Kling has a point about local public radio stations needing more money—especially if they are attempting to fill some gaps created by the death of local newspapers. He hosted a confab in November at Minnesota Public Radio on the future of regional journalism and released a study of public-radio news resources titled “In Service of Democracy: Achieving Public Radio and Public Media’s Potential” (PDF). It found that Minnesota Public Radio had the biggest public-media newsroom in the country, with nearly eighty people reporting local news on a $76 million budget. All other stations in the top twenty-five markets spent less. In Dallas, for example, the public radio station has a station budget of just $2 million, Kling said. And many local public radio stations have no newsrooms to speak of; they run on shoestring budgets and are essentially repeater stations for content created by NPR and other national networks. They serve local communities as best they can; without them, some places would have nothing in terms of quality news services.
Thus, NPR pilot projects like Argo can only go so far in boosting local reporting. Schiller says she knows that, and in part for this reason she is also supporting other efforts at sharing resources. NPR economic editors and reporters, for example, now sometimes work with local reporters on stories about the recession’s impact. And one of the tasks of the new investigative unit is to team occasionally with local station reporters. Some stations are teaming up, too. WNYC won a grant to fund transportation reporting and sends part of that money to WAMU for reporting in D.C.
WNYC’s Walker is a prodigious fundraiser, having recently launched a $15 million campaign with a $5 million kick-off gift, on the heels of completing a $62.9 million capital campaign in April 2009 to fund a major upgrade of its news operation, including a move to a new space. “Where and if it makes sense, we’ll work with NPR,” Walker said. “But not all the time.”
“I personally like their approach,” Walker said, referring to what she calls “The Schillers,” Vivian and Ron. “They think in a different way, to raise money for the greater good.” But, Walker said, she has spoken with both of them and unless Walker agrees to work with them on a case-by-case basis, “NPR has made a commitment they won’t come into our area and fundraise.”
WAMU’s Mathes, in Washington, D.C., seems more willing to gamble on the benefits of partnership. She has shared a prospective donor list with NPR. “I’m stepping out on faith here,” she said with a laugh. “So far, I haven’t been burned.”
Mathes recently worked with Vivian Schiller to co-host a meeting with a major WAMU donor at NPR’s downtown headquarters. They met for a lunch of wrap sandwiches and salad in Schiller’s office and then Ellen Weiss, the head of news, took the donor on a tour of NPR, being careful to point out production teams that were covering issues the donor cared about. “This person has a lot of personal savvy about the media and wanted to see the sausage getting made,” said Mathes. “I came away from that experience thinking that it should have always been like this.”
If Schiller gets her way, perhaps now it will be.
*Correction: This story originally reported that Public Radio International helps distribute the program Fresh Air. It does not. The relevant sentence has been revised accordingly. CJR regrets the error.