Q: Jim Weiss, who listens to WSKG out of Vestal, NY, heard sponsorship spots for America's Natural Gas Alliance (ANGA) on the air. He called our office concerned. "What is NPR's criteria for accepting sponsorships? I live in an area that's being impacted by natural gas drilling," he said. "NPR should be more selective."
Q: Ann Dunkelberg listens to KUT in Austin, TX. She heard underwriting for Health Care Compact Alliance, a 501c4 nonprofit backed by the Tea Party Patriots, according to Mother Jones magazine. "Does NPR usually take c4 money for underwriting?" she asked. "I have no idea. The underwriters are usually foundations and such – but perhaps political advocacy groups have always been underwriters and I only noticed because this one happened to be on my radar screen?"
A: John King, operations manager for corporate sponsorship, said NPR does not have a list of sources from which funding will not be accepted. NPR follows guidelines, approved by its Board of Directors, that say NPR "seeks underwriting representing a broad spectrum of funding sources: corporations, foundations, individuals, government agencies, and others." This includes organizations like ANGA and Heath Care Compact.
Contrary to Dunkelberg's allegation, Health Care Compact also takes money from other sources.
Wisconsin Public Radio's At Issue with Ben Merens recently interviewed NPR Ombudsman Alicia Shepard about the issue. Shepard estimated that 20 percent of listener concerns have to do with NPR's funders.
"There's a general feeling that they want the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, something so neutral, to be the funders," she said. "But NPR has grown a lot in corporate sponsorships. When listeners hear sponsors that they dislike, such as Monsanto or America's Natural Gas Alliance, they call in to say NPR should not accept those funds."
Whether a sponsorship comes from a corporation or a foundation, NPR follows the same guidelines to protect the firewall between its news and development departments to ensure that underwriting cannot influence news judgments.
"The people in corporate sponsorship are not suggesting to the news side, 'You should do a story on natural gas because we want to get some money from this natural gas association,' " Shepard said. "It just doesn't happen. There is no cause and effect. NPR is going to cover what's news and not pay attention to sponsors."
Contrary to popular belief, it's the foundations that sometimes harbor expectations that NPR will cover an issue if they donate money. "It's the corporate funders that understand how business works," Shepard said. "You pay your money and you take your chances."
Alicia Shepard wrote several columns in the past dealing with NPR's firewall and funding credits, one of which dealt specifically with the controversial sponsorships from the natural gas industry:
Should NPR Run Funding Credits from the Department of Homeland Security? November 25, 2008
The Soloist and Funding Credits May 14, 2009
Natural Gas Industry Ads: A Perceived Conflict of Interest October 21, 2009
Ally Bank: Is It a Good Fit? December 14, 2009
NPR's ethics code says this about underwriting and the firewall:
IX. Underwriting; foundation grants; advertising, marketing and promotion
1. A firewall will be maintained between NPR journalists and funders. While staff may end up talking to experts and officials who work at foundations that fund us (and their grantees), we may not discuss coverage planning with grant-making officials.
2. The Senior Vice Presidents and Vice Presidents for News, Online or Programming or their designees will assign individuals who will serve as contacts for their respective divisions with funders for grant-making purposes or other communications.
3. NPR journalists may not read funding credits on air or online.
4. If NPR reports on an organization or individual who funds us, we will disclose that relationship on air if the subject of the report is directly related to the thrust of the grant we received.
5. When authorized by the Senior Vice President for News or their designee, NPR journalists may take part or be asked to take part in promotional activities or events involving supporters of NPR, such as our coordinated fund
All this being said, NPR listeners also hear local station sponsors, traffic report sponsors and sponsors of nationally distributed programs that NPR does not produce such as American Public Media's Marketplace.
NPR generally devotes 90 seconds out of each hour to funding credits. If you hear more than that, it's likely that they are not all NPR sponsors.
The Voice Behind Underwriting
Q: "Could you please tell me the name of the person who, during short brakes during the hourly NPR newscasts, does the short 15-20 second acknowledgements of the companies that have contributed endowments that help support NPR?" — Thomas Riewe, listener in Madison, WI
A: Frank Tavares reads NPR's on-air credits. (Here's a funny piece that NPR did on Frank Tavares in 2003.)
—-Lori Grisham, Assistant, NPR Ombudsman