Public Radio Is for Moochers

NPR listeners should pay what they owe.


Spring is here, which can mean only one thing: torture.

You might know it by its more familiar name, the public-radio pledge drive.

The pledge drive resembles Chinese water torture. It starts out as a minor irritant. But it continues, hour after hour and day after day, growing first uncomfortable and then agonizing. By the end of it even hardened commandos are reduced to blubbering, mucus-snuffling wrecks begging someone to make it stop, please just make it stop.

If the pledge drive is hard on listeners, one can only imagine how excruciating it must be for public radio employees. For days on end they are forced to say the same things over and over, until they start to crack. You can tell when that happens. They start telling tepid jokes that elicit forced, slightly hysterical laughter from the other on-air personalities. Then comes the singing. And the skits. And the madcap antics. Don't the Geneva Conventions prohibit this?

The fundraisers' points all revolve around the theme of what a wonderfully valuable service public radio provides: While other media are cutting back on coverage, toeing a partisan line, or selling out to the sleazy dollar of sensationalism, you need a voice you can trust to bring you in-depth coverage of the stories that matter. That sort of guff.

True—at least in part. Yet it doesn't explain why the pledge drive drags on so long it feels like a cross between a middle-school "Say No to Drugs" assembly and the Bataan Death March. The good people of public radio are constrained from explaining that by the necessity of not insulting their listeners.

But someone should explain it. Here goes:

Public-radio listeners are moochers. Brazen, shameless welfare kings and queens, sponging off the generosity of others.

Not all of them, mind you. A small percentage contribute. An even smaller number do so with great generosity.

But the vast majority are—how to put this gently?—good-for-nothing, deadbeat, leeching, parasitic, freeloading scroungers.

Here in Central Virginia, the local public-radio station has almost 200,000 listeners, according to Arbitron ratings. But fewer than 10,000 contribute any money to help keep programming on the air.

This is pretty standard. It's also—to be nice about it—pathetic. It's especially pathetic in light of the fact that public-radio fans are better off than the average Joe.

The median household income for NPR listeners, for example, is $86,000—nearly twice the median household income in the U.S. What's more, they are disproportionately liberal: According to figures from the Pew Research Center, they lean left to almost the exact same degree as Fox News audiences lean right. They're disproportionately into recycling, buying organic, and twice as likely to drive a hybrid vehicle.

Think globally, act locally. We're all in this together. Unless that means actually paying for something you use. Then the purse strings close up like a sphincter.

True, most public-radio stations benefit from government subsidies, either directly or indirectly. And they shouldn't. We shouldn't have government radio any more than we should have government newspapers or government television. But then, taxpayer financing makes up only a thin slice of most stations' revenue pie charts. The wish to make the slice even thinner is an argument for more voluntary contributions, not less.

Also true: NPR's slant can be almost insufferable. To listen to NPR is to enter a world in which government regulation is always too lax, never too strict. It is a world populated by "supporters of abortion rights" on one side and "the gun lobby" on the other—a world in which tea party types are reported on, but with the same worried curiosity a microbiologist might show toward a deadly new pathogen. In the NPR world rapacious corporate interests buy elections, while unions and environmental groups struggle to make their voices heard. No NPR broadcast is complete without at least one story about racial, gender, or economic inequality—and preferably several. Concepts such as liberty, meanwhile, are afterthoughts at best. Nobody tunes in to NPR to hear liberal priorities and perspectives challenged.

And yet it does some truly splendid reporting. Besides, if the slant gets to be too much you can always change the station. Many public-radio fans, however, wouldn't listen to anything else—either because they like the slant or in spite of it. And, nowhere else but public radio will you find such delightful jewels as "Click and Clack," "Wait, Wait … Don't Tell Me!" and the now-mothballed but still beloved BBC program "My Word!"

So if you enjoy public radio, don't be a moocher. If every listener gave a lousy ten bucks the pledge drive would be over in half a day.

Make it stop. Please, help make it stop.