When it looked like National Public Radio was under attack by the Republicans
in Congress, Spokane Public Radio General Manager Dick Kunkel wrote a letter to
his representative, Cathy McMorris Rodgers, asking her to help preserve Spokane
It didn't work.
"I got a fairly negative response," Kunkel says. "It was boilerplate." Something about how these are unprecedented times, we need money to balance the budget, Kunkel says.
Today, the Republican-dominated House of Representatives voted, 228 to 192, to pass a ban on federal funding going to NPR. McMorris Rodgers, as Kunkel expected, was one of the 228.
Kunkel says the ban not only prevents NPR from receiving federal funding, it bans local public radio stations (like Spokane Public Radio) from spending Corporation for Public Broadcasting money to purchase ANY outside programs. (This is a change from the earlier House bill attacking all funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in general.) So not only NPR, but Public Radio International or the Northwest news network Spokane Public Radio uses for regional news would be banned. Some Republicans have argued it's a cost the country can't afford right now, while others attacked what they saw as liberal bias from NPR.
It may be possible, Kunkel theorizes, to rejigger how funds are spent – using CPB money to pay for salaries, and use the money now used to pay for salaries to buy NPR programs – and not see any difference. But for many rural stations, some of which have public radio as their only source of radio news, it poses a much bigger problem.
"Basically it could destroy or disassemble the public radio system," Kunkel says.
Of course, any celebration or lamentation is too early. The NPR funding-banning bill would also have to pass the Senate, where – dominated by Democrats – it doesn't stand much of a chance. Kunkel suspects his station will be all right. It's much more likely, he says, that Congress will end up simply cutting the amount local public radio stations receive from the CPB.
"That's not unfair," Kunkel says. "If that's what comes out of it, we went through that in 1995."
Update: This morning, we called McMorris Rodgers' office, and got Communications Director Todd Weiner. He explains that the congresswoman's support for eliminating NPR's federal funding isn't from concerns about bias – it's about basic budget cuts. She "really has no reservations against it," he says.
"This isn't about punishing 'political opponents.' It's about doing what the taxpayers want us to do," Weiner says. "We're borrowing five billion a day, and we'll run a record 1.6 trillion deficit. It requires tough choices. And the congresswoman felt that since families and small businesses are making those tough choices, the government should do the same. She felt this would be an appropriate place for savings."
Where other congressmen have concentrated on secretly recorded video of former NPR fundraiser executive Ron Schiller insulting the Tea Party, Weiner focuses on another Schiller comment.
"Well, frankly, it is very clear that we would be better off in the long run without federal funding," Schiller was recorded as saying, "NPR would definitely survive and most of the stations would survive."
Weiner argues that some people at NPR would welcome the increased programming freedom that the lack of federal funding would provide. With only about 10 percent of NPR affiliates' funding coming from the federal government, Weiner says, there's good reason to believe NPR will be just fine. In fact, Weiner suspects that, because of all the controversy, NPR may actually come out ahead.
"It's been in public consciousness," Weiner says. "Donations will increase."
Here's a link to our recent story on the controversies that have dogged NPR, and recent managerial conflicts at KYRS Thin Air Community radio.