AIR Director: NPR Serves 'Liberal, Highly Educated Elite,' Wonders How to Justify Public Funding

Sue Schardt, director of the Association of Independents in Radio and a non-board member of NPR's Distribution/Interconnect Committee, has a firm grasp on arguments against the organization receiving federal funding. Criticisms of NPR "do have some legitimacy," she noted, and "we must, as a starting point, take on board some of this criticism."

Scardtnoted during the board's Feburary 25 "public comment" period that "we unwittingly cultivated a core audience that is predominately white, liberal, highly educated, elite."

As a consequence, Schardt added, while the journalism NPR produces may be of high quality, the organization really only serves, by her telling, 11 percent of the United States. In light of that fact, she added, "we need to carefully consider whether we warrant public funding and, if so, what the rationale would be."

The following is partial transcript of Schardt's comment, posted at Current.org:

After working in many parts of public radio — both deep inside it and now with one foot inside and one foot outside — I believe there's an elephant in the room. There is something that I'm very conscious of as we consider this crisis that I'd like to speak to.

We have built an extraordinary franchise. It didn't happen by accident. It happened because we used a very specific methodology to cultivate and build an audience. For years, in boardrooms, at conferences, with funders, we have talked about our highly educated, influential audience. We pursued David Giovannoni's methodologies. We all participated. It was his research, his undaunted, clear strategy that we pursued to build the successful news journalism franchise we have today.

What happened as a result is that we unwittingly cultivated a core audience that is predominately white, liberal, highly educated, elite. "Super-serve the core" — that was the mantra, for many, many years. This focus has, in large part, brought us to our success today. It was never anyone's intention to exclude anyone.

But we have to accept — unapologetically — that this is the franchise we've built.

We have to look at this because the criticisms that are coming at us — whether they're couched in other things — do have some legitimacy. We must, as a starting point, take on board some of this criticism. Before we can set a path, we have to own this.

One choice, at this transformational moment, is to say, "We are satisfied with what we are doing. We — in radio — are providing 11 percent of America with an extraordinary service." If this is our choice, we need to carefully consider whether we warrant public funding and, if so, what the rationale would be.

Another choice is to say, "We have cultivated and built an extraordinary infrastructure of interconnected stations that's now adopting networked digital technologies. More important, we have created a culture of human beings who — in this building, at stations, and in my constituency of hundreds of producers — are fluent in a particular craft rooted in an idealism of service. Individuals whose intention at every step is to contribute to the greater good. Ours is a human endeavor. That is what differentiates us. This is what is at stake. This is what we must preserve."

I believe we need to say, in this moment, "You're right. We are not satisfied, either. Now that we have achieved this huge success over a 30-year incubation period, we now are poised to commit ourselves to translate and bring what we have to everyone in America. Within the next five years, seven years — we set the timetable. We are absolutely committed to serving — truly — and speaking in the voices — truly — of 80 percent or 90 percent of the public." We set our numbers.

No NPR detractor has thus far provided a case this compelling - due both to the force of its arguments and the significance of the person offering them - for a reexamination of the organization's federal funding. Hopefully its backers take it to heart.

Correction: Ms. Schardt is a non-board member of NPR's Distribution/Interconnect Committee. This post has been corrected to reflect that fact. NewsBusters regrets the error.