National Public Radio

views updated Jun 08 2018

National Public Radio

635 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 200013753
(202) 4142000
Fax: (204) 4143329
Web site:

Private Nonprofit Corporation
Employees: 459
Operating Revenues: $55 million (1994)
SICs: 4832 Radio Broadcasting Stations

National Public Radio is the worlds first noncommercial, satellite-delivered radio system. As an organization consisting of member radio stations, NPR serves over 17 million Americans each week through over 555 public radio stations in the United States and Guam by distributing cultural and news programming, providing training and promotional services, and representing public radio interests before the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and Congress.

Public Broadcasting Emerges

Public broadcasting got its first boost with the FCCs decision in the 1940s to reserve a segment of the FM radio spectrum for educational stations. While various noncommercial educational stations had already developed throughout the country in the 1920s, many at Americas universities, their financial well-being and integrity was threatened first by the Great Depression and later by commercial pressures. The first nonprofit community group to establish a public FM radio station was the Pacifica Foundation, which established a public station in Berkeley, California, in 1949.

Prompted largely by severe criticism of the quality of television programming, President Lyndon B. Johnson and Congress passed the Public Broadcasting Act in 1967, which sought provide the nation with noncommercial radio programming of an educational nature. Soon thereafter, the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) was formed as a government-sponsored corporation that derived its funding through the U.S. Department of Housing, Education, and Welfare.

NPR is Formed in 1970

In helping the many small educational radio and tv stations develop professional standards, CPB promptly formed two organizations: The Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) produced and distributed television programming, while National Public Radio (NPR) did the same for radio. The funds derived from Congress were allocated by CPB to PBS, NPR, and creative outsiders who helped introduce and implement new programs. NPRs original mission was to serve as a leader in national news gathering and production as well as to provide a national interconnection between local noncommercial radio stations. Incorporated on February 26, 1970, NPR soon boasted over 90 charter member stations.

NPRs first programming foray consisted of live coverage of the Senate Vietnam hearings, which first aired in April 1971. This was quickly followed by the debut of a daily news program called All Things Considered, which would steadily grow in listenership and eventually enjoy tremendous success in providing listeners with weekday drive-time news and information. In fact, in 1973, All Things Considered garnered its first Peabody Award for NPR, which then built on the success of this program by extending it to weekends with Weekend All Things Considered in 1974, mornings with Morning Edition in 1979, and Weekend Edition and Weekend Edition Sunday in 1985 and 1987, respectively. Thus, an NPR news presence seven days a week was ensured. Over the years, NPR news programs provided member stations with live coverage of the Watergate hearings in 1973, as well as extensive reporting on presidential and Congressional elections and Supreme Court nominating procedures, including the Senate hearings on Judge Clarence Thomas in the early 1990s.

During its first five years in existence, NPR focused on production and distribution for its member stations. Public radio further benefitted when, following NPRs merger with the Association of Public Radio Stations in 1977, NPR began providing member stations with training programs, management, and lobbying activities in Washington, D.C. NPR developed the first nationwide, satellite-delivered radio distribution network in 1979. This enabled smaller stations in rural areas to receive programming as easily as their city counterparts. It also provided NPR with a larger audience.

Funding: A Perennial Issue

From their inception, NPR and public broadcasting in general were plagued by internal and external funding pressures. In the early 1970s, President Nixon, Vice-President Agnew, and their administration expressed disapproval of programming they regarded as politically controversial and biased. In 1973, Nixon vetoed a planned endowment to the CPB and encouraged member stations to become more autonomous, believing that local stations would naturally become more conservative in their programming.

While CPB struggled with budget cuts and bureaucracy, eased somewhat during the Carter administration but reinstated during the Reagan presidency, NPR faced severe financial problems, ending 1983 somewhere between $7 and $9 million in debt. Moreover, NPRs CEO resigned during this time under allegations of mismanaging funds, and congress began pressuring NPR to stabilize its financial situation. In addition to staff layoffs and cutbacks on programming, NPR sought a loan from CPB in order to retire its debt and restructure its financial backing.

By July 1983, the situation was indeed bleak; NPR was advanced $500,000 by CPB so that the former could meet its payroll. Further loans followed, with the proviso that ownership of NPRs equipment be shifted to a group of independent trustees to prevent seizure of the equipment by creditors. NPR also agreed to cut costs, raise the fees it charged member stations, and work to increase its contributions from listeners. The restructuring also involved a change in operating arrangements with NPRs member stations. Specifically, NPR sought money from the public and private sectors, while its member stations received CPB funds directly.

The 1990s and Beyond

In 1995, a member radio station receiving all of NPRs programming paid 10.2 percent of its revenues to NPR, according to Marc Gunther of the New York Times. This meant that when key stations had unsuccessful fundraising drives, or when Congress voted to cut the annual budged for public broadcasting, NPR also suffered.

Such a scenario came to pass in 1995, when, in its zeal to reduce the federal budget deficit, Congress agreed to reduce public broadcasting dollars from $285 million to $275 million in 1996 and to $260 million in 1997. As a result, NPRs new CEO Delano Lewis was forced to eliminate 20 positions and drop several programs including a minority-oriented news program Horizons and other cultural programs.

Delano Lewis was hired as NPRs president and CEO in 1994. As the former head of Chesapeake & Potomac Telephone with 20 years experience in that industry, Lewis had no previous experience in broadcasting. His corporate experience however, was viewed as crucial to NPRs success in a competitive broadcast environment. In addition, Lewis had also served as a lawyer under Robert Kennedys Justice Department, which led to positions with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Peace Corps, former Senator Edward Brooke, and Congressman Walter Fauntroy. Such Capitol Hill contacts could only help an organization which depended on congressional goodwill. Finally, Lewis was the first African-American executive at NPR and was expected to lead the organization in more cultural programming and broaden its appeal to a wider range of listeners. As of the late 1990s, however, Lewiss primary achievement was to keep NPR solvent. He helped do this by expanding NPRs reach into different markets and by pursuing corporate and foundation support to bolster dwindling public dollars.

Some forays into new markets had already been initiated, since, in October 1993, NPR began broadcasting for six-hours each day in Europe via satellite. Later that year, NPR partnered with CPB and Public Radio International in a venture known as America One, which extended NPRs broadcasts in Europe to 24 hours a day via direct-to-home satellite.

Company Perspectives:

Were not a radio station. Its a common misconception that NPR is a radio station, but in fact we are a supplier of programming to public radio stations that have joined NPR as members. We produce and distribute programming to more than 550 member stations nationwide via satellite. Its those stations that actually broadcast NPR programs to the listener. Each member station designs its own format, combining local programming with offerings from NPR and other sources, to serve its particular listening audience.

In addition to expanding its markets, NPR under Lewis pursued corporate and foundation dollars with increased vigor. This took several forms, including enhanced underwriting. In the early years of public broadcasting, public broadcasters were forbidden by law from accepting commercials; as commercial pressures mounted, the FCC has relaxed rules regarding what public stations can broadcast. Kathy Scott, an NPR spokesperson, told David Barboza in the New York Times in 1995 that the organizations goal was to become more self-sufficient and that its new guidelines were changed with an eye toward not passing up opportunities. While NPR did not interrupt programming, permit calls to action or comparative or qualitative language, it relaxed its policies regarding the inclusion of phone numbers in underwriter acknowledgements and broadcasting slogans. It also accepted grants earmarked for coverage of particular issues. For example, in 1994, the General Motors automaking subsidiary Saturn began sponsorship of Car Talk, an NPR call-in program on cars and car repair. In the late 1990s, concepts like brand leveraging were also being reviewed along with revenue generation in the form of a record label called NPR Classics, a music-ordering service, and individual station fundraising initiatives.

Keeping abreast of technology, the NPR web site at was established in 1994 and beginning in 1995 pioneered the use of technology known as audio streaming or RealAudio to allow users to hear prerecorded audio files of NPR programs. In 1996, NPR began 24-hour service for the Armed Forces Radio and Television Service offering programs to military radio stations abroad. At that time, NPR broadcasted in over 140 countries around the world.

Lewis also worked to rid NPR of some negative publicity surrounding several discrimination lawsuits, hearkening back to the mid-1970s, when CPB was criticized for not hiring enough minorities to meet the requirements of civil rights legislation. A number of these lawsuits, alleging sexual discrimination against women, were settled out of court. In 1997, an African-American Muslim reporter based in Cairo filed a lawsuit alleging race and religious discrimination. After an April 1997 article summarizing the charges in Time, CEO Delano Lewis responded with a letter, quoting staff percentages of 29.2 percent minorities and 48 percent women and noting both minority and female representation in senior management positions. Said Lewis, the advancement of minorities and women is an ongoing commitment, and our record compares favorably with that of other broadcasters. I have made it my objective to ensure that our employees are treated with dignity and respect.

From its inception, NPR has become famous for the high sound quality of its programs and its engaging radio personalities. Professionals such as Morning Editions host Bob Edwards, interviewer Terry Gross of the program Fresh Air, former All Things Considered host Susan Stamberg, reporter Nina Totenberg, and many others have received several awards for their work with NPR. NPR is also known for its quirky features such as Stambergs perennial Thanksgiving presentation of her mother-in-laws cranberry relish recipe and David Sedariss retelling of his stint as a Christmas elf at Macys. Moreover, NPR has cultivated the distinctive sound of its broadcasts in such features as Radio Expeditions, which takes listeners on audio journeys to remote areas and includes wildlife recordings.

By the late 1990s, about 60 percent of NPRs operating income was derived from member stations dues and fees, two to three percent from CPB and other governmental sources, with the remaining funding coming from corporate and foundation contributions. Funding concerns continued to vex NPR and public broadcasting in general. Ironically, contrary to its original purpose of serving as an outlet for alternative programming that could not survive commercially, NPR has needed to become more commercial in order to continue to provide that

programming. Liberty Media, a subsidiary of Tele-Communications Inc. (TCI), which already had a two-thirds interest in public televisions Macneill/Lehrer Productions in 1996, expressed serious interest in similar funding of public radio programming in exchange for content. Such offers have led to questions regarding the amount of control corporate sponsors would have on editorial and news coverage, as well as concerns over a possible backlash from listeners in the form of reduced donations.

In the convergence of electronic media (cable, computer, radio, television), public radio has also been looked to as a possible starting point for the National Information Infrastructure (Nil), due to its existing network, listener base (according to Mitch Ratcliffe in Digital Media, 85 percent of U.S. homes can receive public radio), and proven abilities in community-building. While the Nil could certainly prove to be a boost for NPR, many industry observers regarded this as unlikely scenario, due to the probable involvement of media conglomerates with more dollars and power than public radio. Given the competitive media climate of the late 1990s, however, it is certain that NPR will need to continue to search for options in its never-ending battle for funding.

Further Reading

Auderheide, Pat, Will Public Broadcasting Survive?, The Progressive, March 20, 1995, p. 1921.

Barboza, David, The Enhanced Underwriting of Public Broadcasting is Taking a More Commercial Flair, New York Times, December 27, 1995, p. D2.

De Witt, Karen, New Chief Wants to Widen NPRs Financial Base, New York Times, March 28, 1994, p. D6.

Duhart, Bill, First Black Director Increases NPR Base, The Philadelphia Tribune, April 19, 1994.

Gleick, Elizabeth, Static on Public Radio: Seven Discrimination Cases in Two Years Have Taken Their Toll on NPRs Warm-and-Fuzzy Image, Time, April 7, 1997, p. 55.

Gunther, Marc, At NPR, All Things Reconsidered, New York Times, August 13, 1995, p. H1.

Husseini, Sam, The Broken Promise of Public Radio, The Humanist, September/October, 1994, p. 2629.

Lewis, Delano, Letters: NPRs Record on Employment, Time, April 28, 1997, p. 8.

Ratcliffe, Mitch, Public Radio on the Digital Edge, Digital Edge, May 16, 1994, p. 3.

Speer, Tibbett L., Public Radio: Marketing Without Commercials, American Demographics, September 1, 1996, p. 62.

Tolan, Sandy, Must NPR Sell Itself, New York Times, July 16, 1996, p. A17.

Karen Troshynski-Thomas

National Public Radio

views updated May 18 2018


NATIONAL PUBLIC RADIO (NPR) is a private, nonprofit corporation serving more than 640 member radio stations throughout the United States. At the start of the twenty-first century, National Public Radio served 16 million listeners weekly via its U.S. stations; ran NPR Worldwide for listeners in Europe, Asia, Australia, and Africa, and American Forces Network for overseas military personnel; and broadcast throughout Japan via cable. It had news bureaus in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, London, and Moscow, and part-time correspondents worldwide. Music programming included classical music, jazz, blues, and contemporary African music. Talk shows included the humorous Car Talk, as well as political and social programs.

NPR formed in response to the Public Broadcasting Act of 1967, which authorized federal financing of public television and radio. Founded in 1970, NPR initially served primarily as a producer and distributor of programs for public radio stations. It won critical acclaim for its thoughtful, in-depth news programming, such as the evening news magazine All Things Considered, which debuted in 1971, and Morning Edition, which began in 1979. In the late 1970s, NPR began providing its member stations with program promotion, training, and management assistance, and in 1979 it set up a satellite system for program distribution. In its early days NPR established a reputation with news and information programming. All Things Considered combined news headlines with reports from NPR staff members and part-time correspondents, and often included offbeat features. Reporters did lengthy profiles of prominent newsmakers and covered such topics as rural life and the ravages of drug addiction, bringing about a new style of radio reporting that relied on sound, not just narrative. Many of the NPR reporters credited the influence of Edward R. Murrow, the noted CBS correspondent of earlier years who had placed a microphone in the London street to allow audiences to hear World War II bombings. Murrow's style of reporting had disappeared from commercial radio, where tight formats discouraged long stories.

From its widely heralded early decades, NPR has made changes that some critics charge have compromised its originality and even its integrity. From 1983 to 1986, the organization underwent a severe financial crisis that nearly bankrupted it. In order to survive, NPR dismissed more than a hundred employees and instituted tough financial controls. The crisis also prompted a fundamental change in the financing of public radio. The federal Corporation for Public Broadcasting (CPB) granted a loan to NPR and then began funneling public money to individual public radio stations, which used the money to acquire national programming. The move was intended to give public stations a greater voice in the governance of NPR and other program suppliers. Since the early 1980s public radio as a whole has relied less on government support and more on contributions. By the early twenty-first century, critics of NPR charged that its increasing corporate sponsorship had softened its news, which was becoming more like commercial news outlets, and that it increasingly focused on entertainment.


Collins, Mary, Murray Bognovitz, and Jerome Liebling. National Public Radio: The Cast of Characters. Washington, D.C.: Seven Locks Press, 1993.

Eksterowicz, Anthony J., and Robert N. Roberts, eds. Public Journalism and Political Knowledge. Lanham, Md.: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, 2000.

McCourt, Tom. Conflicting Communication Interests in America: The Case of National Public Radio. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1999.

Wertheimer, Linda, ed. Listening to America: Twenty-Five Years in the Life of a Nation, as Heard on National Public Radio. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.

JamesKates/d. b.

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