Advertising’s irresistible sirens

Under NPR's business model, the absence of commercials incurs a promotion of excellence.

Everyone knows that National Public Radio is, according to their Web site, “an independent, private, nonprofit membership organization funded primarily through its own service-generating activities.” And everyone knows that because NPR raises money by underwriting on-air spots, rather than traditional commercial advertisements, the quality and content of programs are less submersed in the theatrics typical of mainstream media. What this article presupposes is Ö maybe they’re not?

When George Orwell said, “Advertising is the rattling of a stick inside a swill bucket,” he suggested that advertising is today’s irresistible call of the Odyssey’s sirens for big business. Advertisers seek venues that offer exposure to the greatest number of eyeballs, or ears, for their product. Let us not forget the speculation of Don Imus’ return immediately after his show was canceled, and how Imus now broadcasts via television and radio waves. Let us also remember that “Imus in the Morning” wasn’t canceled until advertising sales plummeted.

Anticipating shock-jocks like Imus, and bunco artists like Bill O’Reilly, President Lyndon B. Johnson established the Corporation for Public Broadcasting in 1967, which subsequently gave rise to National Public Radio three years later.

Johnson said, “It announces to the world that our nation wants more than just material wealth; our nation wants more than a chicken in every pot. We in America have an appetite for excellence, too. While we work every day to produce new goods and to create new wealth, we want most of all to enrich man’s spirit.”

The excellence Johnson spoke of was geared toward unfiltered news over ego-laden monologues; monotone voices were to trump false prophets bellowing “shut-up”; and a general conception of educating the public with news than apologizing for an article’s veracity days after it is published. Under this business model, the absence of commercials incurs a promotion of excellence through increased brainpower.

If you have tuned into public radio station KNOW the past week, you have certainly heard its hosts groveling for money. According to NPR’s Web site, “Public radio stations (including NPR Member stations) receive the largest percentage of their revenue (34 percent) from listener support, 24 percent from corporate underwriting and foundations, and 13 percent from Corporation for Public Broadcasting allocations.”

It is difficult to fathom that the margin between listener support and underwriting contributions has not slimmed dramatically since fiscal year 2003 (the most recent figures available). By merely speculating with a keen ear, it seems as though the amount of on-air time devoted to underwritten spots increases by the month, and that radio hosts are becoming increasingly desperate during pledge drives for memberships.

New self-dramatization methods of pledging have been adopted to brazenly acknowledge the absurdity of their frequent pleas for money. For instance, one host figured he could solve every listener’s woes during the pledge drive if he could just get one listener to pledge $46 million. One person suggested that because the starting point was so steep, the host should cut the offering in half with every decline. Of course, hilarity ensued Ö if you’re into the whole foot in the mouth thing.

In keeping with his fundamental antipathy to the word “public,” and hesitation to fund anything affiliated with it, President George W. Bush’s budget proposal poses a devastating potential to the already minimal amount of federal funds allocated to public broadcasting. Half of the $400 million given in advance by Congress would be cut for 2009, and $220 million from the $420 million in the year 2010. Note: this is the president’s eighth proposal to cut public broadcast funds, in which each of the seven previous attempts Congress has restored federal funds.

Such proposed measures far surpass any attempt to stimulate the excellence in news and broadcasting Johnson once intended – that is, relatively honest news and educational programming from reporters who are not sycophants for the White House.

The pledge drive is a less than comfortable experience for listeners who realize that NPR is not a textbook example of a public service and media outlet, yet it is the closest within reach. It’s a manifestation of the far-fetched reality that public radio, responsible news and government can co-exist.

If the air of uncertainty isn’t the affordability of contributing to NPR, then it is because giving money to a public radio station that underwrites WCCO sponsorship, and companies that promote chairs that now come in the color “true black” feels a bit uneasy. Isn’t this public radio, and don’t I pay taxes for public goods and services?

If I listen to a pill-popping, cigar smoking, twice divorced, family values supporting host like Rush Limbaugh; or a flat-out pathological liar like Bill O’Reilly; it is supposed that I will buy the products advertised during their programs. If I want to watch premium television channels, I become a member through my monthly payment to HBO. But if I want unfiltered news, must I pay for it? Or is that simply a job for corporations today?

I invite you to join this conversation.

Jake Perron welcomes comments at [email protected]