Public radio's new signals

September 28, 2012 

In spring 2011, the congressional budget debate brought funding for public radio into question. In a Point of View piece on this page, I asserted that National Public Radio as a network was a viable brand that likely would survive even if funding was cut from the federal budget. I also speculated that a more-privatized public radio would evolve, “at the cost of programming diversity” as well as locally oriented content.

Political antipathy toward public radio has continued since 2011. Mitt Romney has proposed eliminating federal funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which would accelerate the effects of privatization. So we should consider what privatized public radio in North Carolina might look like.

Shortly after I wrote, a veteran of commercial radio in North Carolina praised Chapel Hill-based NPR affiliate WUNC, and suggested that the product WUNC offered was of such high quality it could indeed survive if cut free of government subsidy. On that point we agree. However, he was skeptical if there would be any impact on the programming itself.

I’ve since completed a study of NPR funding and news content from 2000 to 2010. The results indicate that the public radio system has seen an 8 percent swing away from public funding sources and toward more market-sensitive sources. This change in funding was accompanied by a shift in NPR content away from the mission of public broadcasting.

Analysis of the content of NPR flagship programs “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition” reveals a decline in the type of news stories that public radio is intended to provide. There was an overall downward trend in the amount of in-depth topical news content on both programs, a 23 percent decline since 2000. Coverage of news focusing on issues of diversity underwent a 65 percent drop.

On “All Things Considered,” pop culture coverage, a staple of commercial news, was up by nearly a third from 2005 to 2010. Similarly, the amount of stories that could be considered direct promotional plugs nearly doubled. The average length of story on both programs also declined significantly, suggesting the news coverage is less in-depth.

Given the history and development of NPR, it is reasonable to assume these changes are indeed attributable to the process of financial privatization in the form of increased reliance on commercial underwriting and listener donations.

Local programming content at affiliate stations is waning, both nationally and in North Carolina. WUNC devotes only 14 percent of its broadcast week to locally produced programming. WFAE in Charlotte has just 5 percent local content and WFDD in Winston-Salem even less. What’s more, these stations are all very similar in the content they provide.

Smaller-market stations in North Carolina – such as WHQR in Wilmington, WCQS in Asheville and WNCW in Spindale – provide somewhat more local content.

At the larger stations, government-sourced funding makes up only about 7 percent of revenue on average. Smaller-market stations rely more heavily on government funding, accounting for well over 20 percent of revenue for some. My initial reaction to this is that stations that are more “privatized” also may be more homogenous and less locally oriented.

All this gives us a possible preview of a post-CPB public radio system in this state. It would leave service to larger markets relatively unchanged, given that government support makes up only a small portion of their revenues. However, the actual content would continue to become more commercial-like and would largely lack a local focus.

For smaller-market stations, the elimination of federal funding could possibly threaten the existence of the stations themselves, leaving already underserved rural areas with even less radio service. A plausible fix might be for the big stations to fill the void by expanding their broadcast service to areas left vacant.

The mission of public radio is to provide content that serves communities in a way that conglomerated commercial media cannot. If the trend of privatizing public broadcasting continues, we may be left with a monolithic presence of syndicated content insensitive to the diverse nature of North Carolina.

Peter P. Nieckarz Jr. is an associate professor of sociology at Western Carolina University in Cullowhee.

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