There was a certain been-there/done-that quality to recent reports that public television is under ideological attack from the right. After all, conservatives have been targeting the Public Broadcasting System (PBS) for decades. In the mid-1990s, when Newt Gingrich was in full feather, the right even threatened to cut off all government funding. So even though it was distressing to learn that Kenneth Tomlinson, the political hack appointed by President Bush to chair the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), had developed an unhealthy obsession with Bill Moyers, it was hardly surprising.Â Â Â Â But it turns out that Tomlinson not only has eyes that can't see but ears that can't hear - and that he is going after National Public Radio (NPR) as well. For those of us who have pretty much given up on public TV, but who hold fast to public radio as our most vital source of broadcast news, this was a distressing development, to say the least.
Â Â Â Tomlinson has told interviewers that he is concerned NPR is biased toward the Arab side in its coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (It's an allegation that may have some merit, although such bias is far more evident in the endless hours of BBC programming that many public stations use to fill airtime than it is in any of NPR's own programs.) He has also appointed two ombudsmen - a not-very-liberal liberal and a rock-ribbed conservative - to monitor NPR and PBS programs, even though NPR, at least, has had an ombudsman on staff for several years. And CPB officials have made ominous sounds of late that the time has come to move public radio back to the days when its main mission was to broadcast classical, jazz, blues and folk music.
Â Â Â Â Tomlinson's attack was surprising on two levels. First, unlike public television, NPR today is an enormous success. Its weekly audience has grown from 3 million to about 23 million since the 1970s, precisely because it has abandoned music programming in favor of news and public affairs. With the audience for television network news aging and shrinking, and with PBS offering little more than the hypercautious NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, NPR's drive-time programs - Morning Edition and All Things Considered - have established themselves as the broadcast news vehicles of choice for a mobile, multitasking society.
Â Â Â Â Second, and perhaps more to the point, public radio is not nearly as dependent on government funding as public television is. The conservative critique of NPR is not new (you may recall that it was mocked as "Radio Managua" during the 1980s), and it's hardly unusual for right-wingers to call for an end to public radio's taxpayer subsidy. Yet, thanks in large measure to a $200 million bequest from the estate of McDonald's heir Joan Kroc, as well as an upsurge in corporate underwriting (i.e., advertising), NPR today receives less than 1 percent of its annual budget of about $100 million from the CPB, the nonprofit, quasi-governmental agency that funds public-broadcasting ventures.
Â Â Â Â Public radio is not entirely invulnerable to political pressure. Forty to 50 percent of its operating budget comes from fees paid by its 780 member stations - and those stations, in turn, receive anywhere from 5 percent to 15 percent of their funds from the CPB. Large, affluent urban stations are on the low end of that funding spectrum, and could probably survive a government cutoff without skipping more than half a beat. But stations in rural areas and distressed cities are quite dependent on CPB funding, and if they were unable to pay their NPR fees, the entire system would suffer.
Â Â Â Â Still, public radio is strikingly independent compared with its TV counterparts: PBS receives about 10 percent of its funding from the government.
Â Â Â Â Given the financial good health of public radio, the question may not be so much one of whether the medium can survive the depredations of Kenneth Tomlinson, but, rather, if the time has come to take the final step and move to a new system that would be entirely privatized. There's little question that it could be done. But in the tribal world that is public radio, it may be difficult to accomplish. NPR is not just dependent on the local stations for financing; the stations literally own NPR, and a majority of NPR board members are managers of public radio stations. This creates an awkward dilemma, since steps that might help NPR - particularly a more aggressive embrace of satellite radio and other emerging technologies - could wind up hurting the stations.
Â Â Â Â There's hardly any reason to panic over the future of public radio. Tomlinson's ability to wreak financial havoc is limited, and he seems to know it. During a recent appearance on NPR's Diane Rehm Show, for instance, he sounded more than willing to back down, and his obsequiousness toward the host bordered on the embarrassing. But there's no question that public radio finds itself at something of a crossroads.
DON'T PANIC YET
Â Â Â Â Tom Ashbrook had had enough. The host of an NPR show in Boston called On Point wrote an op-ed piece for the Boston Globe recently comparing Tomlinson's renewed emphasis on music with the priorities of state radio in the former Soviet Union. "Years ago, on the other side of a Cold War wall, Soviet citizens got music instead of news when the news was too difficult," Ashbrook wrote. "Today, there are those who would build a high partisan wall between Americans facing a difficult world. But news and understanding will ultimately unite, not divide. So tear down that wall, Tomlinson. Don't build it higher."
Â Â Â Â Still, people within the public-radio community - including Ashbrook himself - sound as though they would like to avoid an all-out battle if they can. When I spoke with Ashbrook, for instance, he expressed mild annoyance at the Globe's headline ("The assault on NPR"), saying, "My intent was a little more collegial than that." He added: "I got a lot of feedback from [NPR headquarters in] Washington on that piece. But basically, nobody wants it to break into open warfare on the NPR side. Everybody would like to work it out calmly here. I'm all for it."
Â Â Â Â More than anything, public-radio folks are puzzled, given that two polls conducted on behalf of the CPB reveal that, for most listeners, bias is not a problem. According to a report by the CPB that's posted on the agency's website, 22 percent of respondents believe NPR's news coverage betrays a liberal bias - considerably less than the 31 percent who say the same about the three major broadcast networks and CNN. Another 9 percent believe that NPR has a conservative bias. But the largest proportion - 38 percent - believe there is no bias in NPR's coverage.
Â Â Â Â When Tomlinson was interviewed by Diane Rehm, she asked him repeatedly about those findings, as well as similar numbers for public television. He didn't have much of a comeback except to say over and over that Bill Moyers is a liberal, and that a congressman had complained to him about NPR's Israeli-Palestinian coverage.
Â Â Â Â Andi Sporkin, NPR's vice-president for communications, says her organization has done surveys of its own that show its audience is approximately one-third liberal, one-third conservative, and one-third middle-of-the-road. "They wouldn't be tuning in if they felt NPR went one way or the other," she says of her conservative and centrist listeners. "You hear from listeners, you hear from elected officials, that they listen to NPR because it doesn't offer a particular partisan stance. There's a sense of having a place where different voices are sought, diversity of opinion is sought, and issues are covered in depth."
Â Â Â Â Then again, to my ears, at least, the diversity covers only a certain narrow range. At NPR, the conversation includes moderate liberals, moderate conservatives and centrists, all engaging in the polite talk that marks sophisticated people who are agreeable about their disagreements. There are almost never any true ideologues of either the left or the right on NPR. From a practical point of view, the exclusion of left-wing voices may not be particularly meaningful, since the left has been thoroughly shut out of power in this country; NPR officials probably don't lie awake at night worrying about pressure from left-wing activist groups. On the other hand, the right wing - that is, the home base of people who think NPR's official conservative commentator, New York Times columnist David Brooks, is a liberal - is ascendant these days, and excluding its mouthpieces from public radio's airwaves carries with it real consequences.
Â Â Â Â Indeed, the current struggle between Tomlinson and the public broadcasters is a good illustration of the power imbalance. The left has started - what else? - a petition drive to force Tomlinson to resign as chair of the CPB. There's little doubt that he ought to go. A former editor of Reader's Digest and former head of Voice of America, Tomlinson is a thoroughgoing conservative activist, right down to his conflict of interest: In addition to his CPB role, he runs the Broadcasting Board of Governors, the blanket agency that controls, among other things, Voice of America and Radio Sawa, the latter a government-funded Arabic-language service that broadcasts America-friendly information to the Middle East. (Information about the Tomlinson-must-go petition is online at FreePress.net, the Web site of the Northampton-based media-reform organization Free Press.)
Â Â Â Â The right, on the other hand, doesn't need petitions. After all, it has Kenneth Tomlinson himself - not to mention his benefactor, George W. Bush, and more than half of Congress. Which is why public radio ought to think about getting out of its dysfunctional relationship with government once and for all.
SHARK AND COCKROACHES
Â Â Â Â To listen to Mark Fuerst tell it, public television had a chance to break out of its paradigm two decades ago - and blew it. Cable was in the early stages of transforming the way we consume electronic media. But PBS executives, not wishing to offend its member stations, failed to follow its viewers to the new world of cable. "It's kind of reckless, in a way, to criticize people 25 years later," says Fuerst, whose Integrated Media Associates does consulting work for public radio stations. "But certainly we can say in hindsight that public broadcasting was not particularly far-sighted. The distribution capability was there, and there also was the opportunity to create national public channels."
Â Â Â Â Now technological advances may be on the verge of transforming radio in the same way that cable transformed television. Satellite radio, a subscription service, offers hundreds of specialized stations that can be heard from coast to coast. Podcasting - downloading MP3 files of radio programs so that you can listen to them on an iPod or other digital music player - is in its early stages, but with a few improvements it could prove as revolutionary as TiVo in terms of allowing consumers to listen at their convenience rather than on a radio station's schedule. Even cell phones are starting to emerge as an important means by which to distribute audio (and video) programming.
Â Â Â Â All this could be good for NPR. But there's no doubt it would be bad for the stations. And remember, the stations control NPR. For the moment, the relationship between public radio and satellite - the most viable of the new technologies - is arm's-length. NPR programs are featured on two Sirius channels - but not the crown jewels, Morning Edition or All Things Considered. On XM, former Morning Edition host Bob Edwards anchors an interview program, and the service also features shows from Public Radio International (PRI), and other services. A number of public-radio programs are available in MP3 format for a fee through Audible.com. And podcasting is just getting off the ground. NPR's weekly On the Media program is available as a podcast. Christopher Lydon, the host of the new PRI program Open Source, has talked about podcasting as well - but not yet, apparently.
Â Â Â Â "All of those devices, if you ask me, look better from a producer point of view than from a station point of view," says Fuerst of satellite radio, podcasting, cell-phone distribution and the like. The question is, will station managers allow NPR to move forward with technologies that could finally break the tie between public radio and government funding - but that could make the stations themselves obsolete?
Â Â Â Â The choice may not be quite as stark as all that. "Certainly the large public stations are as interested in new media as National Public Radio is," says Marita Rivero, the WGBH in Boston vice-president in charge of local television and radio operations. "We're in a very competitive and interesting media environment right now," she adds, although she also notes that NPR has promised that it "will not become a rival to the stations in new media."
Â Â Â Â Bob Lyons, who's in charge of WGBH Radio's new-media initiatives, says, "I'm of the view that analog terrestrial radio is like the shark or the cockroach - it's evolutionarily perfect. There'll be something real similar to analog terrestrial radio for quite a while."
Â Â Â Â NPR confirms that it's not going to go into competition with its stations. "We don't have any business model under consideration that does not include the member stations," says Jenny Lawhorn, a network spokeswoman. "Our organization is very dependent on the stations and based on a partnership. It's more of an ecosystem. I don't want to get too precious describing it, but it's a two-way street."
Â Â Â Â And, of course, there's much to recommend in the current model. Public radio is free and ubiquitous, as readily available to the immigrant cabdriver as it is to the BMW-driving lawyer heading into town from the suburbs. A headlong embrace of new media could change that, creating the same sort of cultural stratification that has emerged in television - that is, you can watch The L Word if you're willing to pay $60 or more a month for cable and a subscription service, but if you can only afford rabbit ears you're stuck with Survivor.
Â Â Â Â Kenneth Tomlinson can't kill public radio, and he probably can't even change its content in any significant way. But if he and his right-wing supporters apply enough pressure, they might be able to force public radio to pursue more aggressively the kind of well-heeled listeners who can afford satellite radio, or who have the time, patience, and technical expertise needed to subscribe to podcasts.
Â Â Â Â Public radio's detractors sometimes describe NPR and its ilk as elitist. It would be ironic if right-wing pressure forced public radio to embrace the very elitism that it has always eschewed.