NPR, Public Goods, and the Longing for NQR

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NPR, Public Goods, and the Longing for NQR

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on April 14, 2010 FREE Insights Topics:

National Public Radio (NPR), a nonprofit 501 c-3 corporation, has 860 independent stations throughout America. I wouldn’t care to live in a place that didn’t have radio access. (Streaming it on the web is a poor substitute.) When traveling, I find the local station so not to miss “Morning Edition” and the evening program “All Things Considered.”

While I’m obviously a loyal listener, their biannual weeklong fund drives are things to endure. One suffers through them as a necessary nuisance, much like Montana’s spring mud season.

During the 30-plus years I taught university courses in political economy, NPR was one of my favorite examples of a “public good.” Like national defense, it is something that, if provided to anyone, is available to everyone. So, of course, are all radio stations. The difference is that explicit advertising for specific products supports commercial radio. NPR, in contrast, has mercifully brief underwriting. This source provides just over one-fifth of its revenue. Governments, mainly federal, provide 16 percent.

Roughly a third of NPR’s support comes from listeners’ contributions. This is why the fund drives are a necessary burden. Because listeners’ support is voluntary, there is a temptation to free ride on the contributions of others. Nationally, roughly 20 percent of listeners contribute an average of $75. (YPR tells us that here it’s about 10 percent.)

While I find our YPR’s fund drives less noxious than most, it’s unpleasant to be hectored for a week. Stations ratchet up the guilt of free riders and paying one’s contribution doesn’t halt the pain.

The intensity normally increases over the week as the contribution goal approaches. This is a lamentable, but predictable, consequence of providing a public good, especially one targeted to liberals and “progressives.” On average, these groups are less generous and charitable than conservatives and libertarians. Their “generosity” is most strongly expressed by using government to transfer wealth rather than relying on voluntary exchanges.

Many of my libertarian and conservative friends protest that NPR demonstrates a progressive or liberal bias. Of course it does. The percentage of college educated listeners equal those of the Atlantic and The New Yorker, just over half. NPR echoes, or perhaps leads, the political and social orientation of the mainstream media.

Whatever their leanings, the national programs of NPR are highly professional and well executed. It is no accident that according to Arbitron, the national radio rating company, its audience has increased by 50 percent in the last decade. “Morning Edition’s” audience is only slightly below Rush Limbaugh’s, some 7.6 million.

Yet, NPR has financial problems. In 2009 it had a budget gap, cut staff and programs, and suspended some retirement payments. This was projected to become worse. What are the causes of financial decline?

Surely part is due to the recession. Also, technology offers competition, such as YouTube. And young people prefer alternatives to NPR radio. There’s, however, another factor—political culture.

NPR gives only reluctant, occasional voice to principled, intelligent libertarians and conservatives, the numbers of whom will surely increase. And they notice the slight—and stop contributing. In a cultural conflict, only fools knowingly support their enemies. Unless NPR’s national programs become more balanced, its financial problems will become worse. And then what?

Here’s an idea from Chicago political thugs—tax talk radio. Arbitron supplies the listener numbers. Under some doctrine of “Fairness in Broadcasting” use the tax to subsidize NPR. Since conservative talk radio bests its liberal counterpart by more than ten to one, conservative listeners would fund their foes. Perfect no?

No, not really. There is a potential for policy entrepreneurs to launch a conservative/libertarian competitor to NPR, National Quality Radio (NQR). This nonprofit 501 c-3 corporation would provide a public good analogous to that of NPR’s, but with a philosophical counterweight.

Universities and think tanks have an immense amount of talent neglected, ignored, or ostracized by NPR. Much of it is readily available to provide content. The organizational and management prowess of the latter group is remarkably strong for they don’t rely on money taken by force or fraud; taxes don’t fund their operations so they must gather it from donors. None take corporate contracts.

Consider the capacity and intellectual heft of just the major players, AEI, CATO, Heartland, Heritage, Hoover, and NCPA to name a few. Also, many conservatives are naturally comfortable dealing with cultural classics, while libertarians such as Chris Buckley and P.J. O’Rourke excel with humor.

NPR’s mission is “to create a more informed public—one challenged and invigorated by a deeper understanding and appreciation of events, ideas and cultures.” Who could argue with that? However, given their underlying bias in implementing their mission, I have no doubt that the pieces are available to assemble such a venture as NQR.

Heritage has just launched a new advocacy organization, Heritage Action, to counter the liberal establishment. Its goal is to help build “an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity, and civil society flourish.”

Other individuals and organizations disenchanted with NPR’s presentations, postures, and pretenses of impartiality share this vision. And while liberals and progressives specialize in crafting transfers from taxpayers to favored interests, conservatives and libertarians trump their entrepreneurial skills.

I have no idea if something like NQR will emerge but I am confident that people are seeking alternatives to the collectivist perspective that dominates NPR and the mainstream media more generally. Heritage Action is probably just the first of many. Meanwhile, we’ve put our usual NPR contribution into our charity escrow account.

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