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Earlier this year, House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Sen. Larry Pressler (R-S.D.) crashed into the rarefied world of public broadcasting and started bustin’ heads. The conservative duo profess to be concerned about saving the taxpayer dough now spent on National Public Radio (NPR) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. But you don’t need X-ray glasses to see that they’re more intent on punishing a supposedly liberal point of view.
Gingrich and company would be better served making a straight fiscal argument, examining public radio in particular on a station-by-station basis. Simply put, it’s tough to justify government underwriting for public radio stations, especially in major urban areas. At best, those stations offer programming enjoyed by some upper-end segments of the community but hardly vital to the survival of the republic. At worst, they represent government-supported competition for private, taxpaying enterprises that provide similar services.
The issue isn’t whether the programming is slanted or subversive, but more often, why the government should pay to air it at all.
The D.C. area boasts at least six noncommercial FM radio stations. The “big two,” of course, are WAMU (88.5), which is operated by American University, and WETA (90.9), the well-heeled sister station of WETA-TV. Defenders of public radio argue that such stations provide alternatives eschewed by commercial broadcasters for money-grubbing reasons. But that’s hardly the case in Washington, where the big two compete directly with the free-enterprise end of the radio dial.
Consider WETA, primarily a classical-music station punctuated with NPR news. Exactly what sort of alternative WETA provides is hard to say, given that for-profit WGMS-FM (103.5), widely regarded as one of the country’s best classical stations, lies only half a turn up the dial. Hell, WETA isn’t even alternative among noncommercial stations. The Columbia Union College station, WGTS (91.9), also spends much of its broadcast day spinning the best of the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries.
When pressed to justify WETA’s taxpayer-subsidized existence, station officals point to the absence of commercials on their air. They don’t have a beef with corporations, which underwrite much of their programming, and they don’t think commercialism is some evil force. It’s just that ads are, well, yucky.
“I don’t know about you, but I like to listen to beautiful classical music or opera when it isn’t followed by heavy advertising,” says WETA spokeswoman Jan DuPlain.
And many people would like to watch an NFL game that isn’t larded with commercial breaks. Does that mean the government ought to underwrite Fox’s NFL Sunday?
WAMU, meanwhile, splits its programming between news and talk shows and bluegrass music. The station starts the day with NPR’s Morning Edition, which gives way to the Diane Rehm and Derek McGinty call-in shows. After a midafternoon fix of hillbilly pluckin’, WAMU swings back into All Things Considered, and follows with repeats of the Rehm and McGinty gab-fests.
Here again, a blatant case of subsidized competition: WAMU’s morning and afternoon news-blocks go head-to-head with all-news WTOP-AM (1500). Diane Rehm’s talk program competes with Joel A. Spivak’s jaw-jaw on WWRC-AM (980), Washington Post staffer Bob Levy’s call-in show on WMAL-AM (630), and G. Gordon Liddy’s rant-o-rama on WJFK-FM (106.7). McGinty battles the Jabba the Hut of talk radio, Rush Limbaugh, who’s on WMAL-AM (630).
So why is the government underwriting the Rehm and McGinty shows and not Liddy, Spivak, Levy, et al.? Certainly WAMU isn’t providing a forum for downtrodden liberals and minorities. Neither Rehm nor McGinty leans particularly left in their on-air views; Spivak is far more vocal in his liberalism. Nor does WAMU routinely call upon oppressed and fringe members of society to state their views. Instead, the station spotlights a circle of experts, academics, and authors who would do the New Republic proud. In short, WAMU is the official radio station of establishment eggheads and policy wonks.
The government’s support for WAMU’s talk format—and all public broadcasting, for that matter—is particularly curious, given federal policy toward helping private media. Until last year, the Small Business Administration (SBA) was barred from providing financial assistance to entrepreneurs who wanted to start or buy a media outlet. The logic behind that reg: Uncle Sam should not get involved with businesses that are engaged in “opinion molding.” Would-be religious broadcasters are still persona non grata at the SBA.
Now, WAMU’s bluegrass is a genuine alternative on your radio dial. But its twanging presence begs the next question: Why should taxpayers help foot the bill for such esoteric programming, which appeals to a very small segment of the population? (While WAMU doesn’t have exact ratings figures for its bluegrass shows, it’s a safe bet that most of the station’s middling 2.9 share of the local radio audience is generated by its drive-time news programs. WETA’s classical and news programming attracts a 3.0 share.)
WAMU spokeswoman Laura Foreman proffers this party line: WAMU’s bluegrass programming honors and nurtures an important piece of America’s cultural heritage. Yep, and so does WBIG’s (100.3) programming, which features old-time rock ‘n’ roll. Who says Flatt and Scruggs represent a more important piece of Americana than Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis? How about a tax break for oldies stations?
Similarly, WAMU contends that its brand of news and talk—NPR’s in-depth (read: overlong) news features and Rehm and McGinty’s lengthy, commercial-free bull sessions with guests—are unique community resources that merit coddling. No doubt WDCU (90.1), a showcase for America’s jazz tradition, and WPFW (89.3), which pumps a steady stream of way-left news, views, and kookiness, would make the same argument: What we do is special.
And much of it is even good—but good enough to merit a government handout? Granted, you won’t balance the federal budget by shoving public radio away from the federal feed bin. But why throw good money after bad? WAMU received $410,000 from the Center for Public Broadcasting in 1994, which accounted for about 13 percent of the station’s income. WETA raked in $412,000.
The argument for subsidized public radio has been further weakened by the advent of new media channels. Many fans of non-pop music, including classical and jazz, can now get their commercial-free fix via “cable radio” services, which offer cable television subscribers up to 30 channels of narrowly formatted music for about $10 per month. A similar service is available through the burgeoning Direct Satellite System, which pumps audio and visual programming into subscribers’ homes via an 18-inch satellite dish.
But doesn’t public radio serve those without access to such services? Think again. While some lower-income folk undoubtedly tune into WAMU, WETA, and WDCU, the bulk of those stations’ audiences are well-educated middle- to upper-middle classers. As one industry observer notes with achuckle, “Mel Karmazin [owner of hiphop WPGC-AM (1580) and -FM (95.5)] does more broadcasting to inner-city kids than any public station in town.”
In short, public radio’s greatest sin isn’t bad politics, but the bad investment it represents. Yes, many public stations do a fine job of serving their particular audiences, and they should certainly be allowed to continue their work—but not on the taxpayers’ tab. Privatizing the stations, allowing them to air more commercial messages, and ending their tax-exempt status would make them truly public: If people want the programming, they’ll support it.
Sound harsh? It is, but there’s a name for it: free enterprise.