By Chris Barton, Co-Editor
“You’re listening to KJZZ, and this is the KJZZ member drive. The great programming that you hear every day on the radio is made possible by tax-free donations from listeners like you. We know you depend on public radio to help you understand your world, and we depend on you to make the quality reporting that you rely on possible. Consider making a one-time donation, or becoming a sustaining member during this week of fundraising to support your favorite shows.”
Last week Phoenix’s public radio station, KJZZ (91.5), held its biannual member drive. It’s always a vaguely awkward week: people who haven’t yet donated feel guilty, those of us who do donate are annoyed at the interruption in the news, and the reporters-turned-uneasy-salespeople always have a twinge of apology in their voice, as if they know how unpleasant this is and they just want to get back to reporting the news.
This week, however, it was different. The reporters no longer sounded quite as awkward and uncomfortable – instead, they sounded worried.
Now, I LOVE public radio. I listen to it about as often as you possibly can: while commuting to and from school, while working out, while cooking, after I wake up in the morning and before I go to bed in the evening. I’m a junkie. Shows like Ask Me Another and Prairie Home Companion lighten up my weekends, podcasts like Serial, Invisibilia, Code Switch, and Planet Money teach me about things I didn’t know I needed to know about, and the jazz they play after 8 every night is simply the best way to decompress after a long day.
But the most valuable part of public radio is the news. NPR covers local, national, and global news on a daily and sometimes hourly basis, telling the facts in about as impartial a manner as possible. NPR’s reporting standards are some of the highest in the industry, and they have very little tolerance for bias or prejudice. For example, senior news analyst Juan Williams was dismissed in 2010 for violating NPR’s impartiality after saying, off the air, that he was worried when he saw people with ‘Muslim garb’ on an airplane. (In contrast, he was immediately hired by Fox News). Thanks to their strict policies, NPR has become one of the most trusted news sources in the country. On NPR, anything beyond the facts is analysis, not interpretation – although the personalities of the reporters shine through, their opinions stay out of it.
Every day NPR tells me what’s going on in the world. It’s a service I used for years: I’d tune my radio to 91.5, or launch the NPR One app, multiple times a day. A couple years ago I became a sustaining member, committing to a monthly donation in order to support KJZZ. I figured it was fair – I had listened to potentially hundreds of hours of NPR programming, and up until then I hadn’t paid a dime. And plus, I got a cool dongle to hang on my keychain that says “sustaining member” and carries a surprising amount of social capital in certain circles.
NPR as we know it consists of two tiers: local stations (in our case KJZZ), and NPR proper, the non-profit news organization. NPR proper is the originator of much of the programming that people associate with Public radio–Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, Fresh Air, etc.–which it then sells to local stations at a price that depends on how many people are projected to listen. Other content providers, such as the Public Radio International and American Public Media produce other shows, such as Here and Now and Prairie Home Companion.
These shows are bought by local stations like KJZZ, who supplement them with original programming and broadcast them in their geographic area. Local stations depend mostly on contributions from individuals, with corporate sponsorships offering another sizable chunk. But about 10-15% of their revenue – a minority amount, but still sizable – comes to the stations via grants from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
And it’s this chunk of funding that was making KJZZ’s reporters nervous last week: Trump’s budget plan calls for the withdrawal of all funding from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Trump’s choice to annihilate the CPB is clearly based on ideological opposition rather than efficient allocation of funds. CPB amounts to .01% – a tenth of a percent – of the federal budget. The only reason to go after a program as small and as popular as the CPB is to prove a point. Perhaps this is to drive home his distaste for social programs, or part of his vendetta against news organizations that tell the real facts instead of his alternative facts. Perhaps he’s a demonic spawn of Cthulhu intent on destroying all that I love in the world.
Whatever the reason, NPR and KJZZ will probably survive, but the next year or two is going to be hard for them if Trump’s budget passes. KJZZ’s financial statements reveal that they were counting on CPB’s support, and without it they’re going to have to fill a huge hole in their budget – probably through donations from listeners.
If you don’t already listen to NPR, I highly suggest that you check it out: either at 91.5 FM in Phoenix, on the web, or through the NPR One app. It’s worth your time. And if you agree that it’s worth your time, I encourage you to help fill in the looming gap in their funding. If everyone who listens donated a fraction of what they thought it was worth, the funding troubles would dissipate. And we’d all be looking fly with our ‘sustaining member’ tags.