Monday, March 30, 2009

The Problem with National-Level NPR Pledge Drives

So it was leaked by the Washington Post that NPR hosts Susan Stamberg and Melissa Block are strongly advocating that NPR conduct national-level fund drives. Soon after, NPR President Vivian Schiller downplayed the doubt recognizing the tremendous anger that such a move would cause amongst NPR affiliate stations. Thanks to for calling attention to the amusingly brief and wholly accurate Twitter post by former Weekend America host John Moe: "NPR thinking of having its own network pledge drive. Stations thinking of taking up pitchforks, torches, battering rams, those peasant hats."

Speaking as a station manager of a NPR affiliate station, I'd say John Moe is spot on: while a fundraiser at the national level for NPR is not unprecedented (it happened once in 1983), it would be a giant slap in the face of every one of NPR's affiliates. Not to mention require a change of NPR's charter, a waiver from the FCC, and need approval by NPR's board...the majority of whom are, AFAIK, managers of NPR affiliate stations. So I don't think this idea will have much legs.

But I want to comment on why this is such a bad idea. It's not just because the rules prohibit it. Nor is it strictly because affiliate stations are, proportionally, struggling so much more with their finances than NPR is. I mean, at least NPR has a $200 million endowment to fall back on if things get really hairy...even though I fully recognize how "bad" that would be to do that.

No, the reason why it's so bad is A.I.G.

A.I.G.??? Yes, A.I.G. And I'll explain:

A.I.G.: AIG took our money and promised us that all their ridiculous amounts of growth would be good for everyone and have no downside. Instead, they set things up for the entire system to fail and take everyone down with them. Now the very people that make tons of money and are not answerable to any of the "real people" are demanding that not only should we continue to give them tons of money (bailout) but they want their bonuses, too! Hell, they're still whining about how much they've had to give up to the New York Times, ignoring how millions are being tossed out of their homes and into the street. Mind you, this is from a company that potentially has access to piles of cash from all the filthy rich people working there that could be used if really necessary.

NPR: NPR took our money (affiliate fees) and promised us that all their ridiculous amounts of growth (multiple foreign bureaus, NPR West facility, new NPR HQ building, Day to Day, Bryant Park Project, News & Notes, etc) would be good for all affiliate stations and was necessary to do. And we had to do it because the consequences were too big a downside to risk not doing it. (Sounds suspiciously like "too big to fail" to me) Now the very hosts that make a lot of money (I've heard that ATC host Robert Siegel makes over $300,000 annually. I don't know what Block and Stamberg make but I'll bet it's well over six figures.) and aren't answerable to us affiliate stations...we don't dare not carry the shows Stamberg (WESAT) and Block (ATC) are on, they're too popular with listeners...are demanding that not only should we continue to pay the expensive affiliate fees, but now we should have to give up our fundraising dollars to NPR as well?!?! Hell, they're still whining about how they had to cut Day 2 Day and News & Notes when many affiliate stations are facing 10, 20 or 50% cuts in their budget due to state legislature and parent college cutbacks. Mind you, this is from a company that technically has a $200 million dollar endowment from Joan Kroc to fall back on if really necessary.

See what I mean? It's not a perfect analogy by any means; many of my interpretations are very debatable. Hell even I don't agree with many of them. But I think that on a visceral level, that's what people are thinking...and thus the parallels are very strong.

And it rather drastically implies that Stamberg and Block (and God knows who else) just don't "get it"...that there's still a lot of populist anger out there. And they really need to understand that just because they work for NPR doesn't mean they're immune from becoming the broadcast equivalent of Leona Helmsley, who famously said "only the little people pay taxes." I don't begrudge any NPR host their salary (frankly, I think they all earn it and then some) but you can't deny that it smacks of imperialism when a host who makes five or six (or 10 or 20) times as much as most affiliate stations' employees is demanding they give up the goose that lays the golden eggs.

I'm well aware that the funding model that exists between NPR national and NPR affiliates does not work terribly well, and is likely in need of an overhaul. And maybe this starts a long-overdue dialogue on the subject. But talk about the wrong way to approach it! Yeesh. This guarantees that every affiliate is automatically going to be highly on the defensive.

UPDATE 04/02/09: I've also been posting related thoughts at John Sutton's RadioSutton blog, see here and here.

ATC = All Things Considered. WESAT = Weekend Edition, Saturday
Disclaimer: all opinions are my own, they do not necessarily reflect those of WEOS, Hobart & William Smith Colleges or affiliated persons.