Public Radio and Television Faces Challenges

During the 2016 presidential campaign season, ratings for all news outlets skyrocketed. Post-election and especially since the inauguration, interest in the news has continued to climb.

While all news sources increased their number of viewers, listeners, and readers during the hotly contested campaign and election process, one of the biggest winners in the ratings game was National Public Radio.

According to Nielsen Audio ratings, the total weekly listeners for all programming on NPR stations reached about 37.5 million in the fall of 2016. That’s a nearly 4 million person increase from the same period in 2015. Amid NPR’s “multiplatform journalism,” as it deems itself, listeners to NPR programming and NPR Newscasts account for about 30 million of that total.

A Nielsen survey from January 1-Feb. 1, found that public radio news/talk stations across the U.S. took large ratings leaps and in many cases, beat out longstanding commercial news/talk stations. In Las Vegas, as of January 2017, KNPR with a 2.7 rating beat out competitors KXNT (2.5), KDWN (0.7), and KLAV (0.3)

So, what is the challenge? 

“At a time when many news organizations have been forced to lay off reporters, NPR is expanding coverage and focusing resources on the local and national issues that listeners care about,” said Michael Oreskes, NPR’s senior VP of News, and editorial director. “Now, more and more people are turning to NPR as their source for unbiased fact-based news.”

The unbiased fact-based news, at a time when President Trump complains more and more about “fake news,” seems to be key to the ratings increase.

Another key to NPR’s ratings gain is the fact that public radio is commercial free. Yes, both nationally and locally there are major corporations that pledge their support to the NPR Network and local stations, and you hear their names mentioned periodically during a broadcast. However, for the most part, the support given to local stations through listener donations pays for the programming that the stations broadcast.

Another source of income is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB), which receives money from the Federal Government and then distributes to individual public radio and television stations, based on how well they service their community.

The CPB receives $445 million in funding equaling about 0.016 percent of the total Federal budget. But many argue that because of the internet and increased amount of television and radio options the CPB has outlived its intent and usefulness, and President Trump’s proposed Federal Budget removes any funding to the CPB during his term in office. However, supporters argue that the $1.35 per American that the CPB distributes, is a great service to the public and especially rural America.

Aside from the funding of programming, about $18 million of the CPB’s budget pays for the Public Television and Radio Interconnection which provides the conduit for sending programming to each of the outlets. This satellite driven interconnection, according to a mandate from Congress, is also used for IPAWS (Integrated Public Alert and Warning System), purposes, including presidential and weather alerts. This interconnected system provides a robust civil emergency service that operates when cell phone service is down and helps to save lives.

Of the $445 million is about $400 million is identified as Community Service Grant money of which, by mandate, one-quarter of those funds, or $100 million is allocated to support public radio stations, and three-quarters of the funds or $300 million goes to public television.

Those monies are divided into two separate pools, the Base Grant Fund and the Matching Grant Fund.

To receive money from the Base Grant Fund, public radio and television stations must identify how they will serve their local community and provide supporting documentation. For those stations that qualify, a Base Grant amount of equal dollars is given to every station. This Base Grant is very beneficial to the smaller rural market stations, that cannot generate a lot of community donation support.

To receive money from the Matching Grant Fund, each station is required to report how much non-federal donation money was raised within the community. The total sum of all donations reported is calculated to determine what percentage of the total donations was raised by each station. Based on the station’s percentage money raised, they receive a Matching Grant percentage amount from the fund.

Both the local public radio stations and public television stations purchase the programming that they broadcast. The radio stations are charged according to the size of the listening audience.

According to Florence Rogers, President and CEO of Nevada Public Radio, the parent organization of KNPR, KCNV in Las Vegas, KVNV in Reno and a large network of repeater stations,  the CPB provides 8 percent, or $451,000, of their current annual operating budget. The CPB money is used for administration and utility costs of the main studio as well as, the fourteen other transmission facilities throughout Nevada, southern Utah, northern Arizona. The programming heard on the radio stations is paid for through fundraising activities such as corporate sponsors, on-line auctions, membership drives, and other activities which add another $6 million in contributions on an annual basis.

After the announcement of the proposed Federal Budget, Broadcasters and citizens from around the U.S. began making their voices heard in support of continued funding for the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

However, it should be pointed out that, President George W. Bush proposed zero funding for public broadcasting during each of his eight years in the White House, but Congress refused to let it fall from the budget and in one year actually increased the funding amount.

David Cabral is a past Chairman of the Board of Nevada Public Radio and current Emeritus Member of the Board