated audience with wide-ranging interests. Hosts and commentators have cultivated a genial, literate, broad-minded approach to news that, at its best, deepens one's understanding of often-disturbing events and places them in the reassuring context of more enduring themes.

Over the years, this humane approach has attracted a devoted and influential national following but has also aroused the ire of congressional conservatives, who accuse NPR of a ``liberal'' bias. Many progressives find this criticism ironic, for they discern a distinct rightward drift in NPR's coverage. They argue that what began as an alternative to mainstream commercial programming is increasingly indistinguishable from it. In a 1993 report, the media watchdog group, Fairness and Accuracy in Media (FAIR), concluded that in its ``Beltway bias'' and its narrow range of political commentators, NPR most resembles TV's ``Nightline.'' An NPR staffer calls the network ``an echo-chamber for the Washington Post and New York Times.''

In its struggle for financial survival, the network has cultivated a growing number of corporate sponsors who receive a brief tag line and a perhaps not insignificant influence on coverage of news in their fields. But the most significant pressures emanate from NPR's congressional critics, including prospective Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole and soon-to-be House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who after the election promised to slash most, if not all, funding to CPB. While less than 3 percent of NPR's operating expenses are directly covered by CPB, the network depends for a far larger percentage of its income on dues from member stations that depend on federal support themselves.

Outright censorship is difficult to document. NPR executives deny that they have ever been pressured into altering programming to mollify critics. But a perpetual fear of funding reductions has unquestionably produced a great deal of self-censorship. In recent years, hosts, commentators, and guests with alternative but not extreme views have either found no place on NPR's airwaves or have been relegated to programs with relatively few listeners. NPR is more vulnerable to political pressures than a commercial network, since it is governed by a board and director appointed by the president. In response to these subtle pressures, many at the network appear to be bending over backward to appear mainstream.

If the new congressional leadership launches more attacks on public broadcasting under the guise of ``cost cutting'' and ``restoring balance,'' NPR's efforts to placate its critics may not be enough to forestall major funding cuts. Reductions in federal support for the several hundred public radio stations that now receive it would imperil the survival of many and force drastic cutbacks. Even if the network survived this onslaught, it would undoubtedly be pressured to further restrict the range of perspectives heard to conform to Washington's prevailing orthodoxy. One of the last venues for informed debate would be lost in the white noise of a political conversation that has degenerated into bumper-sticker sound bites and scurrilous campaign ads.

Fortunately, public radio is supported by a range of sources besides the federal government. In this may lie its salvation. Though all public radio stations draw listener support for part of their operating budgets, community- or university-based stations are perhaps best situated to survive and resist rising pressures to conform. ``People-powered radio'' operates on very lean budgets with few paid staff but legions of volunteers who produce much of the programming themselves and air the innovative work of independent producers. Small, local, and idiosyncratic as they often are, these stations offer a diversity of opinions not heard on larger networks, commercial or public.

Public radio's survival will depend most of all on the commitment of the public it was founded to serve. If we want free and independent media, we will need to pay for them through personal contributions. Audiences attracted to public radio are better positioned than many to make such financial commitments and to see why it is vital to do so.

The Opinion/Essay Page welcomes manuscripts. Authors of articles we accept will be notified by telephone. Authors of articles not accepted will be notified by postcard. Send manuscripts to Opinions/Essays, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, by fax to 617 -450-2317, or by Internet E-mail to OPED@RACHEL.CSPS.COM.

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