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An Unfortunate Placement of a Funding Credit

Listening to public radio station WFAE in Charlotte, N.C., Gerry McGreevy was dismayed when he heard an NPR story about banks, followed by an underwriting credit from Charlotte-based Bank of America.

He accused NPR of violating its own ethics code and damaging its credibility.

On March 30, All Things Considered ran a story "Under Scrutiny Banks Avoid Sports Deals." It discussed how the nation's largest banks also spend lavishly on sports marketing. But with the bailouts, they are considering walking away from potential moneymaking deals.

The NPR story primarily focused on Bank of America which spent an estimated $44 million to advertise during televised sporting events —more than any other bank last year, according to Nielsen research. In the piece, the bank defended the practice.

"For every dollar we spend on sports marketing, we get 10 dollars back in revenue and three dollars in earnings." said BofA CEO Ken Lewis. "This is not wasted money, it's money that drives business results."

This piece was followed by a WFAE funding credit promoting Bank of America. It is easy to understand why McGreevy thought this looked bad.

"Nowhere in the introduction, or elsewhere in the story did I hear the all important disclaimer that Bank of America (specifically mentioned in the piece) was a sponsor of NPR programming," wrote McGreevy. "The fact that you reported the story, and the facts presented therein are all okay with me, but the piece seemed more like a PR piece, aiming to alleviate public outrage for tax payer monies being spent on corporate sponsorships for non-essential, often lavish and elitist marketing/sporting events.

"The fact the NPR neglected to acknowledge that many of the subjects of the story were also benefactors, violates the very policy NPR touted as proof of its journalistic integrity. I am ashamed and angered by this neglect. Shame on you NPR."

I looked into this situation, and here is my response:

Dear Mr. McGreevy,
NPR did not in this case violate its code. What happened is you wandered into the complicated land of public radio. Let me explain.

Public radio — both nationally and locally — depends on corporate underwriting to help support its budget (in addition to listener support and federal grants.) WFAE solicits underwriting credits from local sponors, such as Bank of America, to support it. NPR — completely separately from WFAE — also solicits corporate underwriting to help fund its $160 million annual operating budget.

The 15-second Bank of America funding credit you heard was aired by WFAE. Bank of America is not an NPR underwriter.

So what happened is that an NPR-produced story bumped up against a locally produced funding credit slated to run on WFAE from March 23 to April 24. There's no way this was avoidable.

"We don't coordinate funding credits with NPR because I don't know what the program rundown for ATC is going to be," said P.K. Donson, who handles underwriting credits for WFAE. "So I can't coordinate my local credits with national programs. That would be really difficult."

I agree with you that it looks bad, and that perceptions can undermine credibility. But in this case, it was an unfortunate coincidence.