LAST SPRING, the public-radio show Marketplace undertook a remarkable exercise in self-examination, broadcasting an in-depth, three-part series on how corporate underwriting has affected public radio. Among other things, the series reported that 44 percent of public-radio listeners are troubled by underwriting ó including a WBUR listener named Dan Connell, who told Marketplace, "Iím not just anxious; Iím pissed off. Itís irritating to listen to this."
But it wasnít just listener pissiness that the series focused on. The series also found that underwriting can create conflicts of interest, or at least the appearance of a conflict. For instance, Marketplace itself fessed up to omitting its principal underwriter, General Electric, from a report on companies that had been targeted by consumer boycotts. And the expansion of All Things Considered from one to two hours was largely funded with underwriting by Archer Daniels Midland, the politically wired, legally entangled agribusiness behemoth, creating an uncomfortable alliance between the funder and the funded.
(NPR gets nearly 47 percent of its $99 million budget from member stations such as WBUR, which pay fees in order to receive NPR programming. But as the Archer Daniels Midland deal suggests, NPR, like its affiliates, has become dependent on corporate underwriting, which now makes up about a third of its budget. According to NPR spokeswoman Gretchen Michael, the network estimates that underwriting will drop by $2 million during the current fiscal year. "Like everybody, weíre tightening our belt where we can, and weíre continuing to go out there and search for new underwriters," she says.)
Nor are the problems limited to such obvious things as disaffected listeners and on-air conflicts. More broadly, the need to bring in ever-increasing amounts of corporate money means that stations must focus on programs that will draw the largest audiences ó just like commercial radio or television. For a culture drenched in the marketspeak of the í90s, such a proposition may seem, like, duh. But if All Things Considered, for instance, shies away from doing a 10-minute piece on Bengali pop music, or if a station such as WBUR or WGBH fears that programs that serve local foreign-language-speaking communities would drive away listeners and underwriters, then youíve got precisely the kinds of pressures that are theoretically supposed to be absent from public radio.
Perhaps the leading proponent of an alternative funding system is Jerry Starr, the executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting. A sociology professor at West Virginia University, Starr became involved in trying to save the second, quirkier public TV station in his hometown of Pittsburgh. Starrís organization has proposed that public TV and radio receive funding mainly through a Public Broadcasting Trust, which would raise about $1 billion a year through taxes on such things as digital TV sets, the sale or transfer of commercial broadcast licenses, and broadcast advertising.
"The culture of the present system has become much too commercial," Starr says.
The idea of freeing public broadcasters from the yoke of fundraising sounds appealing. ("I could lay off my sales staff and just take the check when it comes in. That doesnít sound so bad," quips Jane Christo.) At the same time, though, Starrís proposal comes with a concomitant system of accountability that sounds, on its face, like it could be a nightmare of political correctness.
Again, to use WBUR as an example, Christo answers only to Boston University ó specifically, to Executive Vice-President Joseph Mercurio. She also has an advisory board that she set up, but that has no real power. By contrast, Jerry Starrís organization envisions community-based governing boards that would, in essence, run the show. Take, for instance, these provisions:
ē "New measures are needed to protect public service broadcasting from censorship by state and community-level politicians and to ensure that boards are truly diverse, have a clear sense of mission, and recruit and reward station managers for measurable public service, rather than profit-making ventures."
ē "It is essential that boards be chosen in such a manner as to ensure diversity by race, gender, age, community, and field of service. A diverse board would make policy discussions broader and more inclusive, better survey the interests of public constituencies and provide easier access for station promotion efforts."
ē Advisory boards "would have routine access to active program proposals, ongoing production schedules and alternative program sources. They also would be engaged in active outreach to the community to solicit evaluations and assess needs."
Laudable goals? Perhaps. Taken together, though, they amount to the sort of accountability that would practically guarantee a mediocre, doctrinaire system of special-interest pandering.
THE MOST deadly aspect of Jerry Starrís vision is not the idea of "truly diverse" boards taking a "broader and more inclusive" approach to "active outreach," as bureaucratically chilling as that all sounds. It is, rather, that Starr, in the name of greater democracy, would centralize authority in public broadcasting in the form of self-selected boards of community activists. The current model, flawed though it may be, is entirely decentralized.
To be sure, there have long been questions about Christoís management style. A public spotlight was shone on her free-spending ways last winter, when it was revealed that she had offered Christopher Lydon the chance to make more than $300,000 as host of The Connection if only he and his senior producer, Mary McGrath, would drop their demand for an ownership share in the show. (Lydon and McGrath ended up leaving ó fired, they said ó in what became a very public, very ugly dispute.) And when it turned out that veteran business reporter Steve Tripoli was among those being laid off earlier this month, Christo-watchers couldnít help but wonder if Tripoli had somehow crossed his prickly boss. (Neither Christo nor Tripoli would comment on his departure.)
But Christo emphasizes, rightly, that sheís ultimately accountable to the public ó and that thatís the way it should be. "The vision I have had the whole time is that the listeners and the businesses in the community, itís their job to fund us," she says. "I like the way it makes us look at our news coverage. I like the way that we change things perhaps more than other people do. We have to change things that people donít want to listen to. I think thatís good, because otherwise, if we start to get self-indulgent, if we start to think we know better than they do about what they need, it kind of becomes like weíre feeding them castor oil because itís good for them. Thatís old-time public radio."
Christoís faith in the judgment of the marketplace was tested recently. On October 24, the Boston Globe reported that two corporate underwriters ó Hillel Stavis, president of WordsWorth Books, in Harvard Square, and Robert Shillman, CEO of Cognex Corporation, in Natick ó had stopped contributing to WBUR because of what they saw as anti-Israel bias on the part of both the station and NPR (see "Wavelengths," This Just In, October 26).
Obviously thereís nothing wrong with someoneís deciding not to fund programming that he or she finds offensive. But because Stavis and Shillman were underwriters, they were in a position to exercise more influence than, say, two random listeners would be. It was as if the more rancid aspects of the electoral system, in which campaign contributors are treated with greater seriousness than mere voters, had suddenly been transposed to public radio. I would have liked to explore the issues of funding and accountability further with both men. Unfortunately, Stavis declined to comment, and I didnít succeed in reaching Shillman. Christo says that though they had every right to pull their funding, "I really canít say that I see an anti-Israeli bias." (To my ears, public radio romanticizes the Palestinian cause somewhat more than it should, although the BBC ó which WBUR also carries at intervals throughout the day ó is a worse offender than the decidedly mainstream NPR.)
Public radio today rests on three financial foundations: listener donations, which at most stations account for about 50 percent of income; corporate underwriting, which usually comes to about 35 percent; and the remaining 15 percent, which comes from grants, foundation money, direct government support, and the like. Itís not perfect, but it works, perhaps because it has grown organically rather than being imposed from above.
Increase the amount of government funding, as Jerry Starr proposes, and youíve got what Columbia University journalism professor Samuel Freedman, whoís written about public radio for the New York Times, calls "a devilís bargain, a Faustian bargain. You canít have the money and not be vulnerable to the intrusion, the efforts to try to affect programming. You donít have to support the would-be censors, which I certainly do not, to understand that you risk the meddling of government when you take its money."
As for underwriting, it presents dangers, but as long as listener contributions remain equally ó or more ó important, then no station manager would risk alienating listeners in order to raise more corporate money.
Not to drape all this in too much grandiosity, but perhaps it can be likened to what Winston Churchill said about democracy. In other words, the current system of funding public radio may be the worst imaginable.
Until, that is, you start trying to come up with another.
Dan Kennedy can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Issue Date: November 29 - December 6, 2001