Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Hunting the NPR gnat with a Congressional cannon

My esteemed Representative Eric Cantor will be introducing a bill on the floor of the House tomorrow. In my opinion, it's a poorly written bill that's nothing more than a ham-handed attempt to kill off a perceived foe that will have dire and immediate consequences for many.

The Bill
H.R. 1076 - To prohibit Federal funding of National Public Radio and the use of Federal funds to acquire radio content.

Right from the start, this bill is a mess. First of all, "National Public Radio" no longer exists. The organization made the change to "NPR" a while ago. Just like AT&T, the initials no longer stand for anything. It's the company name. So the leading luminaries who crafted this, Rep. Doug Lamborn and Rep. Eric Cantor don't even have the name of their target right. Isn't that type of detail important when crafting Federal law?

The Reason
Hard-core conservatives have hated NPR since the First Gulf War. That's when Newt Gingrich tried to kill the organization for not getting on board with the commercial news organizations and only reporting what the government wanted people to hear.

And that's not just my opinion. Bob Edwards in a recent interview said:
“The opponents of NPR are using a fiscal argument when they really want it off, they want it gone, just as Newt and company wanted it gone” when the Gingrich House zeroed out its funding. Why? “So the voices of Fox et al. can prevail,” says Edwards.
The Intended Consequences
It's not enough to just cut off Federal money to NPR. The bill goes further and disallows any Federal funds to be used to purchase radio content. The idea is that stations won't be able to use that money to pay for NPR programming, thereby eliminating any chance that NPR will even indirectly get those funds.

For most public radio stations, the biggest single expense in the programming, and the biggest single payment is to NPR. But there's a reason for that. Listeners expect to hear "Morning Edition" and "All Things Considered." They enjoy "Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me," "Car Talk," and "Fresh Air."

I suspect Cantor et al. aren't thinking much beyond the news programs. They want that damn liberal news organization shut down!

The Unintended Consequences
But by saying that NO Federal funds may be used to acquire radio programming, Cantor and Lamborn will be doing much more than just getting that pesky Linda Wertheimer off the air.

Many people (and I suspect our two legal eagles as well) have come to think of the terms "NPR" and "public radio" as one in the same. But they're not. The relationship between NPR and a local station is much like that between NBC and a local affiliate. The local station pays for the privilege of carrying the "Today Show," but has no control over what Matt Lauer says.

But there are several more providers of public radio content than just NPR. Like "Prairie Home Companion?" That's distributed by American Public Media. Ditto "Marketplace." The new law would not allow Federal funds to pay for those programs.

Like "This American Life" or the BBC Newshour? Those are provided by Public Radio International. They also couldn't be paid for by CPB grants under the new rule. It would also disallow programming from smaller distributors and content creators, such as the Metropolitan Opera broadcasts, StarDate, as well as programs produced by individual stations.

If you listen to public radio, pay close attention. Any program that has an end credit will be blocked from funding under this new law.

Further Unexpected Consequences
The law's being written with one goal in mind: kill NPR by blocking all funding to it. But that's not the way the law's written. Remember that name change I mentioned earlier? NPR changed its name because it's moving away from radio.  

The restriction applies to using Federal funds to acquire radio programming. But what about streaming audio, like the All Songs 24/7 Music Channel? If it's a feed created expressly for the Internet, then it's not a radio program, is it? What about podcasts? NPR produces several. They're not broadcast over the air, so they're not radio programs. What about Internet-only programs, like the Tiny Desk Concerts? They're not covered by this new law, either. What if NPR began producing video for public broadcasting? The law doesn't say anything about television programming.

The Bottom Line
HR 1076 will fail at its goal. NPR will not go away, nor will it wither that much. One of the reasons NPR hasn't allowed all of its programming to migrate to SIRIUS/XM is that the public radio system that they still rely on would be in open revolt. But if stations can't afford the programming anymore, that's where they'll go. And listeners will follow.

NPR will be just fine, but the local stations could suffer massive damage, as well the other syndicators and producers who never had a dog in this hunt. Even if there was a good reason to kill NPR, this bill is not the way to do it.

I've already asked Rep. Cantor to reconsider (like he ever listens to me). Now is not the time for complacency. If public radio (NOT necessarily NPR) is important to you, you need to speak up now, before we all have to pay for the consequences of this ill-written law that can't even get the name of its target right.


  1. Anonymous8:55 PM

    Cantor has been a loose cannon ever since he was given the seniority and respect that Rep. Bliley handed over to him when he stepped down from the seat. Unfortunately no one of any consequence ever runs against him even though most of the people who live in his district don't really think as radically right wing as he does. Conservative yes, Fox News bat sh*t crazy? No.

  2. And this is the guy that's considered a rising "rock star" of the GOP. *sigh*