More Support, Not Less

The debate over federal funding for NPR ignores the void being left by corporate media.

National Public Radio is getting smacked around a lot lately. Some of the smacking is self-inflicted, and some of it comes from those who think the content is offensive.

Of course, many people love public radio and support it with volunteer time and money, but that’s not the best reason to keep public funding for public radio. The best reason is that public radio gives us content we can’t find anywhere else.

One of the purposes of public media is to provide content that can’t be found on private media. And what might that be?

The other day when I fired up the old minivan, Ravel’s “Bolero”  was just beginning. I love that piece and spent the next 10 minutes or so enjoying the full, long version of the song. Is any commercial radio station likely to play “Bolero”? Is any commercial radio station likely to play a 10-minute version of any song? Not bloody likely, as they like to put it on Masterpiece Theater. Just plug yourself into public radio any time of day and you’ll hear something that won’t be aired on commercial (that is, non-public) radio.

And on public radio we can hear the stories: Some run a full hour, others are minutes, but they are stories you’ll hear nowhere else, and certainly not with the depth that NPR and other public radio networks provide.

We don’t need less of this; we need more. In fact, we ought to increase government funding for public media, public radio included. The huge amount of commercial broadcasting is in itself an argument for publicly funded media. The content on commercial media is batted around by all kinds of forces: advertising, corporate interests, operator and owner fear of being offensive, among others.

Just look what’s happened to news in commercial media. Only the most cynical would pretend that the news business is not in decline. What has replaced it is a tattered, ratty version of its earlier self. In the 1960s, CBS had one guy everyone recognized as the boss — William Paley. Paley had his faults, but he saw the value in a strong network news organization. If you look at CBS today, you’ll see that the network is just one fairly small part of a huge corporation that has no one person anyone could call the boss — not in the sense that Paley was the boss. The real boss is profit, and if a news organization, like any other part of a corporation, isn’t making a profit, here comes the axe. Maybe worse than the axe is Charlie Sheen.

It isn’t his fault his story gets higher billing on most news spots than the Libyan rebellion. But Charlie gooses the ratings — and that makes for easy, cheesy profits.

If a sound democracy does depend on a well-informed public, our for-profit media enterprises aren’t doing much besides producing winners on American Idol. In addition, conflicts of interest are endemic to the corporate media system. Does anyone think that NBC, which is still partly owned by General Electric, is going to do a great job of covering, say, the problems with nuclear reactors built by, um, General Electric?

I suppose someone at NBC might think they would, but studies show that isn’t the case.

Commercial radio is a desert for news and information. Stations that try to do news on the scale of NPR end up surrendering to the market “wisdom” that says news is expensive and unwieldy. Usually stations that take a stab at news soon switch over to talk formats with a bit of news sandwiched in between the jibber-jabber.

Commercial radio stations have for the most part scuttled news efforts in favor of the less expensive and more profitable music and talk formats. And the stations with music formats gave up on news completely.

The one bright light in this dark landscape is public radio. NPR and other public networks, like Public Radio International, have developed a rich variety of creative and informational programming impossible to nurture in the flickering attention-span-truncated world of commercial broadcast. Public networks and stations have increased the public affairs offerings that are withering elsewhere, offering content that is unique and necessary.

And the cost? Take out a dollar bill and assume it represents the entire federal budget. Want to cut NPR? Okay, get a small pair of tweezers and see if you can snip off a piece of the corner tinier than a speck of dandruff.

Instead, forget the tweezers. In a democracy where we need a broad swath of information and ideas, NPR and other public media are a great social investment.

Mark Doerr teaches mass media and journalism at Spokane Falls Community College.

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