It's pledge week at both of our local National Public Radio affiliate stations: KPLU and KUOW. I've been growing increasingly angry about the interruptions in news programming required to raise money to support the stations: every "pledge break" means one less news story I get to hear. I understand - and support - this practice, and I support my local NPR stations (I'm a member of both) ... and [so] I'm angry about other listeners in my community who also rely on NPR for their news (or [other] entertainment), and yet do not provide financial support.
In December, the Washington Post reported that due to declining income, NPR was cutting 64 jobs and 2 shows (Day to Day and News & Notes, both of which broadcast their last episodes a week ago Friday) in its first organization-wide layoffs in 25 years. A more recent Washington Post article reports that the number of NPR news listeners is up by 9% (20.9 million listeners per week), presumably due, in part, to the intense interest in the momentous news reported in the past on NPR. The only estimate I can find regarding the proportion of NPR listeners who are members (i.e., contribute financially to their NPR stations) is in a 2005 article by Steve Coffman on What if You Ran Your Library Like NPR?, in which he cites a Corporation for Public Broadcasting report that "on average 20% of a station's core audience are now contributing `members' who give an average of $73.44 per year". So, if the number of NPR listeners have gone up by 1.7 million, and 20% of those listeners are contributing $75 (just to simplify), NPR should see an increase of about $25 million, and yet the Washington Post reports that income is falling short of its $160 million budgeted expenditures by $8 million. That is, despite audience being up by 9%, revenue is down by 5%.
Anyone who listens to NPR - or most any other source of news - knows that we are in the midst of a serious economic recession (The Great Recession of 2008, as some were calling it as far back as December 2007). Job losses and cutbacks in wages or hours among the general population are surely affecting NPR members, and declining revenues among most companies are surly affecting those who are corporate sponsors of NPR, and so I can understand that some individuals and companies are cutting back on their financial support of NPR. The 2008/2009 Global Wage Report, published by the International Labor Organization, predicts that "the U.S., average wages are expected to decrease by about 1 per cent in 2008 and fall even further in 2009". But this decline does not account for the large discrepancy between the increase in listenership and the decrease in membership.
According to an August 2008 study on key news audiences by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 54% of NPR listeners are college graduates (NPR tied with the New Yorker / Atlantic for the highest proportion of college graduates comprising any news audience in their survey). A 2003 report by the Educational Resources Information Center on The Value of a College Degree (based largely on a 2002 U.S. Census report on The Big Payoff: Educational Attainment and Synthetic Estimates of Work-Life Earnings - shows a strong correlation between higher levels of education and higher levels of income. For example, in 1997-1999, the estimated average income of a full-time worker with a college degree was $52,200, compared with $30,400 for a full-time worker with a high school degree (and no college). And a recent report in the New York Times on Job Losses Show Breadth of Recession noted that "unlike the last two recessions — earlier this decade and in the early 1990s — this one is causing much more job loss among the less educated than among college graduates." So it would seem that, all things considered [pun intended], NPR listeners would be in a better financial position to contribute to their local stations than the general population.
Speaking of All Things Considered, the venerable NPR afternoon news show broadcast a story on Groups Unite in Dislike of Freeloaders in April 2006, that may help provide a partial explanation for my anger:
Scientists say the explanation is important because individuals have so many incentives to let others in a group do most of the work [like financially supporting NPR]. James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, Davis, uses the example of two neighbors who want to build a dam.
"You're best off if your neighbor builds the dam for you and you get to do other things," he says. "If evolution favors those individuals, it's puzzling why we might cooperate."
Yet we do cooperate.
The report, based on an unnamed article in the journal Science (but which I believe is "Cooperation, Punishment, and the Evolution of Human Institutions" [reg. req'd]), goes on to describe an experiment in which two groups of students attempted to attain a goal in an iterative game; one group had to rely solely on voluntary cooperation and another group could apply sanctions to any member who didn't [voluntarily] cooperate. The sanctioning group outperformed the voluntary cooperation group every time, due to the fact that there were fewer freeloaders (and, thus, more people contributing to the common good).
Another item included in the report triggered another anger touchpoint for me:
The results of the study, which appear in this week's issue of the journal Science, may explain a lot about how one culture evolves to dominate another.
Rob Boyd, an anthropologist at University of California, Los Angeles, says one example of this sort of cultural evolution is the decline of paganism in ancient Rome.
"Pagan Rome didn't have much a social support network," Boyd says. "So when people got sick, or when there was a plague, or things got bad, they were just out of luck."
By contrast, the Christians expected members to take care of each other. That gave them a competitive edge, he says, and led Romans to gradually switch to Christianity.
This religious reference reminds me of a good friend - one of the smartest people I've ever met, a voracious and regular listener of NPR, and a Jew - who refused to support NPR financially ... due to his judgment that NPR exhibited an anti-Israel bias. Others have disputed this bias, arguing that the "bizarre attack on NPR as "anti-Israel" shows how fringe groups are pushing Mideast debate". Another, more recent report claims that NPR exhibits a pro-Israel bias. In any case, what really angered me was that, despite all the other areas of the news for which my friend presumably believed that NPR's reporting was fair and accurate (and [thus] useful), he refused to offer any support to the single most important source of his news. It is only with great restraint that I was able to resist the urge to participate in NPR's This American Life host Ira Glass' invitation to "turn in a friend" during the last pledge drive:
I'm writing to ask you to turn in a friend. If you know someone who listens to public radio avidly, several days a week or more, talks about stuff they hear on Morning Edition or Car Talk or our show, but they never pledge...I'd like to give them a call. I'll be nice, I swear. But I will ask them why they don't pledge. And I'll try to talk them into pledging. And I'll record the whole thing and—if it works—I'll put it on the radio.
In researching material for this blog post, I stumbled upon another religiously inspired NPR freeloader, who I've never met: Joel Belz, who wrote about being a happy freeloader in a 2001 article published in World Magazine ("Today's News | Christian Views"). Despite liking the classical music on his local station, and being a self-proclaimed "news junkie" (and admitting to getting regular fixes from NPR), he claims that "public radio in my area—and I assume this is the case in your locality as well—carries an agenda that is thoroughly and unabashedly anti-Christian". He goes on to cite a litany of shows that he believes exhibit this anti-Christian agenda, including A Prairie Home Companion, a show which, ironically, another NPR listening (and, I believe, supporting) friend of mine refuses to listen specifically because of its heavy Christian / gospel messages (!).
The Wikipedia entry for Joel Belz says that he is an elder in the Presbyterian Church in America, and his father is/was a Presbyterian minister. I found myself wondering how he feels about people who regularly attend Presbyterian services, but due to disagreement with some of the perspectives and/or actions of the church, refuse to provide any financial support. Would it be acceptable - to him (or the Presbyterian Church) - for them to be "happy freeloaders"? What if everyone who disagreed with some aspects of the Presbyterian Church withheld financial support from the church?
So, even though I disagree with the "principles" on which some people withhold financial support from NPR, I suspect - or at least hope - that such "conscientious freeloaders" make up a relatively small proportion of the audience ... and that much of the freeloading is due to either individual unconsciousness or a growing sense of what might be called informational entitlement (information wants to be free) ... a perspective which, I fear, might be becoming part of our collective unconscious.
One of the two major daily newspapers in Seattle, the Post-Intelligencer, printed its last edition on March 17 (3 days bfore the last episodes of NPR's Day to Day and News & Notes) and I've heard reports (on KPLU) that the major daily newspaper - the Seattle Times - is also in danger of shutting down [it's print operations] ... which probably heightens my concerns about the future of NPR.
Information may want to be free, but if we're not willing to pay anything to anyone to produce it, I suspect the quality of that information may suffer, as will the quality of the lives of those of us who consume and use that information.
[Update, 1-Apr-2009: Mary Dunaway, KPLU Manager of Listener Relations, reports significantly lower membership numbers (via email) than was reported in the web article I'd referenced:
7% of our entire audience also supports the station. The numbers you listed below referencing 20% those are core audience numbers (people who listen more often then the overall audience). Our percent of core listeners giving is about 10%.
This is even more infuriating - increasing my desire to "correct the behavior of freeloaders".]