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.

Gingold Nicholas/SIPA/Newscom
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?

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.

“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.

“This money is particularly important for stations in rural areas. Their government funding is a larger share of revenue – 30 percent, 40 percent, 50 percent or more,” said Ms. Schiller.

NPR itself isn’t a line item in the federal budget. In fact, according to its own calculations, NPR gets less than two percent of its own budget from Corporation for Public Broadcasting grants and other federal government sources.

NPR stations are a different story. They’re run separately, in case you thought the whole thing was one big network. But if you added up the budgets of all the stations across the country, about ten percent of their money comes indirectly from Uncle Sam, via grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Another 5.8 percent comes from other federal, state, and local government grants.

The stations use that money to turn around and buy syndicated programs from NPR, such as “Wait, Wait, Don’t Tell Me It’s Time for Morning Edition.” So one might say NPR corporate gets a little more federal money that way. But that would be hard to count.

“The concept of public funds for public broadcasting is a cornerstone of the relative financial stability of our system,” said CEO Schiller last May in her annual appearance before a House Appropriations subcommittee to ask for money.

The Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which supports both NPR and PBS, gets around $420 million per year. Senate Democrats are unlikely to agree to zero out CPB funding, as many Republican budget-cutters would like.

Sen. Jim DeMint (R) of South Carolina and Sen. Tom Coburn (R) of Oklahoma have introduced a stand-alone bill that would end federal funds for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and thus NPR. They note that top public broadcasting officials get paid a lot of money – the head of CPB makes around $300,000 a year – and that successful brand-name shows such as television's “Sesame Street” are set up to make millions on their own.

Sesame Workshop President Gary Knell made $956,513 in 2008, for example, says Sen. DeMint in a Wall Street Journal opinion article.

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