Who's The Boss? NPR Or Member Stations?

Apr 25, 2019

There is some real tension between National Public Radio and its member stations. WAMC pays a great deal of money, collected from you, our members, for NPR programming and services – around $800,000 a year. In other words, by the time it’s all done, the proceeds of nearly one whole fund drive are used to pay NPR for what amounts to two programs -- Morning Edition and All Things Considered

No one is arguing that these two programs and a few others are not valuable but the situation has become very one-sided. NPR makes demands of its member stations and the stations have no choice but to comply. The network is able to pay its staff much better than most of the member stations are. Indeed, we have tried our best to raise staff salaries and we are doing better. For at least ten years, even in the worst of times, we have been able to offer raises of about 2%. We also have tried to make up for pay inequalities among our staff. But now something has happened. 

NPR is trying to work out a new fee structure and the already large bill promises to go up. Basically, the larger stations with more listeners and more support are being asked to pay a lot more and the smaller stations (there are many more of them) will, in essence, be subsidized. After a series of meetings with member stations, NPR is reworking their first draft of the plan but if history is any example, we will still be paying them a lot more money than we already do. 

The way that the NPR/station relationship is handled is that every station gets a single vote. Most of the member stations are small with small staffs but they have the same vote that the top stations have and those top stations raise, by far, most of the money that supports NPR. In my opinion, the decisions made by the NPR brass (and it keeps changing to the point that it has become a moving target) have had the effect of turning the little stations against the bigger ones. They argue that the bigger stations should support the smaller ones since they know that they will have the votes to heavily tax the bigger stations. 

WAMC staff travelled to Boston recently to explain to the self-serving brass that such a tax would cut heavily into our ability to run what we think is the finest public radio station in the country. There would have to be layoffs (really unthinkable) and no raises, no matter how small. Most of what you hear on WAMC during the day is our own, locally produced programming, designed to be of service to our unique community. On the other hand, the smaller stations rely much more heavily on NPR products. 

When the first draft of the new draconian pricing plans from NPR was presented to us, it came with a warning that we were not to share their demands with you, our listeners, who have been so generous about contributing to keep us going. I was not quiet about what amounted to an attempted gag order that would have a news organization like NPR telling its member stations not to talk about what NPR was doing. 

It’s always important to remember that the member stations, like WAMC, are not owned by the network. In fact, NPR belongs to the member stations who put it into business. Unfortunately, they think they are the bosses but in reality, they are not. 

So it has come down to this. I hate a situation in which we will have to spend valuable time mobilizing our resources to fight this battle. NPR has a lot of ways to raise money. They are much more likely to get major grants from national foundations and businesses. Now they are telling us that they want to come directly to our listeners for money. If they get money directly from our members, how are we supposed to pay them? Their arrogance knows no bounds as they say they know how to do it better. So far we’ve been able to keep them at bay but one can only believe that this is a very risky time. As you can tell, I am very worried.