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170 Million

November 18, 2011

There are times when I have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees, and this may be a case of that.

I am a regular listener to National Public Radio. Every whip stitch they run a commercial (!?!) for themselves about 170 million listeners and how essential support from the federal government is to maintain their service for those 170 million listeners.

170 million? Really? Nearly every time I mention All Things Considered or Morning Edition or This American Life, I get a blank stare.

Once I was in the barber shop trying to make the macho chatter that one  normally hears in the barber shop. (I am not good at this.) The conversation turned to automobiles and I felt a little bit in the groove. I knew what they were talking about. At one point I even felt free enough to join the conversation…

“… the other morning on Car Talk, Click and Clack were saying…” (Cue the crickets)

Blank stares. None of them had ever heard of Car Talk, much less NPR.

I’m not accusing NPR of fraud, mind you. I do wonder about statistical manipulation. The kind of thing we had to do when I worked for the Boy Scouts. The number of boys served* was based on the number of boys enrolled on Dec. 31 of a given year. Memberships were given two months’ grace period to lapse, so one of our goals was to encourage membership time tables (charter renewals) to take advantage of that fact. It didn’t matter if a Cub Scout hadn’t been in a Den Meeting since the previous February, if he was still a member on Dec. 31, he counted.

Is this how NPR works? Is the 170 million based on the occasional listeners to A Prairie Home Companion? Is it based on vague market studies?

I’ve wondered if it isn’t based on the “smugness factor.” I mean, NPR is great listening, mostly. I’m not big on the jazz or some of the bumper music the turns up on All Things Considered, but fortunately there are enough stations around to compensate for the deficiences of stations that play jazz.

There is a certain intellectual snobbery to saying you heard the prime minister of Poland discussing production of widgets in Eastern Europe. People seem impressed that you even know who the Prime Minister of Poland is (Donald Tusk), let alone that they make widgets there.

Maybe the 170 million listeners includes listeners and wannabes… people who know they should be listening, but can’t bear to be one-upped by actual listeners. According to one source**, All Things Considered has 12.2 million listeners per annum; Morning Edition has 12.9 listeners. There’s 25 million listeners. Are there 145 million listeners to all the other programs on NPR? Really?

There are 900 public radio stations. This breaks down to 177,000 listeners to every station. I just don’t see it.

Another issue is whether or not the “170 million listeners” to public radio need to have their pledges augmented by federal monies. As one NPR opponent stated: “A free press that relies on federal funding isn’t truly a free press.” This is the straightforward truth. Government interference in media is not a good thing. I have been a benficiary of federal funding to NPR because I am a regular, daily listener.*** But I don’t think it should be. The federal government overreaches as it is and it is apparent that NPR doesn’t like being weaned from the federal teat.

As I stated at the beginning of this post, I sometimes have a hard time seeing the forest for the trees. I am a regular listener and converser about NPR. But I wonder where the rest of them happen to be.

* By “boys served,” I don’t mean in the Penn State sense of the word.

** Washington Monthly, as cited by Wikipedia

*** I don’t pledge to NPR because of the generous support NPR gets from the National Abortion Rights Action League and Planned Parenthood give to them. I leave the support of the stations to the other 176,999 listeners like me in my area.





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