Wavelengths: Public Radio, Private Pressures

A report that WBUR Radio (90.9 FM) and National Public Radio have been targeted by corporate underwriters for their alleged anti-Israeli bias underscores a little-understood fact: so-called public radio today is, in many respects, public in name only.

According to an article in Wednesday's Boston Globe by media reporter Mark Jurkowitz, both Hillel Stavis, president of WordsWorth Books, in Harvard Square, and Robert Shillman, CEO of Cognex Corporation, in Natick, have suspended their support for the station, with Shillman citing "a profoundly pro-Palestinian, anti-Israeli bias" on WBUR and NPR. A third corporate underwriter, New England Mobile Book Fair, is reportedly rethinking its contributions as well.

Business owners and corporate executives obviously have a right to fund or not fund programs as they see fit. What's interesting -- and a little unnerving -- about the Globe report is that it reveals the extent to which public radio has morphed from a taxpayer-funded service into what is essentially a private, nonprofit broadcasting operation designed to serve contributors, whether they be underwriters or ordinary listeners.

NPR, which produces the drive-time news programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered -- each of which is heard by some 10 million people every week -- receives virtually none of its money from the federal government. Instead, its $90 million budget is paid largely in the form of fees from its 650 member stations, including WBUR, which is operated by Boston University.

And the stations themselves subsist almost entirely on private money. For instance, according to 'BUR spokeswoman Mary Stohn, less than $1.2 million of the station's $20 million budget for the fiscal year that ended on June 30 came from federal tax money -- that is, about six percent. By contrast, $8 million came from listener contributions, and $7.3 million came from corporate underwriting.

WBUR general manager Jane Christo was unavailable for comment. Stohn, asked about the pressure from underwriters that public broadcasters find themselves under these days, declined to address the issue directly. Of the complaints by Stavis and Shillman, she says, "We feel that the coverage is fair and balanced, but we respect their opinion. They're entitled to how they feel and they're entitled to withdraw their support."

Public radio is a remarkable success story -- and at a time when much of commercial radio has degenerated into a merger-fueled frenzy of offensiveness and stupidity, public stations are virtually the last bastion of serious news and talk. But the dependence on corporate funding raises some troubling issues.

Veteran broadcaster Danny Schechter, executive editor of the media-watch Web site MediaChannel.org, notes that public radio has changed from a financially strapped grassroots medium for community activists and students into a professional service with salaries as high as, or sometimes higher than, the ones available in commercial radio. With these higher costs, Schechter says, the need for corporate money has become even more crucial. He observes, "Stations have become dependent on this support in order to maintain their lifestyle."

Jerry Starr, executive director of Citizens for Independent Public Broadcasting, advocates a "public broadcasting trust," to be funded through a dedicated tax, that would protect stations from corporate pressure. "Public broadcasting's complete dependence on underwriting, which is a euphemism for commercials, has made it vulnerable to these kinds of pressures," Starr says.

Yet the pressure being brought to bear on WBUR does represent a kind of rough accountability. It doesn't take much imagination to wonder whether the accountability that Starr wants to see -- national and community boards that are "broadly inclusive" and that would exercise real governing authority - might embrace an excess of political correctness and a bland inoffensiveness. No improvement there.

The ultimate accountability should be with the listeners, who can choose to listen or not, and to give or not. Yet as public radio is now constituted, corporate money is absolutely essential. It's a dilemma, and not one amenable to easy answers.

Dan Kennedy is Media Editor for the Boston Phoenix.

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