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March 2009

NPR Freeloading Considered

KPLU pledge drive KUOW pledge drive 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:

A new study offers hints about how societies correct the behavior of freeloaders. The answer involves evolution, altruism -- and punishment.

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.

If anyone wants to join me in supporting our local NPR stations in Seattle, I'll conclude with links to pledge support to KPLU and/or KUOW ... and my heartfelt thanks for becoming a member!

[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".]

A short tour of small colleges in the Pacific Northwest

My wife, 17-year-old daughter and I toured four colleges in Oregon during her mid-winter break: Reed College, Lewis & Clark College, Linfield College and Willamette University. I wanted to record a few impressions of the different places while the experience is relatively fresh, and decided to post them here, in case they are of use to others ... or in case others might have relevant insights and experiences to share via comments.

In my recent post about positivity, praise, practice and perseverance, I wrote about some of my struggles with respect to projecting my self - and my past - onto my 13-year-old son - and his future. During our college tours, my wife and I - who first met while we were students at Ripon College, a small midwestern liberal arts college - both encountered variations on this struggle with respect to our daughter during our initial college tour with her. Although she has far greater motivation, discipline and achievements in her academic pursuits than either of us had at this age, we both have to remind ourselves - or, more commonly, each other - that we want our daughter to choose the school that she believes is best for her, not the one that we believe is best for her ... or, the one that we might like to believe we would have liked to attend ourselves.

Before sharing some observations about the colleges we visited, I want to provide a little more context. Our daughter is primarily interested in a small liberal arts college within reasonable driving distance - or a short flight - of our home in the Seattle area. As a junior in high school, she does not yet know which subject(s) she wants to major in yet, but is generally interested in Biology, Spanish, International Studies - or, at least, studying abroad - and Psychology. She wants a challenging and supportive learning environment in which she can explore these - and other - interests, and where she can interact with other students who are highly motivated and disciplined in their academic pursuits. Debbie Cossey, of Rainier College Counseling, has been very helpful in helping our daughter (and her parents) identify the most important criteria in her consideration of colleges, as well as proposing a specific list of colleges that best meet those criteria, including the four colleges on this tour.

Finally, I want to note that although we have some money set aside to support education, financial aid provided by institutions will be an important factor in our deliberations, especially given the high costs of many of the schools we're considering, and growing economic uncertainties. It is challenging to figure out how much financial aid would be available to any given student at any given institution; definite calculations of costs will have to wait until applications are made by prospective students, and admission decisions are made by the institutions. One institution on our list of candidates, Pacific Lutheran University - which we did not visit on this tour - doesn't even provide tuition information on it's web site, only noting that "On average, when scholarships, grants and other assistance are factored in, the average PLU student’s yearly total is closer to $11,000". I frankly don't know whether we'd be able to afford any of the colleges on this tour, but we thought it would be good to aim high, at least at the outset. There are several places that we're planning to visit in the future ... some of which are considerably less expensive than the ones we've started out with.

Inquire_within07 Our first stop was Reed College, in the southeast part of Portland, which has an enrollment of 1,464 students. Of the four schools, Reed appears to be the most selective and academically rigorous ... and the most expensive; it also had what I found to be the most inspiring motto: "Inquire within". Reed accepted 34% of applicants to the class of 2012; among those who entered the class of 2012, average high school GPA was 3.9, SAT scores for critical reading and mathematics among the middle 50% of incoming students ranged from 1290-1470 (or 1940-2210, with writing scores included) and 65% of students were ranked in the top 10% of their high school class. Students must complete a senior thesis in order to graduate, which I would expect is helpful preparing the large proportion of students - the third highest of any college in the U.S. - who continue on to graduate study. All of this comes at a price, of course: $39,120 in tuition and fees, $9,920 for room and board, for an annual estimated cost of $49,040.

What impressed me the most during our tour of Reed was the student:faculty relationships. The student:faculty ratio was relatively low (10:1) - as was the average class size (15) - and the quality of relationships seemed relatively high. During our visit to the library, we went to the room where all the senior theses are stored. I picked out a few random volumes, and was struck immediately by the Acknowledgments sections in each one, where people who I inferred were professors were being referenced by their first names. I asked our tour guide about this, and she confirmed that was very much the norm at Reed, and went on to say that professors typically invite their students to dinner each semester, and regularly meet with them for lunch or coffee. There was only one department at Ripon where we commonly addressed professors by their first names (Marty, Seth and Steve in Politics & Government), and I only saw the inside of two of my professors' houses during my four years there ... and never shared a meal or coffee with any of them. The relatively low power distance index may help explain why students seem to be highly empowered and relatively autonomous at Reed. As one example of this, they not only have theme dorms, but the themes are proposed and voted on by the students. The relatively wide variation in styles of dress may be another indicator of high autonomy and independence. I also noticed a surprisingly large number of cigarette smokers on campus.

We stayed overnight at Hotel Lucia in Portland, which has a great location (just south of the Pearl District), very comfortable beds (though they were only double beds), and an intriguing collection of photographs (by David Hume Kennerly), but a rather small bathroom (especially for use by three people). Our daughter was hosted for a dinner on campus by a Reed student, while Amy and I enjoyed a fabulous - and surprisingly inexpensive - dinner at The Farm Cafe. We strolled around the Pearl District for an hour or so, before turning in for the night.

Lclark-card5 The following morning, we visited Lewis & Clark College, in the southwest corner of Portland. Compared with Reed, Lewis & Clark has a larger undergraduate population (1,999), is less selective in its admissions (56% acceptance rate, with an average GPA of 3.69 and middle 50% SAT score ranging from 1200-1380), has a higher student:faculty ratio (13:1) and higher average class size (19), and is less expensive ($33,726 tuition and fees, plus $8,820 room and board, for an estimated annual cost of $42,546). One of the things we find especially appealing is that over 50% of students study abroad at some point in their college experience.

When we reached the campus, we were immediately struck by the grandeur and beauty of the Frank Manor House and its spectacular view out the back toward Mount Hood. Our tours at the other colleges were relatively small - one or two students and their parents, at most - whereas there was an extremely large tour group at Lewis & Clark. Even after breaking up into three subgroups, each with a separate tour guide, I'd estimate that each group had somewhere around ten students each. And I don't know if it was the size of the groups or the personality of the student body, but our group was "acknowledged" far more than anywhere else with a variety of greetings ranging from jeers of "Prospies!" (presumably short for "prospective students") to a student shouting "You should come here, you'll love it!" as he whizzed by on a bike. Other things that stood out for me, especially in comparison to Reed, include a stronger focus on fine arts - they have strong programs in Art, Music and Theater - an NCAA Division III sports program, graduate programs in Education and Counseling and Law, and a policy of not allowing freshman students to have cars (on campus) - the only school we visited that had such a restriction. Like Reed, Lewis & Clark offers theme housing. After the tour, the three subgroups reconvened in an auditorium, where the Associate Dean of Admissions was available to answer any and all questions.

Linfield-sweatshirt After a quick lunch, we headed southwest to visit Linfield College, in McMinnville. Linfield has 1,693 undergraduates, and compared with Lewis & Clark, is less selective in its admissions (80% acceptance rate, with an average GPA of 3.56 and middle 50% SAT scores ranging from 990-1220), has a similar faculty:student ratio (13:1) and average class size (18), and is less expensive ($27,414 in tuition and fees, $7,970 in room and board, for a total cost of $35,384). Although they have no graduate program, as with Lewis & Clark, there is a strong emphasis on study abroad, with nearly 60% of students spending some portion of their college career outside of the U.S. They actually require student majoring in a foreign language to spend a full year studying in a country in which that language is spoken (requirements for a minor include a semester in a foreign country).

Several things impressed us during our tour of the campus, which in many respects seemed like a midwestern campus plunked down in the Pacific Northwest. The mostly brick buildings and the grounds were very well kept, and had a very open, expansive feel to them. Everyone we encountered was extraordinarily friendly, with many students on campus making eye contact and smiling as we passed. We saw more school sweatshirts at Linfield than all the other campuses combined, suggesting a strong school spirit (and, perhaps, a stronger emphasis on sports, though Linfield, like Lewis & Clark is NCAA Division III). During our 1:1 meeting with the Admissions Counselor, we learned about an annual scholarship fair each February, in which prospective students are invited to visit campus to compete for departmental scholarships.

We had an early dinner at McMenamins Pub at Hotel Oregon, where we had great salads, but so-so entrees and average beer; next time we'll try the Golden Valley Brewery & Pub. We then drove down to Salem, where we stayed at the Phoenix Grand Hotel, which offered a more spacious double queen suite than we had the previous night. Everyone was tired, so we didn't take advantage of the hotel location to explore downtown Salem that night.

Startrees The next day, I left early for a business meeting in Corvallis while the women explored a bit of Salem on their walk over to the Willamette University campus. Willamette seems to represent a sort of middle ground among the institutions we visited, with 1,780 undergraduates, a median GPA of 3.74 among the entering class of 2012 (not sure what the mean is) and a median SAT score of 1850 (reading + mathematics + writing). The faculty:student ratio is 10:1, with an average class size of 14, and 57% of students earn credit for study abroad. The university includes graduate programs in Law, Business and Education. Some of the statistics Willamette provides are slightly different in nature than those provided by other institutions (e.g., medians vs. means), so direct comparisons are difficult.

Unfortunately, by the time I returned to Salem, the official tour was over, but I heard that the tour and tour guide were both great. Amy gave me a quick mini-tour, pointing out three highlights of the campus: the open areas within the Olin Science Center in the middle of classrooms, labs and faculty offices where students and faculty can hang out; the student-run on-campus coffeeshop, The Bistro, which seemed to have more energy and activity than coffeeshops we saw on other campuses; and the grove of five giant Sequoias - the "star trees" - in front of Waller Hall, the main administrative building. She also mentioned that there is an Amtrak train station - with service to Seattle - right across the street from the campus.

Seeing the campuses first-hand helped highlight some differences that we hope will ultimately help in selecting the best college, i.e., the institution that provides the best environment to both challenge and support our daughter in her academic pursuits and personal growth, balanced against the cost of attending the institution. The costs of attending the institutions we've visited thus far are pretty high, and we'll be visiting other candidates that are considerably less expensive. Quality:price ratios are much harder to calculate than student:faculty ratios, given the complex array of factors that influence both the benefits and costs of college for any given individual (and family). Our first round of campus visits was helpful in assessing some of the benefits, but ascertaining the actual costs may well have to wait until applications are sent, admission decisions are made, and financial aid packages are offered.

A recent New York Times article on "Colleges fretting over admissions" notes that colleges and universities are also facing challenges in their calculations - who to admit, how many to admit, how much aid to offer, how to increase the probability that admitted students will commit to attending - due to the growing economic uncertainties. These uncertainties may ultimately work in students' (and parents') favor:

For students, the uncertainty could be good news: Colleges will admit more students, offer more generous financial aid and, in some cases, send acceptance letters a few weeks earlier. Then again, it could prolong the agony: some institutions say they will rely more on their waiting lists.

But there is no question, admissions officers say, that this year is more of a students' market.

It's still early in the process for us - early applications aren't due until November, and regular applications aren't due until next February - but I think that visiting the campuses helped make the prospect of college more real for our prospective student. Amy and I were both significantly influenced by our visits to Ripon College (as prospective students), and our visits to these four helped us formulate some relative rankings, and to be better prepared for what to look for - online and offline - during our exploration of other candidate colleges in the future.

[Update, 2010-08-29]

Charley's comment prompts me to post a few notes about subsequent visits and other developments in our exploration of educational institutions in the Pacific Northwest (and California).

After our initial tour of the four colleges listed above, Meg visited the following other colleges and universities:

I only accompanied her on the visit to the University of Puget Sound, and my notes are rather sketchy from that trip. The thing that most stood out - for me - was the emphasis on writing at the school: this was mentioned by our tour guide as well as in other interactions with administrators during our visit. I have always believed that writing is one of the best ways to figure out what and how I really think about something (which is why I blog semi-regularly), and so I saw this as a positive feature. Meg is a very good writer, but I don't believe her enthusiasm for this channel of expression is quite as high as mine.

She eventually applied to and was offered admission to Lewis & Clark College, Willamette University, Linfield College, University of Puget Sound, Western Washington University, Chapman University and Santa Clara University (which she did not visit). Many of the offers included some level of scholarship. We visited Willamette and Linfield again this past February, during her mid-winter break: she stayed overnight at Willamette with a student host at the Kaneko dormitory, and attended two classes the next day; at Linfield, we met with a freshman woman (and her father) who had graduated from Meg's high school the preceding year, and was very positive about her experience at the college thus far.

Another resource that influenced our decision was some information I found (and wrote more extensively about on my Posterous milliblog) about Pacific Northwest College Professors of the Year awards. While I recognize that all awards or rating schemes have implicit and explicit biases, and would not recommend using such awards as the primary criteria for selecting a school, I do believe they represent a dimension worth considering, Among the schools we considered, here is the breakdown of professors who have won the U.S. Professor of the Year Award:

Awards Institution Department(s)
9 Willamette University Chemistry (2), Politics (2), Art History (1), Economics (1), History (1), Physics (1), Psychology (1)
5 University of Puget Sound History (2), Physics and Science, Technology & Society (1), Religion (1), Science & Values (1)
2 Lewis & Clark College French (1), History (1)
2 Reed College Biology (1), Classics & Humanities (1)
1 Linfield College German

Deciding among these schools was challenging, and I think the second trip to Willamette, in particular, was very helpful. Our daughter ultimately decided that Willamette offered the best overall fit for her goals with respect to educational quality, campus life and scholarship. I suspect distance from home was also a factor: far enough away that her parents won't be dropping in unexpectedly, but close enough that she can drive or take the train home for a long weekend if / when she is so inclined. And as might be inferred from my recent posts on a warm welcome at Willamette University Opening Days and the Willamette convocation keynote, Jonah Lehrer's Metacognitive Guide to College, we are all confident that this was a good decision.