Commentary Magazine


NPR Needs More Than Good PR

National Public Radio unveiled its new CEO last week, and as Politico noted, the choice reflected their belief what they need is not better policies but a savvier spokesman and public relations strategy. The publicly funded network thinks if only the American public and Congress is told about how essential their programming is to the nation, the taxpayer dollars will continue to flow.

They’re wrong. NPR’s problem has never been bad PR, though they have certainly gotten more than their share of negative publicity because of their demonstrable political bias. NPR is certain to lose its funding in the not too distant future simply because a majority of Americans rightly understand government subsidized broadcasting has no place in the United States, especially in the age of the Internet, satellite radio and the proliferation of choices listeners have nowadays.

NPR thinks new CEO Gary Knell will be able to sell the country and the Congress on the virtues of keeping the federal gravy train chugging along for the network because of his experience as the head of Sesame Street Workshop. The children’s program is the most popular brand associated with public broadcasting and its characters are regularly trotted out at hearings and other events in order to pressure Congress into maintaining funding. But this is exactly the wrong example to be citing, as “Sesame Street” is popular enough to survive on its own without public money.

In the half century of so since public broadcasting first appeared, the landscape in both television and radio has been radically altered. A generation or two ago one could have made the argument there needed to be an alternative to the dominance of the airwaves by a few broadcasters who produced little of educational value. But in an era where most viewers have access to hundreds of TV stations that cater to every possible individual taste and interest and far more radio stations on the air, the Internet and via satellite with the same broad array of choices, there just isn’t a rationale to spend scarce federal funds on NPR.

Even more to the point, the scandals that brought about the resignation of Knell’s predecessor Vivian Schiller, pointed to a clear political bias that made it clear NPR was every bit as liberal as, say, Fox News is said to be conservative. Were NPR genuinely balanced, it would be easier to defend, but because its tilt is so obvious, the idea of a liberal enclave being a federal entitlement is an absurdity that cannot survive. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with it being a liberal radio network provided taxpayers aren’t expected to fund it and it survives on its own merits the way any other broadcast must. Good programs will inevitably find an audience without forcing all Americans to pay for them.

Instead of cranking up the propaganda machine to maintain backing for subsidies that are almost certainly doomed, NPR’s new leader should be preparing his company for a brave new world in which they will have to compete for sponsors and charitable donations (assuming President Obama’s war on philanthropy doesn’t make that even harder).

The era for this liberal fiefdom to continue as a federal entitlement is fast coming to a close. Better PR won’t change that fact.

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