Why this conservative Republican backs NPR

Defunding National Public Radio would impact 247 members operating more than 1,000 stations, including those in rural areas



May 6, 2024 - 2:56 PM

The National Public Radio headquarters in Washington, D.C. The public radio station, which receives federal funds that are directed to its rural stations, is being accused of having a liberal bias. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images/TNS)

I am a lifelong Republican. I am also a longtime NPR listener and supporter and, at times, have been a manager.

As you can imagine, I have a few thoughts about the firestorm set off last month when an essay in the Free Press by a now-former NPR senior editor laid out all the ways he has seen an increasingly liberal bias play out in NPR’s coverage. 

Plenty has been said and written about the concerns he raised, so I will leave it to others to address the specific incidents. I am here to offer one conservative’s intimate understanding of a frequently misunderstood institution, and explain why I strongly oppose the calls for Congress to defund NPR.

“National Public Radio” is somewhat of a misnomer — in fact, a better name for the system would be “Community Public Radio.” NPR was not established as a top-down national network. On the contrary, a group of community and educational radio stations created NPR in 1970 as a jointly managed provider of shared services, after the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967 had established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Other broadcast licensees have joined the system over the years so that there are now 247 NPR member organizations operating more than 1,080 stations.

The great majority of federal money that the CPB gives to public radio goes directly to qualified individual stations, partly based on their need for funding and the demographics of their audiences. 

BECAUSE RURAL and Native American stations face challenges in raising money, the federal government steps in to provide around 25 percent of revenue for rural stations and more than 50 percent in the case of Native American stations, compared to as little as 5 percent of the revenue of the largest, urban stations. 

Stations pay dues to NPR; they license some programs from NPR but also from independent sources, including American Public Media, the Public Radio Exchange, and numerous cultural and music program producers and distributors.

We know what happens when local news goes away: Turnout in local elections declines, public officials can act with impunity and political discourse becomes more polarized.

Local public stations employ teams of excellent reporters and investigative journalists who cover local issues and civic affairs. (Stations with a music format, meanwhile, play an important role in celebrating and preserving musical heritage and featuring local artists.) And the widely reported death of newspapers in small and medium-size cities has often left the public radio station reporter the only journalist covering civic activities in a particular community.

I have long known that most of NPR’s D.C.-based journalists are Democrats, and, while I wish there were a few more Republicans like me in the building, I have been fine with it. This is because I have always known that I was listening to people who were professional journalists first and Democrats only after that. 

Like others, I have occasionally pointed out pieces that could have been fairer, more objective or better balanced, and I have always felt that my comments were taken seriously. And although I haven’t been privy to internal newsroom discussions since the Free Press essay was published, I feel certain that the author’s concerns are being taken very seriously.

Furthermore, I know that NPR has structures in place to course-correct. For one, its public editor, Kelly McBride, is a vigorous ombudsman who has touched on many of the issues of bias in recent coverage. 

Across the country, NPR member stations doggedly report and dig deeply into important stories — covering Democratic as well as Republican strongholds. A WBUR investigation with ProPublica last year found that deep-blue Massachusetts failed to achieve its goal to “significantly reduce” vacancies in public housing, even as the numbers of homeless families were rising; a 90-day push by the state had “barely made a dent.” An investigation by Houston Public Media found last year that in Democrat-led Houston summertime temperatures at public bus stops often rose so high they were a threat to commuters’ health.

Just as I would encourage the leadership at NPR to take seriously the concerns of those who believe a system powered in part by federal funding regularly excludes certain voices and ideologies, I would also encourage the network’s critics to consider the true value of a system that serves communities all across the United States — including their own.

DEFUNDING PUBLIC media might feel good as a way to punish some inside-the-Beltway journalists for the occasional lapse in objectivity. (By the way, I am certain that a survey of the party registrations of member-station journalists would not be nearly as lopsided as one of the D.C. newsroom.) But the knock-on effect of defunding would be to further harm local journalism to the serious detriment of our democracy. 

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