Opinion: Daily Journal

Public, Not Government, Radio

RALEIGH – Public radio is, all things considered, a valuable option for those interested in following news, learning more about their state and nation, and listening to or participating in thoughtful debates about public policy issues. Consumed as part of a balanced diet of commercial talk radio, the morning edition of your local newspaper, and the fresh air that is the Internet, public radio is intellectually nutritious.

If only it did not subsist partly on funds forcibly taken from people who do not listen to public radio and never will.

It is true that the taxpayer subsidy for stations such as WUNC-FM in Chapel Hill and WFAE-FM in Charlotte is less egregious than it used to be. The state budget no longer includes direct appropriations to university-based public radio operations. But they continue to receive subsidy in the form of grants from the taxpayer-funded Corporation for Public Broadcasting. The extent of subsidy varies widely according to the size and penetration of local markets. For example, WUNC pays for more than 90 percent of its annual operating budget with voluntary contributions, be they checks from individuals and institutions or underwriting contracts (essentially, short-form advertising) with businesses. But at other stations, the percentage of expenses paid by forcible expropriation is much higher.

It should be zero. It should be zero in the Triangle or Charlotte markets, where an end to government funding would almost certainly result in higher private funding to offset the loss (I’d be among the first donors). And it should be zero even in smaller markets, where philanthropy and entrepreneurial thinking should be harnessed to generate the necessary funds.

There’s no point pretending that public radio is some sort of universal public utility, like a water and sewer authority. These radio stations are intensely competitive. They compete for audience and advertising dollars – I mean, underwriting dollars, sorry – with commercial radio and other print and broadcast firms. They compete with each other for audience and listener contributions, as is evident in this Triad Business Journal account of WUNC-FM’s plans to open a Greensboro bureau even though Wake Forest University’s WFDD-FM already considers Guilford County to be a core part of its Triad audience and donor base.

To some critics of commercial broadcasting and advocates of government-controlled media, of course, such a suggestion is heresy. They decry the control of “corporate America” on the news business and see the taxpayer support for public radio, even if a relative trickle, as guaranteeing editorial independence and public service. This is nonsense. Public radio, whatever its level of government funding, will always thrive or wither based on the perceived quality of its offerings. If audience members aren’t impressed with what they hear, and willing to support it financially, public radio hasn’t a prayer.

Moreover, government involvement in the news media is a far greater source of editorial interference and bias than the existence of advertiser-driven or donor-driven media. That’s true historically – America didn’t truly have a media unshackled from political control until the advent of the advertiser-support penny press in the mid-19th century – as well as cross-culturally. Countries where governments fund the major TV and radio stations are countries where press freedoms are most threatened.

Opponents of public broadcasting often emphasize their complaints when arguing for an end to government subsidy. I prefer to emphasize the positive: public radio is worthwhile enough to prosper by asking its listeners for support. It doesn’t have to resort to taking it.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.