August 14, 2002 -- The Internet is a wonderful tool. It allows for easier research, entertainment, and better communication with friends and relatives. But it also has spam. Junk email arrives every day with promises of riches and weight loss. These really don’t bother me; it only takes a second to press delete. What bother me are the petitions, in particular the petition to save public radio.
I must get this petition every three or four months. “NPR funding is in danger of being cut!” “Congress is going to end public radio!”
If only such things were true. These petitions, it turns out, are just one of the many urban legends floating around the Internet. NPR isn’t in any real danger of losing its taxpayer funding. But it should be.
Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy the programming on NPR a lot: The Diane Rehm Show, Click and Clack, Public Interest. These are great shows. They are intelligent. They are entertaining. And there is no reason they can’t compete without taxpayer subsidies.
The news reporting, though occasionally biased slightly to the left, is also excellent. They often go much more in-depth and have a broader analysis than typical news reporting. It is often refreshing and enlightening. And it is precisely these reasons that it should have no trouble without taxpayer subsidies.
Advocates of taxpayer-financed radio are in a catch-22. On one hand, they say the programming is top-notch, standards-setting, and award-winning. But on the other hand, they claim these shows could never grab an audience large enough to sustain them. If the programming is so good, shouldn’t they be able to grab a sustainable audience? And if the audience doesn’t show up, then is there really such a need for the programming?
The main argument for public radio is that if left to the market, these shows would be subject to the whims of commercial interests. They wouldn’t be able, goes the argument, to be as hard-hitting or controversial. Moreover, it is important for democracy to provide a stream of content, information, and programming without commercial influence and control.
The problem is that public radio is commercial. Granted they don’t have jingles every ten to fifteen minutes. But time out of every hour is spent announcing the underwriters of the programs. And this isn’t just a list of the top sponsors; the branded advertising slogans of the corporate sponsors are also announced.
There is nothing wrong in doing this; what is wrong is doing this and then disingenuously claiming to be commercial-free.
The claim that without commercial-free radio our democracy would wither is also disingenuous. First, “commercial-free” is not a guarantee of accuracy and reliability of information. Public radio is just as capable and likely to make mistakes and have biases as commercial radio.
Second, free competition in news reporting and information sources is the best guarantee of accuracy and reliability. Between radio, television, magazines, newspapers, satellite radio, satellite television, cable, and, of course, the Internet, there is no dearth of information sources. Each competes for your attention, and tries to outdo its competitors in the accuracy and reliability of the information they provide. Their livelihood is dependent on this. If they screw up, you won’t go to them for information anymore.
Our democracy is in no danger of collapsing. There is no need to taxpayer-finance public radio. Let Diane Rehm, Terry Gross, and Kojo Nnamdi compete on their merits. I have no doubt they can survive without my taxes.