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Who 'Owns' NPR?

By Jeffrey A. Dvorkin
Ombudsman
National Public Radio


One of the challenges of public radio and National Public Radio in particular -- is the sense of ownership among the listeners. With the word "public" right there in the name, listeners feels they are entitled to hear their point of view on the radio.

Over the past year, hundreds of listeners have written to argue, remonstrate and generally take NPR to task for not reporting the news in precisely the way they think it should be done.

Just because you feel you pay for NPR, doesn't mean it will, or should, reinforce your ideas at all times.

Public Radio = Government Radio?

The criticism usually starts with the phrase "...as a taxpayer, I object to NPR's reporting on...(take your pick)."

If "public" means "government funded," then some listeners are in for a shock: NPR is not a government broadcaster.

NPR has not done a particularly good job in explaining who it is and how it operates.

A much better job is done by the local stations, who feel an obligation to their listeners as to who they are, who owns the license and how the money sent in to the station gets spent.

So at the end of the year, it's probably useful to shed a little light on who exactly pays for NPR and how much.

First, even though NPR has the term "public" in its name, it is not government owned or operated. And like any journalistic or arts organization -- public, private or not-for-profit -- it doesn't mean that you will hear only your own opinions or tastes broadcast back at you. You might or you might not. What you should hear is enough that is recognizable as "your" radio to make you want to keep listening and to come back for more.

A Private Not-For-Profit Corporation

Legally speaking, NPR is a private, not-for-profit corporation chartered by the District of Columbia and qualified by the Internal Revenue Service as a "501(c)(3)" organization exempt from taxation.

NPR is funded primarily by a single source: fees paid to NPR by public radio stations (almost 700 of them) for the right to broadcast particular NPR programs. These program fees account for slightly more than 50 percent of the annual budget, which for 2000, was just over $100 million. This is the largest single source of money for NPR and it comes overwhelmingly from the stations and their listeners.

Corporations and Foundations

The rest of the money comes from organizations (usually corporations) and from foundations. You hear that on the radio usually three times an hour when NPR's long-time announcer Frank Taveres intones: "Support for NPR comes from..."

That support is known as "underwriting" and the on-air acknowledgements are called "credits." To some listeners the credits sound like plain old advertising. In fact, they aren't. They must conform to federal law which expressly forbids "advertising" on public radio stations. In fact, on Dec. 5 the FCC found one public radio station -- WNCW in Spindale, North Carolina -- guilty of "broadcasting advertisements and failing to maintain its public file," after a complaint by a listener.

No 'Call To Action'

The credits must be carefully phrased. For example, the credits cannot "promote" any product, or in the words of the FCC, amount to a "call to action." They can describe an underwriter, but the credit can't tell you to run right out and buy it because it's the best... They should simply say "support for NPR comes from X..." or words to that effect. Each credit is vetted by NPR legal eagles. And NPR limits credits to ten seconds each for a total of two minutes per hour. Stations also add their own local credits.

Sometimes the phrasing comes close to that "call to action." And some listeners tell me that they object vehemently whenever they hear something that sounds overtly commercial. Those listeners say the difference is hard to discern. It's a bit like Justice Potter Stewart's definition of pornography: "...I know it when I see it..."

Corporation for Public Broadcasting

A small amount of NPR money comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a federally created private, not-for-profit corporation that administers some of the money allocated by Congress for public broadcasting. CPB funding amounts to between 1-2 percent of NPR's budget and it's often "seed" money for new programs. NPR must bid for these grants annually and there is no guarantee that NPR will get them. Funding also comes from other federally supported foundations such as the National Science Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. But money from those organizations accounts for less than 1 percent of the budget.

Some NPR stations can receive up to 15 percent of their budgets from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Other stations in underserved areas can get more. The big city stations get a lot less. So to the extent that those stations pay fees to NPR, some of that money comes indirectly from the CPB.

Many stations post their financial information on their Web sites.

NPR does as well. But NPR makes it, in my opinion, more difficult to find.

So in keeping with the public service mission of the Ombudsman's office, here is where to find it on the npr.org Web site:

www.npr.org/about/place/corpsupport/financials.html

Finally, the best description of public radio came from a colleague, Vince Carlin, now Dean of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto:

"The fights over public broadcasting are so intense," says Carlin, "because they are such an accurate reflection of what's at stake in society in general."

This is still your radio service.

Thanks to all of you for caring enough about NPR and public radio to write to me over the past year. My best wishes for 2002.

Listeners can contact me at ombudsman@npr.org.

Jeffrey Dvorkin 
NPR Ombudsman