Radio Theater

Some prominent Republicans say they want to defund National Public Radio. We've heard that line before.


Get ready to suspend your disbelief. One of the most resilient acts in theatrical history has returned to the D.C. stage: the We're Going To Defund Public Broadcasting show.

Every time this play gets revived, the director alters the story slightly to reflect recent events. This time the performers are riffing on National Public Radio's October decision to fire Juan Williams after the commentator told Bill O'Reilly he gets nervous when he sees airline passengers in "Muslim garb." John Boehner, the country's incoming speaker of the House, told National Review "it's reasonable to ask why Congress is spending taxpayers' money to support a left-wing radio network—and in the wake of Juan Williams' firing, it's clearer than ever that's what NPR is." Newt Gingrich, who's having one of his periodic flirtations with a presidential run, announced on Fox that "Congress should investigate NPR and consider cutting off its money." The conservative direct-mail king Richard Viguerie launched a petition to defund the network, accusing the suits who dismissed Williams of "censorship of ideas not in conformity with the ruling class elites."

It's a more compelling hook than the one Richard Nixon used in 1971, when presidential pique at the Eastern liberals who dominated PBS spurred him to propose a "return to localism" that would have kneecapped the crowd in charge of the system. On the other hand, it doesn't have the cloak-and-dagger spirit that the State Department flunky Otto Reich brought to the play in 1985, right after Ronald Reagan's reelection, when he met with NPR staffers in a smoky little room and warned them that the White House thought they were "Moscow on the Potomac."* Nor is it as colorful as the 1993 spectacle starring Bob Dole and David Horowitz, who attacked the radical Pacifica network rather than NPR, providing an opportunity to quote a much weirder series of statements than anything in the Juan Williams kerfuffle. ("We didn't have Satan before the white man. So the white man is Satan himself.")

And the exclusive focus on NPR this time around means the stakes don't feel as high as they did in 1994, when Speaker-elect Gingrich started musing that he might "zero out" the entire public broadcasting budget. A decade later, a House subcommittee heightened the dramatic tension by voting to eliminate federal support for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) altogether. That element of danger was a suspenseful touch. You could almost forget it was all an act.

Because an act is precisely what this is. The Williams story will be stale by the time the new Congress is in a position to do anything about it. Yes, if Republican leaders want to keep the issue alive between now and then, it won't be hard finding stuff on public radio that offends rank-and-file conservatives. But even then, there's a difference between keeping the issue alive and actually ending the network's subsidies.

These standoffs never end with public broadcasting getting defunded. Its budget is hardly ever even reduced: Since the CPB was born more than four decades ago, there have been just seven years in which its federal allocation was lower than in the preceding year. The point of these exercises isn't to cut the broadcasters loose. It's to use the threat of cutting them loose to whip them into shape.

The system was still standing after Nixon made his threats, but all save one of the programs he found objectionable went off the air. After the Gingrich-era battle ended, the Republican pundits Fred Barnes, Peggy Noonan, and Ben Wattenberg all landed gigs at PBS—and following an initial cut, the CPB's budget crept back upward. The funding fight under George W. Bush took place against the backdrop of a conservative CPB chief crusading for a more right-friendly PBS and NPR.

Now that Republicans have retaken the House, the show is heading toward its usual climax. If party leaders mean what they say about limiting government, cutting public broadcasters off would be a signal that they're serious. More likely, the Juan Williams spat is just a familiar way for the GOP to flex its muscles.

Every time this happens, I fantasize that this time, just maybe, the broadcasters won't blink.

NPR can certainly survive without the subsidies. It gets very little direct money from the CPB—less than 2 percent of its budget. In practice, to be sure, the network depends on the government far more than that: About 40 percent of its money comes from its affiliates, which usually receive their own federal subsidies (the amounts vary from station to station) and are frequently affiliated with publicly funded universities. Still, the network has been accumulating other sources of support. Most notably, in 2003 the philanthropist Joan Kroc willed over $200 million to NPR, which promptly invested the money and has drawn on it each year since.

The institution has found other benefactors as well. The same week that the Williams story took off, the network received a grant of $1.8 million from George Soros' Open Society Foundations—more than half the amount it got directly in 2010 from the feds. As for the affiliates, nothing quite boosts a public radio station's pledge week like the possibility that those Republican meanies might pump tear gas into the Morning Edition compound and set the place on fire.

So imagine that the new Congress really is serious about defunding Car Talk and Elmo's World. Would that really be bad for public broadcasting? One effect, after all, would be to shield the broadcasters from any politician attempting to stick his snout into their editorial choices. Another would be to prevent anyone offended by NPR's personnel decisions from being required to give the place any more support.

The concept has thus attracted support from both sides of the conventional political spectrum, gathering endorsements from free market economists and left-wing documentarians alike. Several plans have been floating around since the 1990s that would transmute the CPB from a de facto arm of the government into a fully private trust. The details vary, particularly when it comes to the transition from what we have now to what we'd have then. But the upshot is to create an independent body whose directors are not appointed in Washington and which doesn't rely on Congress for an annual allowance.

There are, broadly speaking, three ways pubcasters can persist without access to the public purse.

Commercialize. When you talk about defunding NPR and PBS, the networks' fans start spinning dark tales in which All Things Considered is transformed into some sort of AM news-talk hell, with quick bulletins interrupted every five minutes by traffic, weather, and waterbed ads. But that's hardly the only conceivable commercial model. All Things Considered already runs underwriting announcements that are almost indistinguishable from advertisements. With appropriate adjustments in the Federal Communications Commission's regulations—which currently prevent underwriters from offering price information, comparing their wares with competing products, or otherwise asking listeners for their business—it would not be difficult to convert those announcements into actual commercials and to attract more sponsors. That need not entail alienating NPR's audience by turning its programs into a Mutual Broadcasting manqué.

Many individual programs have other commercial options, some of which are already legal. Sesame Street makes enough money from merchandising to support itself without once interrupting the show to sell a product.

Decommercialize. Alternatively, public broadcasters can make themselves less commercial. It's one thing to chase ad money when you're running a multimillion-dollar news operation that broadcasts safely center-left content to an affluent audience. It's another to do it when you're a local station specializing in material outside the mainstream, be it avant-garde jazz or Chomskyan politics.

Such stations existed long before the Corporation for Public Broadcasting came to life in 1967. They traditionally subsisted on volunteer labor, listener donations, and a shoestring. When the CPB's money became available, many of them decided to take it, only to encounter rules requiring them to hire more paid staff and seek a less limited audience—rules that made the stations more dependent on outside money and more committed to pursuing the mainstream. Losing the CPB's subsidies would mean losing the CPB's strings as well.

Because it's cheap to start a website but tough to make money with it, the Internet has a natural bias toward noncommercial, passion-driven projects. Radio needn't be different: The technical (as opposed to legal) expense of setting up a station is very low, but the more stations there are on the air, the more competition there is for ad dollars, pushing profits down. Without the current high regulatory barriers to entry, which artificially limit the number of signals on the dial and artificially inflate the cost of launching a station, it's entirely possible that the noncommercial broadcasters would not just thrive but would outnumber their commercial competitors. That's already the case in the freewheeling world of podcasting, where it isn't necessary to maintain a full-fledged station at all. Granted, Congress is even less likely to embrace so far-reaching a deregulation than it is to defund the CPB.

Chase grants. There are plenty of private grant givers eager to lend a hand to specific stations or specific shows. The talk of "defunding NPR" has reinforced the misconception that public radio is a pyramid with NPR's Washington offices at its apex. In fact, it is a fairly decentralized system, with several different organizations producing programs. If you want to know how public broadcasting will survive without federal support, the more important question isn't who will fund NPR; it's who will fund, say, Marketplace.

The environmentalist Bill McKibben recently argued in The New York Review of Books that public radio is undergoing a creative renaissance, thanks to ever-cheaper production tools, Internet distribution, and the influence of Ira Glass' magazine show This American Life. It's notable that of all the programs McKibben listed as a part of this flowering, hardly any are produced or even distributed by NPR. This American Life, Studio 360, To the Best of Our Knowledge, and Radio Open Source are produced at local stations and distributed by Public Radio International. Radiolab is produced at a local station and distributed by Public Radio Exchange. The documentarians at Homelands Productions are an independent cooperative. Encounters hails from Alaska Public Radio. Sound Opinions comes from Chicago's WBEZ. Too Much Information is produced at the New Jersey freeform station WFMU, which isn't even an NPR affiliate (and doesn't get any government money). The only bona fide NPR efforts in McKibben's bunch were Planet Money, Hearing Voices, and Radio Diaries.

Such shows seek funds where they can find them. They could probably survive if the CPB disappeared, and they could certainly survive if the CPB were privatized. And so I imagine a new ending for this recurring Defund Public Broadcasting show, one where the broadcasters and their critics decide to call each other's bluff and the bureaucracy that binds them together comes tumbling down.

But that's a pipe dream, not a prediction. Way back in 1995, in the aftermath of the Gingrich-era budget battle, the New York Daily News declared that "all the groups agreed on the need to establish an independent trust fund that eventually could replace federal funding," citing a CPB spokesman as its source. Fat chance. Fifteen years later, that independence is still little more than a fantasy.

The voters may have elected some Tea Party backbenchers who really are serious about cutting off Nina Totenberg's allowance. But those legislators will have a hard enough time persuading their own party to pull the plug, let alone the Democrats running the White House and the Senate. Establishment Republicans know how this script ends. As Ben Wattenberg is alleged to have said when he heard the Gingrich Congress was thinking of defunding PBS: "What! Just when we've taken it over?"

Managing Editor Jesse Walker is the author of Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (NYU Press).

* This originally stated that the meeting with Otto Reich took place after Reagan's initial election, not his reelection.