President Donald Trump isn't a fan of National Public Radio.
When conservative pundit Mark Levin asked, "Why does NPR still exist?" on Twitter last month, Trump retweeted the post, adding for emphasis, "A very good question!"
Yet the White House plan to wean the Corporation for Public Broadcasting off taxpayer subsidies won't mute NPR's microphones or starve stations out of business. In fact, it could make public radio and television stronger.
Backlash to Trump's broadside and news that the State Department blocked NPR's Michele Kelemen from traveling with other reporters on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's plane ultimately paid off for NPR, with the incidents sparking a surge in donations.
The public radio station in the Kansas congressional district Pompeo previously represented saw a 90% spike in cash, The New York Times reported, with NPR supporters in 12 states pledging contributions.
Trump's Office of Management and Budget spending plan for fiscal year 2021 proposes slashing allocations to the CPB from $445 million to $30 million a year and then ending them entirely in 2023.
Individual donations are the top funding source for public broadcasters, which distinguishes them from for-profit radio and television stations. Where advertising is concerned, the line between them and their commercial cousins gets blurrier.
PBS began airing commercials in 2011. In June 2018, its ombudsman pointed out subtle differences between regular TV ads and those on public television — sponsors can't include explicit calls to action and can't mention their competitors. Most viewers don't notice the difference. An ad is still an ad.
You won't hear shouty car dealership commercials on NPR, but announcers routinely plug corporate sponsors. Broadcasters call it underwriting, rather than advertising. The effect is arguably the same. If a radio ad is a carnival barker in a lurid crimson jacket, a sponsor message is the same slippery salesman in a tux and tails.
Sponsorships make up 33% of revenue for NPR, 18% for its member stations and 20% for PBS. That already eclipses public money, which accounts for less than 1% of NPR's budget, 12% for member stations and 14% for PBS.
Bereft of federal funding, wouldn't public broadcasters either solicit more sponsorships and ramp up their pledge drives or switch to a commercial format?
Conservatives like to carp about NPR's supposed liberal slant. Media watchdog AllSides rates the radio network as centrist, though bias is often in the eye of the beholder. Instead of arguing that left-leaning broadcasters don't deserve federal funding, opponents could take a more consistent tack: Taxpayers shouldn't be forced to subsidize any news outlet.
American journalism is enduring a period of creative destruction as newspaper advertising sales plummet and digital goliaths Google and Facebook gobble up 70% of online ad dollars. More than 2,000 print publications have closed since 2004, according to University of North Carolina professor Penelope Muse Abernathy's research.
In response, newspapers are becoming web-first, adding video and podcasts, putting up paywalls and cutting publication days to make their business model sustainable. A few are going nonprofit and soliciting donations. And in some communities where papers have shuttered, online startups are covering city council meetings and high school sports. Similarly, a broadcast landscape without the CPB would spur innovation.
Saving local news is a job for consumers, not government. People reward the outlets that deliver news and information they value. NPR's thorough reporting and PBS' educational programs have earned them a loyal following. Supporters will vote with their wallets, contributing to their local stations and thanking sponsors by doing business with them.
Public broadcasters say their operating structure promises editorial independence. Yet it's fair to wonder whether stations self-censor to curry favor with the elected officials, bureaucrats and regulators looking over their shoulder. The global history of state media tells us government's corrupting influence on the news is a far greater threat than advertisers pushing their weight around.
Trump may wish to see public radio fade away. His budget will have the opposite effect. If Congress agrees to pull the plug on federal funding, an invigorated listener base will keep this presidential punching bag on the air in perpetuity.
It's a classic case of addition by subtraction. In a nifty free market twist, NPR's critic-in-chief may also be its chief fundraiser.
Corey Friedman is an opinion journalist who explores solutions to political conflicts from an independent perspective. Follow him on Twitter @coreywrites. To find out more about Corey Friedman and read features by other Creators writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators webpage at www.creators.com.